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Appendix to PBL/ Ecological Economics case study

Reflections from a student on using Joshua Farley's Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning

Appendix to "Case study: Problem-Based Learning and Ecological Economics" by Heather Witham

July 10th

I have often felt that there was a trade off between being an economic student and an environmentalist. Although I enjoyed studying economics, it was disheartening to see how little attention is given by mainstream economics to the environment, without which there would be no life at all. When the environment is considered it is considered separately in the niche subject, environmental economics. Environmental economics considers environmental protection as a cost to bear, when really the environment is the sum of all benefits. I also had major issues with the main tenets of environmental economics, such as the focus on efficiency as the most important factor in environmental decisions, the notion of valuing everything in monetary terms and the rejection of an intrinsic value for nature. However, by their own terms, many economic arguments seem watertight (I have often thought that economics can prove anything with a good diagram, given the right set of assumptions, no matter how ridiculous they are), and although I disagreed with them, I found it very hard to argue against them from an economic viewpoint.

As I begin to study ecological economics for this project, I realise just how wide the disparity between environmental economics and ecological economics is. As I have already mentioned, environmental economics relies on the same principals and beliefs as other conventional economic disciplines. Ecological economics, in contrast, is like a new language. It is rather worrying that after three years studying economics I have come across very few of the ideas of ecological economics, and I can see that my conventional education will only go a little way in understanding the problems of sustainability from an ecological economics viewpoint. For this project I will need to retrain myself to understand environmental issues that I have previously considered outside the realm of economics.

To start this project I needed a specifically defined problem to work with. To find one I looked at the goals that were set out by the Sustainability Café. From these I defined the problems associated with them.


  • Minimizing waste
  • Carbon neutrality
  • Building community
  • Local distinctiveness
  • Sustainable gardening and wild life gardening
  • Walking and cycling
  • Living locally (within “means”)
  • Keeping a high street
  • Green spaces
  • Local production
  • Local food
  • Local trade


  • Excessive waste production
  • Carbon dioxide emissions
  • Loss of community
  • Loss of local distinctiveness
  • Unsustainable gardening practices
  • Environmentally harmful transportation
  • Living beyond local means
  • Loss of local high street
  • Lack of green spaces
  • Lack of local production
  • Lack of local food
  • Lack of local trade

I have decided to focus on the problem of lack of local food. The ethics of food production is at the forefront of the current environmental movement. Worries about food include health, environmental, social and justice issues. Concern is growing about the nutritional benefits of processed food, the treatment of food production workers in the third world, the widespread use of pesticides, the loss of family run farms and the loss of species diversity through large scale agriculture. Coupled with this is the fear that we have not only lost control of our food, and therefore food security, but the implications this has for our connection with nature. The food we eat could be seen as a barometer for the relationship between society and nature. Global food production has enabled us to purchase any food, all year round and detached us from the methods of food production. While this is great for consumer choice, we lose our connection with the seasons, and children grow up without knowing about the connections of food and nature. Recently people are beginning to realise that this is a problem, with alarming reports that show the number of schoolchildren (and my housemate for that matter) who don’t know that a potato is a vegetable. Consumers are beginning to make choices about what food they buy that go beyond price or branding, leading to the growth of organic, fair trade and local food.

The definition of local in local food production is varied. In the widest sense it could be accomplished by avoiding food produced in other countries and purchasing food only from the UK or the South West. Local could also mean production of food only within the town of Thornbury, as Thornbury is a small town with limited farmland this would probably mean individual food production, through allotments or smallholdings. It is likely that a combination of the two definitions of local would be most practical. Local food production has the potential to address many of the problems cited by sustainability groups, such as the ones listed below.

  • Waste production- For individual food production, the packaging required at various stages in the production and retail of food would be avoided
  • Carbon Dioxide emissions- Reducing the distance food has to travel before it is consumed reduces the emissions connected with transporting the food.
  • Unsustainable gardening practices- local food production does not guarantee sustainable gardening practices but growing our own food gives us more control over gardening methods and could allow more sustainable and wildlife friendly gardening techniques to be adopted.
  • Living beyond local means- Producing food grown in the local area allows society to live within their local means, at least in terms of the food they eat.
  • Loss of local high street- Although not guaranteed, purchasing local food from local farmers markets or independent grocery stores as opposed to supermarkets helps to improve the local high street and keep profits in the community.
  • Lack of local production
  • Lack of local food
  • Lack of local trade

To begin with I have looked at the traditional economic view of food production.

Economic Rationale for global food production

The theories of absolute and comparative advantage and economies of scale are largely responsible for the present global system of food production. Food production requires large amounts of land and labour, and even though technological advances have dramatically increased productivity in the agricultural industry in the last century, productivity is generally lower than in other industries and so wages are low. It would therefore be inefficient for the UK to produce all of its own food, given that the UK is a small, relatively concentrated country with little surplus land or low-waged labour. Of course there is still agriculture in the UK, but much of this is due to subsidies and laws designed to protect the UK countryside, it is undoubted that the picture would be different in a truly free market. Therefore much of our food is imported from abroad, often from as far away as New Zealand, Brazil or China. Third world countries abundant in land and cheap labour can produce food far more cheaply that the UK can, therefore giving consumers lower prices. The environmental impacts of transporting food from distant countries, either by air or ship, are not included in the price of food, leading to the over-consumption of imported food. The majority of our food comes from huge farms. In the 1950s and 60s traditional hedgerows and copses were destroyed to make way for larger fields that could be easily harvested by machinery. Livestock farming has been made more productive with intensive farming and conveyor belt slaughter designed to increase the productivity of farming. However, some practices such as the destruction of hedgerows are being reversed as the environmental problems associated with it, such as soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, have begun to decrease the productivity of farming. Economies of scale are also achieved in the sale of food. Much of the food purchased in the UK is purchased from large supermarket chains, which can buy vast quantities from producers, and can pass cost savings onto consumers.

Local Food production

Allotments have traditionally been the stronghold of the retired. In traditional economic theory, it would be irrational for working people to spend their leisure time growing their own food, as although it may work out cheaper than buying food in terms of direct costs such as hiring the land, purchasing seeds and tools and so on, if the opportunity cost of the time spent working on the allotment is calculated as the wage rate, allotment grown food would represent a higher opportunity cost than purchased food. For retired people the opportunity cost is lower as their time is worth less, whereas the opportunity cost of buying produce is higher as they generally have less income. However, although growing food is considered as work, and therefore a disutility, the fact that an increasing number of employed people are choosing to spend their leisure time growing food that they could buy at a lower opportunity cost suggests sustenance food production can sometimes increase utility.

I now need to look at food production from an ecological economics point of view to see how that would change the way our food is produced and sold.

July 17th

discovering what the available means are, what are the resource characteristics and what is the state of knowledge. To do this I have identified a number of different resources associated with the problem and attempted to define their characteristics and the state of knowledge associated with them. I have also looked at the social construction and political power of the different groups associated with this problem. I have identified seven groups that I feel are important in this area. I feel that where I have placed them in the framework is unavoidably biased by my own feelings about these groups so it is better that this bias is made explicit, as I think that ecological economics should differ from conventional economics in that bias should be accepted and not hidden under theories of rationality and economic ‘fact’. On of the exercises in this chapter has really challenged me. Sketching a resource web has proved very difficult, as even a small web for something as simple as a plate of food could include vast amounts of resources and various environmental implications. The opportunity costs are particularly troublesome. The exercise again highlights the differences between ecological and environmental economics. Ecological economics seeks to include important resource flows and opportunity costs even if they make the problem difficult to define and almost impossible to define in an equation. The exercise reminds me of a quote from Chambers’ book, ‘Sharing Natures’ Interest’, which says, ‘if we are to manage our way to sustainability, we must make to change from valuing what we measure to measuring what we value.’ I have decided for now to put this exercise to one side and to think of ways to do it while I am working on other exercises. I hope this will give me insights into the problem that will help me to answer it more effectively.

July 24th

This week I have been working on structuring the problem. Using the example in the exercise book of urban sprawl as a framework I have described the context of the problem and attempted to explain how the problem became a problem.

Context of the Problem- Undesirable conditions created by the problem of lack of local food production

Climate Change- Resulting from the emissions released while food is transported from other parts of the world.

Waste- from the large amount of packaging required by the food industry

Loss of local high street- as local shops cannot compete with supermarkets. The local high street may be left deserted or shops replaced with chain stores, leading to loss of sense of place and undifferentiated high streets.

Increased dependency on cars- as many supermarkets are based out of town and are difficult to get to without a car. This contributes to climate change and congestion

Less control over food – Consumers unaware of the labour and environmental conditions of food production, and to a lesser extend the health implications of the food.

Negative social and financial impacts on towns- residents no longer meet each other in the high street as they shop outside the town, which may have implications for social cohesion. Profits from supermarkets do not remain in the town but are leaked out.

How did the problem become a problem?

Numerous individual decisions- seeing the ease and value of shopping at supermarkets, individuals decide to shop there rather than the high street. When everybody does this, the high street suffers

Unequal distribution of wealth and power- Supermarket have not generally considered the impacts their stores have on smaller retailers. Large food producers do not consider the working conditions of their workers or the environmental impacts of transporting food across the world.

Changes elsewhere in the ecological-economic system- increased scale has increased greenhouse gases by increasing food transportation, making farming more intensive, and increasing the size and number of supermarkets.

Unintended result of seemingly harmless actions- Risks of pesticides are still uncertain. When food transportation was developed people were ignorant about climate change.

As part of the solution to another problem- the globalisation of food production and the development of supermarkets was a response to growing populations. These measures reduced the price and increased the availability of food to consumers.

Why has the problem not been resolved?

Ignorance- many of the problems associated with lack of local food production are uncertain and far away, such as climate change, damage to the environment through pesticide use and the treatment of farmers in the third world. Therefore they are not considered as important as matters that affect the here and now, such as the value of a supermarket or the convenience of a car.

Distribution- Large food production firms and supermarkets have huge political leverage through their economic power. The sufferers such as local food retailers, farmers, and future generations, lack power to change the situation.

These steps have led to change the definition of the problem slightly. I have been describing the problem briefly as lack of local food production. However, although the lack of local food production does encompass some of the undesirable conditions I have mentioned above, it does seem to imply that local food production would automatically lead to a sustainable food system, where this would not be the case. Local food could easily be produced in an unsustainable way, for example through intensive farming methods or excess packing. Therefore I am going to define the problem as lack of local, sustainable food production.

July 31st

Things are a bit slow this week as I’ve hit a bit of a mental block over exercise 3.1, which asks me to view the problem from different perspectives, both those of different discipline and different stakeholders. I am finding it difficult to guess how different stakeholders would look at the problem without being biased. I have contacted people of various academic disciplines asking them for their views on this problem as I feel it would be better to get others opinions rather than just basing this exercise on my guesses. So far I have not received any replies, but I will keep looking at ways to do this exercise.

August 8th

This week I have begun to work on a literature review for project step 3. Fortunately there is a mass of literature regarding local food sustainability. A particularly interesting website is local food works, which is run by the Soil Association and the Countryside Alliance in order to assist the development of local food networks. This website has a vast library of information ranging from allotments to food miles. There is also a growing number of articles appearing in newspapers as local food becomes an important issue and somewhat fashionable among the middle classes. As sustainable local food could encompass a wide range of issues, and because there is so much literature available on the topic, I need to be careful to choose the literature I review carefully, so that I gain a representative sample of the literature available and this review does not become so large that it takes precedent over the exercises or other project steps.

August 21st

Today I attended a focus group in Thornbury, to gain the views of local people, with the hope that this will help me to finally answer exercise 3.1 and move on. The focus group consisted of a member of Thornbury Town Council, a member of Friends of the Earth and a member of Sustainable Thornbury. The group gave a wide variety of issues that they felt were important in Thornbury. Many of them were related to food. The group mentioned the competition between supermarkets and local shops was undermining the local high street, and that the farmers market was too small and at the wrong time to be effective in encouraging people to shop locally. However, the group also mentioned a number of issues that I had not considered. The group were concerned about the high prices in Thornbury, leading to many young people leaving the area. They were also concerned about the lack of jobs and entertainment in Thornbury, making it necessary for many people in Thornbury to own cars. These issues do not have anything to do with sustainable local food.

August 28th

Last week I conducted a phone interview with a member of Sustainable Thornbury. Many of the issues he highlighted were the same as those given in the focus group, such as high house prices and lack of jobs and local activities, especially for young people. The decrease in quality and quantity of local shops was again a concern. I also received emails from some academics interested in the Sustainable Thornbury project, and from these emails, as well as the focus group and the phone interview, I was finally able to finish exercise 3.1. I hope using the opinions of academics and stakeholders will make the exercise more reliable and more useful for following exercises.

September 4th

This week I finally finished the literature review for Project Step 3. For weeks I had put this to the side as I was getting delayed by the huge amount of different literature available on this subject. In the end I decided to choose just a few different types of literature from different sources, and to briefly describe each type. The result is far less in-depth than any literature review I have done before, but hopefully the more broad approach will show what information is available.

September 11th

After a few slow weeks I have moved forward and been able to finish a number of exercises. However, at the moment and I not quite sure how important my work will be in helping to achieve a sustainable, local food system in Thornbury. The systems thinking method I am using strongly advocates synthesis, but at the moment I am struggling to understand how each of these exercises will combine to provide answers to the problem. However, I am only halfway through the project, so maybe it will become clearer as I proceed.

September 18th

This week I have been looking at what disciplines would be most helpful in working to solve this problem, and what methodologies would be most appropriate. Extending from the work I did in exercise 3.1, I believe that psychology is one of the most important disciplines in helping to understand the problem better, and therefore helping to solve it. It is vitally important that we understand why people have an unsustainable relationship with food production and consumption if we are to make the relationship more sustainable. For example, I consider myself to be environmentally aware, and I do try to take actions that will make my lifestyle more sustainable. I know how unsustainable current systems of food production and consumption are, and I think things need to change. However, despite being aware of and concerned about these issues, I do most of my shopping at supermarkets, purchase only a small amount of organic products, and rarely seek to find out where my food has come from. This despite the fact that I live very close to a thriving local high street. I sometimes wonder why I make the decision to shop the way I do, when I know and care about the consequences. I sometimes argue that I don’t have the time to shop locally, when in reality it would hardly take any more time than going to Tesco’s. Price is certainly an issue, I probably couldn’t afford to buy exclusively from the high street and still eat the way I do, but I could afford it if I purchased more raw materials and cooked myself more often. I think the main reason for my continuing use of supermarkets is not price or convenience; it is because it’s familiar. I’ve always shopped that way; my parents have always shopped that way. Being in a supermarket is probably one of my earliest memories. And beyond my family, my neighbours shop this way; the people on television and in novels shop this way. The current systems of food production and consumption are social norms. We as a society need to be retrained, so that in a few generations it will be the social norm to act sustainably. If self-confessed environmentalists can’t do it, what chance do we have of getting everybody else to?

September 25th

This week I am at a point where I can start looking at implementing the methodology I have chosen. I have decided that a survey would useful for understanding the motives behind residents food buying behaviour. I am quite surprised that suggestions about methodology and surveys are first suggested so late in the book, or maybe it shows that I have spent to much time on the earlier exercises. Nevertheless, for students working through this book as a semester long project, the fact that surveys are mentioned so late might leave them with little time to conduct the survey and analyse the results. For me, I am not sure whether I will have the time to conduct a full survey and give a full interpretation of the results. It might be better for me to write a suggested survey for any students who decide to work on this topic once I am finished to use as part of their projects. This would mean any results that I give would be estimates and there may be important issues I cannot answer. Another alternative would be to conduct a shorter survey with a smaller sample, and use this to gain some results. This may not be as representative as a full survey, but would provide a better basis for me to come to at least some conclusions and give a stronger foundation of work for others to build on.

October 2nd

I have begun to synthesize my results this week, and I am beginning to see how my work on previous exercises might begin to provide answers and information. However, I think that the work I did in earlier exercises might not have been in-depth enough. For example, exercise 6.1 asked me to look at the different objectives of the project and see how they influenced each other. I used to objectives I have used in previous exercises, and the result of this exercise suggested that the cohesiveness of the community, the amount of food waste produced and the availability of healthy and affordable food are all buffer factors, meaning that they do not strongly influence other factors and are not strongly influenced themselves. This was quite surprising, and I think that these results show only that I didn’t include the factors that would influence and be influenced by these buffer factors. It is tempting to redo this exercise, hoping that more factors would give a better picture of the interactions between objectives. However, I am reluctant to do this for two reasons. Firstly, I would be skewering the results if I redid any results that did not match my expectations, and secondly, in a complex system like this one there are so many factors and objectives that I could include, the exercise could go on forever.

October 9th

Building feedback loops this week has been interesting, and not just because it meant I got to play with Microsoft Paint. I have looked at feedbacks in this system in earlier exercises, but drawing them and seeing how they all link really illustrates how complex this problem is but also how many ways there are to intervene in the system. The diagram also shows how interventions can have effects on many different parts of the system. Interventions don’t have to be intentional policy interventions. For example, I have added in the feedback diagram that the snob effect is encouraging people to buy organic produce, and there is a growing food trend towards buying locally produced food, which is even being picked up by supermarkets, who are changing their products and their marketing in line with this trend. It may be the case that these trends have the potential to have far more influence than any policy intervention, and we should focus our efforts on encouraging these trends and making sure they are more than just superficial, short-term trends.

October 16th

I’ve been continuing the synthesis this week. I have been using multi-criteria ranking to try and find out which decision alternative is preferable. For this I used the three decision alternatives that I chose in exercise 4.1. I ranked each of the decisions for the different criterion and surprisingly the best decision was alternative 1, which is a rather extreme, deep green decision. I suspect that this isn’t really the case, as I don’t believe that Thornbury would be willing to sacrifice much choice and opportunity for the ecological benefits, even if they are greater than under the other alternatives. This means that maybe the criterions are not evenly ranked. A survey, even a brief one, may help to gain some understanding of how to rank the criterions.

October 23rd

I decided to carry out a survey. My plan was to question 30 people in two areas of Thornbury, one group living close to the town centre and one group living on the outskirts. In practice, I didn’t have time to survey in both areas, so I surveyed 15 houses on the outskirts. Because the sample size was so small, and not representative of the population of Thornbury, the results may not be very accurate. I was surprised by some of the results, for example, I had thought that price of food would be the most chosen reason for choosing where to shop, whereas in the survey it came only fourth. I was also pleasantly surprised that, although most respondents brought most of their food in supermarkets, everybody shopped in at least one local shop in Thornbury occasionally, and most respondents shopped in the high street at least weekly. This shows that there is definitely interest in the town centre, as well as interest in the ethical and environmental considerations behind purchases, which could be a leverage point for changing the system.

October 30th

Conducting the survey was defiantly a good idea, as I do not think I could have completed Project Step 6 without it. I used the results from my survey as well as the results from the survey carried out by the town council to make suggestions of ways to solve the problem. I focused on local solutions, which may not have the biggest leverage, but are the most feasible. I believe one of the best ways to solve this problem is to expand upon residents knowledge and interest in sustainable food systems by educating and engaging them, by making the town centre more visible and encouraging local shops promote themselves as sustainable, local businesses.

November 6th

This week I have been working, rather unsuccessfully, on chapter 7,which asks me to focus on more sophisticated synthesis frameworks than previous exercises. I find both exercises in the chapter very difficult, I don’t think I have collected enough data or conducted enough in-depth research to be able to develop synthesis frameworks at this stage, perhaps this is something that future groups working on this project could look into. For project step 7, as I am not at the stage to synthesize results, I chose a synthesis framework and researched it. Hopefully this information will help future groups when choosing a framework for their own work.

November 13th

This week I have begun to look at how I will communicate the results. I have already briefly talked about my work on Thornbury FM, and hopefully this will lead to interest for the press release and presentation that are to come. For the presentation I have decided to write only a brief plan of what I will include and in what format, as the presentation is not for another 5 months, and even though I am coming to the end of my project, I would like to stay involved with other students projects. I will write the presentation closer to the time, when maybe I can include information from other groups.