Rio+20 is not just another conference. Its sheer immensity can be felt all over the vast agglomeration of Rio de Janeiro and literally dominates the cityscape. Military police secure the orderly course of events and so do naval frigates along Ipanema Beach. Hotels charge exorbitant rates, delegates and representatives from every corner of the world roam the streets of Rio in their native costumes; even the statue of Christ that watches over the city from Mount Corcovado is flooded in a very appropriate green light.
The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) has seized this unique opportunity to organize its XII Biennial Conference in parallel, tapping the immense pool of Rio+20 attendees to foster dialogue with a broader audience. No way oikos reporters were going to miss this opportunity!
Notwithstanding my prior lack of exposure to Ecological Economics, it did not take me long to realize that Ecological Economics is quite different from the conventional Economics I am more familiar with. And why not!
It would be unusual at a mainstream economics conference not to be perceived as odd just wearing T-shirt and jeans, not to have access to flawless wireless Internet on the premise – let alone no internet at all – and to be offered the entire collection of Marx’s works at an unreasonably high price, featured prominently at the conference boutique. My fellow reporter Laura has written about the need for a multi-colored economics, and I strongly sensed that this conference was to be a unique opportunity for me to set aside my neoclassical straightjacket and change color.
After all the green I’ve seen so far, I was curious to see what ecological economists have to say about the different shades of the discipline. And out of all available options on the 17th June, a single one stood out: The Roundtable of Feminist Economists.
Held in the plenary room of the Windsor Hotel, it soon became clear that the size of the room was chosen a bit too ambitiously. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was good and presentations by leading Feminist Economists were followed by cheerful chatter and very lively interactions with the predominantly female audience. Topics presented revolved around the central theme of the linkages between social and environmental aspects of economics. Just like with Ecosystem Services (ES), women’s contribution to GDP is inappropriately measured, as many women still do their work at home. Several Feminist Economists expressed concern at the conventional way of modeling economic activity, pointing out that there are fundamental differences in the way men and women make decisions. While – to my relief – reductionist caricatures of the differences between men and women were not put forward, there seemed to be a consensus that women tend to incorporate a more social perspective when making decisions, at least with regards to the own family. Moreover, power dynamics – whether within or among sexes – significantly influence decision making considerations and neoclassical economics cannot take account of it. According to the panelists, this factor weighs most heavily in the financial sector; which explains the difficulty of the economics profession to analyse it appropriately. With regards to criticism on Feminist Economists’ methodology, panelists opined that mathematical rigor and logic are not in themselves a necessary and sufficient condition for a valid social theory and called for a more sociological approach to economics.
The panel concluded on a cautioning note by Bina Aggarwal, who presides the ISEE and International Association of Feminist Economics in a personal union, reminding the audience that there is nothing intrinsic about women being more sustainable than men. But the major contribution of Feminist Economics is to redraw the focus of the discipline on the constraints that economic agents face when making decisions. And women’s constraints are often very different from men’s constraints.