An article recently published in Environmental Science & Policy suggests that current economic approaches to addressing environmental and health issues in the European Union suffer from a lack of imagination, limiting the capacity of science to inform policymaking.

Sami person with a reindeer. The Sami person's clothes are bright blue with red and yellow details.

Looking at how energy policies affect, for example, Sámi, a nomadic population living in the Northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, one discovers how energy issues are never purely techno-economic but involve networks of relation between different communities and cultures, whose interests risk invisibility if the issue is framed reductively.

In the case of water, broadening the range of analytical lenses reveals that the potential impact of irrigation in the water cycle can be much more serious than previously thought. The existing approaches have offered a dangerously reassuring picture of the risks involved by downplaying uncertainties, especially with regards to the volume of water needed to irrigate and the true extension of irrigated agriculture.

Beekeeper working with beehive

The same patterns emerge looking at the conflicted issue of pesticides and decline of pollinators. While this may be framed as a scientific problem in need of a technical solution, historically this has been an issue of conflict between different communities – for example, beekeepers versus farmers – and foremost a case study of regulatory capture, with the agrochemical sector trying to overtake regulatory agencies.

During the recent pandemic, modelling has made it to the headlines, and “flattening the curve” – a model-related concept, has entered media jargon along with the difficulty entailed by the uncertainty of the numbers (infected, asymptomatic, etc.) these models were based on.

Yet policy prescription based on cost-benefit analysis and related concepts, such as the value of a statistical life (VSL) lead to neat diagnoses based on hyper-precise numbers. But are we looking at all numbers? Are we looking at the right numbers?

Our study, led by Andrea Saltelli in collaboration with universities from the United Kingdom, Spain, Norway, Poland, and Estonia, argues that overreliance on neoclassical economical perspectives – the current dominant economic paradigm grounded on monetary assessments and the assumption of efficient and self-regulating markets – misses out on the complexity of issues characterising reality.

We suggest enriching current approaches with:

  • non-Ricardian economics – which acknowledges the variable returns on different types of economic activities, hence country development patterns,
  • bioeconomics – which acknowledges the interaction of the economic and ecological systems, for example, in terms of material requirements on the supply and sink side of the economic system,
  • and post-normal science – an approach for decision making at the science policy interface in the context of complex, uncertain and value-laden issues.

Broadening the spectrum of tools and approaches can lead to useful checklists for both producers and consumers of evidence for policy. Relevant items to be considered when assessing policy options, public interventions or regulations are:

  • Who are the winners and losers of the various policy options? Who are the vulnerable groups affected?
  • Who selected the evidence for a given policy and what was excluded?
  • Did the analysis project harm in the future, while neglecting present and documented challenges of exclusion or inequality?
  • Does the analysis rely on a technological silver bullet and unproved technologies meant to colonise the future?
  • Does the analysis support an irresponsible management of expectations?

According to Andrea Saltelli “this shift allows gazing into more possible futures, gaining in relief, realism and relevance”. We build our case with discussion of state-of-the-art of studies in the energy, water, health, and climate domains.

Dr Samuele Lo Piano is Postdoctoral Research Fellow on Flexibility in Energy Demand in the School of the Built Environment at the University of Reading.