English Professor Nadeau Works at Intersection of Economics and the Environment

Posted: October 27, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: October 26, 2009 at 4:38 pm

By Art Taylor

Robert Nadeau

Robert Nadeau

English Professor Robert Nadeau traveled to Italy this summer to speak at two conferences; however, neither speech was related to literature.

“My presentations in Florence demonstrated why there is no basis in mainstream economic theory for implementing scientifically viable economic solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems,” explains Nadeau, whose interdisciplinary work earned him a full professorship not only in English but also in Mason’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy.

“All my career has crossed disciplines,” says Nadeau.

His first book, published in 1981, studied the uses of modern physical theory by postmodern novelists, including Vonnegut, Pynchon and Delillo, and in doing so marked the first scholarly study in the then-new field of science and literature.

Most of Nadeau’s more recent writings and presentations are fueled by his concern for the environment. In his work, Nadeau argues against policies rooted in what he sees as the fundamental fallacies of neoclassical economics.

“Neoclassical economists stole some equations from 19th-century theories of physics and then substituted economic variables for the physical ones,” explains Nadeau.

“The historical result is an economic theory in which there’s no way to look at environmental costs. The theory is that markets must grow and expand and there will always be alternative means of technology to substitute for dwindling resources.

“But it’s simply not going to happen. The belief is that we can continue to grow the economy while we transition to green, but our present level of consumption is unsustainable. That’s not something easily sold to Americans.”

Nadeau began his work in this area 20 years ago, when, as he says, “things didn’t sound terribly threatening, when the impact was still generations away.”

But now the threat is more dire. “We’re in a situation where today’s children will see the impact of these mistakes.”

Nadeau’s most recent book, “The Environmental Endgame: Mainstream Economics, Ecological Disaster and Human Survival” (Rutgers University Press, 2006), offers solutions to these environmental threats, but each requires a massive rethinking and reorganization of political and economic structures— replacing, for example, the system of international government based on individual nation states with a supranational system of government, and replacing neoclassical economic strategies with the development and implementation of more environmentally responsible economic theories.

In short, it’s a complete shift in the paradigms under which the world currently operates.

“My position hasn’t been popular,” Nadeau admits. “But a lot of economists have appreciated what I’ve said.”

A lot of his students have as well.

“When I confront students with these ideas, initially they’re horrified,” he says.

“They want to frame it as a radical view, confront it with denial, because they’re not getting this information through the mainstream media. But more is coming out— through the Discovery Channel and PBS, for example — a flow of information radically different from several years ago. My students are beginning to see.”

And Nadeau himself sees in these challenges an opportunity for humankind to be positive about change, an optimism tempered with a degree of caution about what might happen otherwise.

“This is a signally important moment in human history,” he stresses. “If we deal with this, we’ll have a significantly better world in which poverty and hunger could be eliminated. But if we don’t, this is going to be a really dark chapter.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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