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Adam Smith: Father of Modern Eco-Economics

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The father of modern economics was born this month 286 years ago. His ideas about wealth could actually help save the planet

Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith was born on June 5, 1723. Smith's greatest work, The Wealth of Nations, gave an account of economics at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is considered the first modern text about economics.

And while deregulatory advocates have touted Smith as also being the father of free market thinking, some economists believe that Smith's position on this idea has been exaggerated, disregarding the potential application of his principles in support of social justice and environmental conservation -- concepts that aren't usually considered to be the province of market capitalism.

But in the text, Smith writes about his belief that "every successive generation" has "an equal right to the Earth."

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According to Conservation International, "When people can’t get what they need to survive, protecting the Earth isn't in their list of priorities." It's a philosophy that fuels much market-based conservation: Those struggling on a subsistence level must see some personal gain in order to care for their environment and ecosystems. This idea is the basis for the United Nations REDD (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) plan.

Most notably, the late economist and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Herbert Stein pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that Smith's magnum opus can support such public service organizations as the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- bodies that are often regarded as impediments to free markets.

Stein also believed that Wealth of Nations could legitimize environmentalism, mandatory employer health benefits and "discriminatory taxation to deter improper or luxurious behavior."

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A recent article on argued that Smith's theory of moral sentiments could be used as a basis for cap-and-trade schemes meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, the rise of market-based conservation initiatives around the globe -- such as shade-grown coffee cultivation, paying native populations to maintain the health of rainforests and converting gorilla poachers into eco-tour guides -- indicates that a fresh reading of Smith's philosophy may be a more modern prescription for making man "healthy, wealthy and wise."

And what of "early to bed, early to rise"? If it means less energy consumption, Smith would likely have approved.


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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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