Lesson 1
Economics, Ecology, & Ethics

"To understand why individuals and groups act as they do, we must see what values they hold, what they have, what they seek and what they fear. "

California History/Social Science Framework


As we approach the year 2000, it is important to learn about economics, not as an isolated discipline, but in connection with important environmental and ethical questions.


Economics, ecology and ethics are inextricably linked. Many of the worst global environmental problems we are experiencing right now are the result of ignoring this fundamental relationship. As we use up natural resources, the need to understand and take care of the Earth must be addressed.

This lesson lays the philosophical foundation for the rest of the activities in this curriculum. It makes clear that a shift to a sustainable economy is not a cosmetic transformation, but one that has deep cultural ramifications. It asks students to read and evaluate an article on economics, ecology and ethics. It then provides them with a story that allegorizes the meeting of these three branches of human thought and asks them to write their own conclusion to the story.


Students are asked to read and answer questions about the article "The Three E's of the 1990's." They are then put in cooperative groups to discuss higher order questions that involve ethical decision making. Finally, the groups present their perspectives to the whole class.


A Royal Meeting is a story about two children, Economicos and Technologicos, who grow apart from their mother, the queen, and their older sisters Ecologia, Psyche, and Philosophia. Without their sisters, the two boys develop a society that is powerful and wealthy but one that also suffers from pollution, inequality, and instability. The activity asks students to interpret the story and then finish it. They are to describe what happens when the two sides of the family come together.


The words 'economics' and 'ecology' are both rooted in the Greek work 'oikos' which means home. Ecology literally means understanding home and economics means taking care of, or managing home. These two fields of human thought have been separated from one another in modern times and the ethical implications of each have been almost totally lost in the rising tide of one-sided individualism and self-centeredness. Now, when we think of economics, we think more about how to manage financial matters in order to take care of ourselves only! Further, we tend not to ask what is fair or reasonable, but rather, what we can get away with. In this curriculum, we hope to put the concept of 'home' (as in ecology) back in economics.

Modern industrial-capitalism is characterized by a society in which there is a disparity in the economic well-being of groups of citizens. While technological progress has brought a condition of health and financial security unparalleled in human history to many individuals, there still remains severe inequality in the distribution of the benefits of progress: poverty amidst great wealth. The Constitution offers rights and liberties to each citizen in order to promote economic and social opportunity. An emphasis on unfettered economic pursuit has characterized much of our nation's history. Does such an emphasis push individuals to respect others and the environment? This is an especially important consideration since individual actions have global repercussions.

At the time of the framing of the Constitution, as is true today, there was much debate over what elements would best allow economic and social opportunity and a relative equality of condition to coexist. Thomas Jefferson believed a good society should be largely agrarian; people tied to the land for their existence would be unlikely to suffer a corruption of morals that would inevitably lead to disparity among individuals. Alexander Hamilton believed a good society should have a strong manufacturing base; such a society would be enriched and powerful beyond what it could otherwise become. Jefferson admitted some manufacturing was necessary to make the United States more self-sufficient. The lopsided distribution of the population into dense cities disconnected from an agriculture community, however, is far removed from the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal where individuals would better understand and care for each other and their 'home'.

In 1949, Aldo Leopold wrote his famous book, Sand County Almanac. In it he criticized the treatment of nature as a commodity. He spoke passionately of the need to develop a 'land ethic': a set of personal and cultural priorities rooted in a meaningful relationship with the environment. This lesson is designed not only to encourage students to see the theoretical connections between economics, ecology, and ethics, but to begin developing their own land ethic.

Questions to Explore:

By what means can people begin to understand and appreciate the connection between economics and ecology?

What has led societies to a state where conditions of inequality exist among individuals?

What might be the impact upon society of a transformation to a sustainable economy?



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