Information, preferences, knowledge and belief

Standard textbooks of economics see the provision of information as essentially unproblematic. People have the information they need to form their preferences and they are able to form “rational expectations” of what is going to happen in the future to guide their choices.

In recent years it has been recognised that this simplifying assumption is too far from reality and needs to be rethought. A whole school of economic thinking has been built up around the need to better understand information in economic activity.

The problem of information, is connected to the issue, again mostly ignored by economists, of how people actually form their preferences. This is particularly relevant in the economics of the environment. If we follow standard economic approaches to the environment then the appropriate way to protect it is to elicit the strength of people’s preferences for nature (or its different attributes). This is done by finding out how much they are prepared to pay to maintain it – or how much money they are prepared to accept in compensation for its destruction for economic purposes. It is all a matter of finding the right price.

However, this implies that people have already formed preferences and that, in turn, implies that they actually know about the environment, or aspects of the environment that are being threatened. In practice “Most people have limited experience in assigning monetary values to environmental goods, because this requirement does not occur in everyday life. One may also question whether people have preferences for all environmental goods. For example, can we have preferences for a species threatened by extinction, if we never knew it existed? If we have preferences for the species, they must have been created rather quickly and are likely to be far from stable over time. Therefore it is important to take the process of preference formation seriously” [1]

In this chapter it is my intention to explore what ought to be blindingly obvious – that the everyday life of many people precludes getting much information about ecological systems and nature, or forming deep “preferences” that would mean that they would seek to protect it. For billions of people nature and the eco-system have become “out of sight and out of mind”. The evolution of market society has progressively cut them off from the possibility of knowledge about the environment and nature. It has evolved institutions and practices that actively try to prevent them being adequately informed about the perilous state of the ecological system, actively try to mislead them about how dangerous things are, and actively encourages participation in a system of consumption that uses resources without considering ecological consequences. This is a system intent on shaping peoples’ values in an anti-ecological way.

While the economist priesthood tell us that what makes a market society so wonderful is that it caters to peoples’ preferences, allocating resources according to the signals in market valuations, the deeper reality is that the most powerful players seeks to shape what value we place on things in their own interests and in ways that are ecologically destructive.

Looking at these issues means we have to explicitly recognise that we are in the realms of religion, society, culture, psychology and human personality. Neo-classical economic theory wants to say that humans can be conceptualised as calculating machines taking decisions based on “rational expectations” in market dealings – using available information which will usually be sufficient for their purposes. The problem with this view is patently obvious once one begins to look at the ecological crisis. Huge numbers of people are ignorant and utterly unconcerned about the health of the ecological system and that is a large part of the problem.

If we then ask who are concerned about the environment the answer is largely people in the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the remnants of them, tribal societies and first nations in Canada. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out these are the societies trying to do something about the environmental crisis.
“In fact, all over the world – Australia, India, South America – there are battles going on, sometimes wars. In India, it’s a major war over direct environmental destruction, with tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences. In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are taking a strong stand. The strongest of any country with regard to global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and constitutional requirements that protect the “rights of nature.” [2]

Why is this the case? To give an answer is to describe what disappeared, what was forgotten, when economics developed. It is to describe the culture and belief systems that economics has claimed to replace. To think about people’s relationship to the ecological system, as economists do, primarily as being about ‘preferences’ about how “clean” these people want the environment to be, will not help us resolve environmental problems. On the contrary, this mentality is a sure indicator of why we have an ecological crisis in the first place. It is a symptom of a dislocated and displaced culture. In a quite literal sense it is the pathological world view of a non indigenous society, whose members are not rooted in a place, who are almost entirely blind to nature and quite unaware of their own ignorance of it, as well as their dependence on it.

Contrast the aboriginal mentality in which land care is the main purpose of life.

“No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word ‘home’ does not match the aboriginal word that may mean ‘camp’, ‘hearth’, ‘country’ ‘everlasting home’ ‘totem place’ ‘life source’ ‘spirit centre’ and much else all in one. Our word ‘land’ is too spare and meagre” [3]

This is a society permeated by ecology, just as ours is a society, chiefly characterised by it absence.
Aboriginal people in Arnhem land in Australia “classified country as accurately as any ecologist, and they are able to state without hesitation what food supply, animal and vegetable, each association will yield…The accuracy with which an Arnhem Land Hunter could name and give an association according to its botanical composition, and the food supply, woods for spears and other purposes, as well as resins and fibre plants that it would yield at any season of the year, was astonishing.” [4]

In this kind of relationship to “land” (meant in an expanded sense) the indigenous person can be described as “belonging” to a homeland. The concept of home is not fixed at an exact location but covers an area of landscape.

“Another very great advantage on the part of the natives is, the intimate knowledge they have of every nook and corner of the country they inhabit; does a shower of rain fall, they know the very rock where a little water is most likely to be collected, the very hole where it is longest retained…Are there heavy dews at night, they know where the longest grass grows, from which they may collect the spangles, and water is sometimes procured thus in great abundance…” [5]

Note again the remark that English words are not good enough to express the relationship between aboriginal people and homeland. There is a “lexical void” – a lack of words to express an idea – because the largely European cultures, both in Europe and in those continents to which the Europeans migrated, produced “economics” with missing cultural components – all those features of thought which occur when a people belong to a place but which are missing in the thought of a dis-located culture.

What is being expressed here is the profound difference between when we describe people who belong to a place – as compared to the economic understanding of landed property which is of places that belong to people (and to corporations.)

The difference can be illustrated by some quotes:

“I fought nine years to obtain property titles for my community. Bureaucrats and ranchers showed me papers and more papers to demonstrate that our lands were privately owned. I did not care because in that land our grandparents are buried. They showed me papers. I showed them bones. When I received the titles to our lands, the bureaucrats and the ranchers who had laughed at me asked, ‘How did you obtain the land?’ ‘With the bones of my ancestors’ I replied

– Bruno Barras [6]

“When Canadian government surveyors first ran across Gitskan people in their traditional territory, the Gitskan asked, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Surveying our land,’ answered the surveyors.
Incredulous, the Gitksan responded: ‘If this is your land, where are your stories?’”

– Derek Rasmussen [7]

Economics by contrast is the product of a non-indigenous culture. Belonging to places did not always mean belonging to an egalitarian society – in the European middle ages belonging to a place would mean a set of obligations to a feudal lord who imposed duties on serfs and very little knowledge of anywhere except ones immediate locality. Many people had good reason to run away and the medieval period ended as multiple geographical and mental boundraries dissolved. A process of “deterritorisation” took place in which people found a relative freedom from feudal exactions by living in towns, or by travelling to faraway places as the trade routes opened up.

This process of change was one in which places came to belong to people instead of the other way round – particularly via the enclosure of the commons. Land grabbing by people who wanted to explore the new mercantile connections, people who mostly lived in the towns and who were well connected politically, took place over several centuries and completed the shift. Many of the people thus expelled from the land ended up as vagabonds and were either herded into the new factories, or into punitive workhouses. They either migrated voluntarily or through transportation. A European diaspora began and took a colonial form.

Now, several centuries after enclosure, people in towns and cities get their water through a tap and food from a supermarket, while the supermarkets jointly manage the countryside in many countries with global agri-business corporations and the financial markets. Meanwhile many people in the cities change their location ever few years in order to keep themselves in paid work.

Economics is a theory developed by and for people who feel themselves as belonging nowhere in particular…..although they may, opportunistically, pretend to belong in tax havens.

Economists claim that, in order to protect “land” or eco-systems (the living network of beings in a place and the community that lives there) it has to be owned as private property. The United Nations Environment Programme tells us that protect nature we must give it a price and “hardwire it into financial markets” – whose actors are global and who buy and sell assets often in minutes.

The truth of the matter is the other way round. To protect a natural environment a community must belong there, be rooted there, have understood and know all the details of that place for generations and intend to pass that place, with all their knowledge, down to their descendants.

Most indigenous communities have a variation of the axiom that one must consider one’s actions up to the seventh generation – that is the generation after one’s grandchildren’s grandchildren. That is what it means to belong to a community that belongs to a place – and it is not an idea compatible with the economist’s assumption that all people take long term decisions using an interest rate with which they discount the future in favour of the present.

“….those who are embedded tend to look after a place; those who are dissembedded do not. A non-indigenous civilization is a complete rupture with the entire arc of human history. By the way, that doesn’t mean all indigenous civilizations were saintly or nice. It just means they were rooted. They may have uprooted others, enslaved peoples, created empires, but every human civilization—Inuit, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabeg, and so on—has had a homeland somewhere. Every civilization has had a particular place on earth that generation upon generation felt beholden to…….Until now.”

(Rasmussen )

We are now in a much better position to answer the question: how does it come about that it is indigenous and tribal peoples who are the ones who are fighting to save the environment? In theory much scientific and ecological information is available to the people in “developed societies” but these are societies made up of non-indigenous people. We, non-indigenous people live a life which we take for granted and do not see it as at all peculiar. But we are dis-placed and “belong no-where”. Aboriginal culture and land care in Australia lasted at least 8,000 years and possibly as much as 50,000 years. In that time the possibilities for getting to know the ecological system were infinitely greater than anything that was possible after the agriculture developed to feed the towns where the intellectuals developed the knowledge system and theorised for the merchants in the emerging age of commerce.

What we are describing here in the contrast between indigenous and non-indigenous world views is something that is a lot deeper than different “paradigms” of the world. What we are describing are different conditions of possibility for knowledge, different “epistemes” – a term suggested by Foucault, in his 1970 book, ‘The Order of Things’, to describe the different foundations for the way different societies think, that creates the “conditions of possibility” for knowledge. An episteme is “that which makes knowledge possible”. [8]

In recent years there has been a recognition by some economists and academics (who are mostly from dominant non-indigenous communities) of what is called “traditional environmental knowledge” or TEK for short). There has been a dawning realisation that indigenous cultures that were before barely given any attention by economists actually possess valuable information relating to local eco-systems. An example of this occurred when it dawned on economists and policy makers that it would be valuable to construct “vulnerability indices” for so called “less developed” societies, like “New Caledonia”. This was in order to get a better understanding given the greater rate with which natural disasters are being visited on those societies. Such vulnerability indices are an innovation in economics because they admit the existence of natural limits on economic activity and represent a movement away from a concern for growth, and development, to a concern for resilience and sustainability. Significantly when this occurred researchers suddenly discovered that indigenous people were a rich source of knowledge and information.

“The context and importance [of the practical activities of] villagers had not been understood”. Whole areas of knowledge had previously been unknown to the colonising outsiders – traditional medicines, control of pests and diseases, and the agricultural calendar where decisions about timing ‘was one of the most important aspects of Melanesian life.’ “The research survey concluded that while New Caledonian’s (Kanak) knowledge of nature and the environment was very large indeed little of that rich heritage had been recorded….” [9]

A convergence of concerns and purposes produced the discovery of knowledge by people whose experience had not been recognised or been found interesting to researchers. This knowledge in turn led to researchers recognising that “they had to reform the standard terminology of GDP in order to accommodate their focus on risk, vulnerability and its alternatives” [10].

It is important to make clear, however, that “Traditional Environmental Knowledge” is the way that non-indigenous thinkers (like economists) conceptualise the knowledge of indigenous people. For indigenous people the knowledge is not understood in the same way. It is framed differently and arises from a different “episteme”.

“When the government people talk about land, I find it very funny, talking about all the things we use, all the things we survive on, like animals and caribou and those things. When I talk about land, I think of the Great Spirit”
“The term ‘Land’ ….is not restricted to the physical environment only. It has a much broader meaning, used by indigenous people to refer to the physical, biological and spiritual environments fused together. The closest scientific equivalent of the ‘Land’, taken without its spiritual component, is ‘ecosystem’ “
“Traditional knowledge is practical common sense, good reasoning, and logic based on experience. It is an authority system (a standard of conduct), setting out rules governing the use and respect of resources, and an obligation to share. For example, it tells people that they do not have the right to hunt all animals of a species, as in wolf kill programmes. The wisdom comes in using the knowledge and ensuring that it is used in a good way. It involves using the head and the heart together Traditional knowledge is dynamic, yet stable and is usually shared in stories, songs, dances and myths.”


Indigenous people not only do NOT see the earth as a resource store that belongs to them – they see themselves as part of the earth, they are walking and living pieces of the earth. They do not have an anthropocentric world view with humans as the peak of creation and its owner – their view is nature centric with humans merely participants and parts in this world.

This is not homo-economicus style thinking. It bears no comparison to preference utilitarianism. The difference in mentalities between people belonging to the land and the land belonging to people is much deeper. When people belong to the land, then the land has a spiritual dimension for them, they carry responsibilities in a way that private property owners do not. This different way of being includes the other living species as non human persons, it involves deep practical knowledge and acts as a guide.

Traditional environmental knowledge comes, therefore, out of a different episteme. The economist lives in a world where, if s/he recognises nature at all, this recognition consists of thinly understood species that are either crops or weeds, livestock or pests and general wildlife – in other words species already classified as to their market significance, as resources, or even as “eco-system services”, assessed in relation to their use for humans. “Information” is framed in economics speak – which is absent of any sense of responsibility, any spiritual content, any loyalty, any feeling for other species.

By contrast a large proportion of the poorest people on the planet are struggling to keep it alive because they experience and know it as being alive – who know and experience the eco-system as communities of human and non human beings, each of which is actively interpreting their environment where this largely means interpreting each other and acting on their interpretations.

In his writings about the Nunavut and Greenland Inuit Peter Harries-Jones compares the perspectives of scientifically trained ecologists and hunters. The Inuit regard animals as ‘non human persons’ who are able to build up knowledge about their environment so that skilled hunters can rely not only on their own interpretations of the environment but that of animals interpreting other animals in interaction with the environment. “The behaviour of fish and seals not only gives signs about the location of fish and seals to Inuit hunters in Greenland but indicates the behaviour of whales, glaciers, winds, water temperatures and other physical aspects of the environment….Greenland Inuit are able to observe and account for animal movements and other aspects of behaviour in a systematic way because they believe that animals have their own semiotic interpretation of their environment.” [12]

This sense of nature as being animated, as being alive, of being a place of ‘inter-being’ by ‘selves’ of different species is not compatible with the neoDarwinistic/neoliberal bioeconomic vision of selfish genes, or of biology as competing survival machines that underpins much of non-indigenous economic thinking.
The Inuit view is, however, compatible with the emerging thinking in biology which envisages the biological world as organisms which, as feeling, interpreting and intentional selves, are involved in a process of self creation or autopoiesis.

According to biologist Andreas Weber “natural history should no longer be viewed as the unfolding of an organic machine, but rather as the natural history of freedom, autonomy and agency. Reality is alive: It is full of subjective experience and feeling; subjective experience and feeling are the prerequisites of any rationality. The biosphere consists of a material and meaningful interrelation of selves.” [13]

If the biosphere – and the economy too – are made up if an “interrelation of selves” that have a degree of autonomy, freedom and agency it makes sense to grasp and understand this kind of world through stories. There is, to be sure, a place to understand things through science based on measurement and mathematics but stories and narrative give a different kind of understanding (which is why telling the story of economics, the people who dreamed it up and the conditions in which they did so, gives us a different perspective on it from reading a textbook written as if economics was a finished product).

There are some mysteries we cannot ever understand. The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The Great Spirit is the Great Mystery.

It should be remembered that stories as explanations and as guides for living are often the creation of peoples whose cultures are non literate – and there is a danger for literate people to assume that the non-literate must be ignorant as it is assumed that knowledge must be stored somewhere external, on paper, or in digital form, “to count” and to be taken into account. However an oral tradition has its own features and possibilities of knowing and of passing on knowleedge. It has other ways of people remembering together while, at the same time, bestowing significance to what is importance, anchored into the rhythms of life .

A practice repeated, perhaps on a seasonal basis by a community, becomes a ritual. Other ways in which people can synchronise their feelings and thoughts are through ceremonies. These help ideas and practices to be remembered.

The point about such rituals and ceremonies is that they create continuity and stability – they fix things. In this context it is understandable that a community can come to believe that the failure to perform a ritual, or the failure to perform it correctly, will throw the world into chaos. It will become formless and void again. To the Australian Aborigines, it was when the creator ancestors did these things for the first time that the world was created out of the void.

To remember how to cross a landscape safely without maps and service stations a community evolves songlines. I express this in non-indigenous thought – to the Aboriginal people the landscape was created by the creator ancestors who sang the landscape into existence.

“Songlines show the Dreaming’s grounding in the land and its creatures. In depicting the country it passes through and naming the creatures in it, a songline states its ecological associations……sites along a red kangaroo songline…coincided with the most favourable habitat for the species…where range washouts grew the best grass…they were describing the landscape from a red kangaroo perspective…The songline decreed a clear conservation imperative: they banned hunting at its major sites…in bad seasons roos have refuges, when in good seasons their numbers build up and some move out they can be hunted….” [14]

Proximity to animals and species that one has a need to understand creates more than conceptual involvement – it engages emotions. It creates identification and involvement which are inconceivable to people who connect to animals as packaged meats or to plants tinned and on a shelf.

Totems are thus more than badges and labels – they are allegiances. Once again we must grasp the right direction meant when the word ‘belonging’ is used. Gammage comments that in English a totem can simply be a badge but “for aborigines it is a life force stemming from and part of a creator ancestor. An emu man does not have an emu as a mere symbol: he is emu, of the same soul and the same flesh. He must care for emu and its habitat, and it must care for him. He is of its totem, not the reverse…”

This is nothing like an “environmental preference” in a utilitarian sense, symbolised with a badge. With different members of the community having different totems, and those community members knowing everything about their totem species in great detail, the community has biodiversity protection built into the belief system and into the social structure.

“All must care for the land and its creatures, all must be regenerated by care and ceremony, no soul musty be extinguished, no totem put at risk, no habitat too much reduced. That mandate made…land care purposeful, universal and predicable. That is true of every part, even what must seem like untouched wilderness, and even where ecologists today can’t see why.” (Gammage p117)

In their book “Ecological Economics” Joshua Farley and Herman Daly point out that we are all born ignorant and that knowledge can be lost over time as well as gained. What I have sought to show in the preceding discussion is where there has been such a huge loss, and indeed, a degeneration of the possibility of knowing in the emergence of non-indigenous cultures. This has been brought about by a mindset that focuses on the measurable above all else, a mindset that makes count what can be counted only and above all counted by money. This was a mindset that thinks in economics terms, in terms of what can be traded on national and global markets – a mindset of the ‘Age of Commerce’ that unthinkingly destroyed indigenous communities.

This is a process that is continuing. Although there are hopeful signs in the biological sciences that some of the possibility of knowing can be recovered it is useful to explore why it will be such an uphill struggle and how and why non-indigenous knowing is now so detached from incredibly threatening ecological realities.

In the rest of this chapter I ask how it comes about that that competent scientists can publish peer reviewed studies saying that the environmental crisis (eg in the form of the climate crisis) represents a life threatening global emergency for humanity and yet most people do not accept or are even unaware of the magnitude of the threat. Also, how billions of people are reluctant to look at the “inconvenient truths” thrown up by environmentalists – but, instead of building these truths into their “rational expectations” for themselves and their children, turn instead to “reassuring lies” created for them by the public relations industry. It is necessary to look to how it is possible for a number of ultimately futile corporate agendas to capture the mass discourse about sustainability and turn them to their short run financial advantage – for example by forming coalitions around fruitless approaches that waste time and valuable resources.

Economists are fond of telling us that they describe the world as it is, and not as one might wants it to be. So let’s describe the world as it is in regard to how public attitudes are shaped. As we have just seen, in a world where people gathered, hunted, cultivated and harvested from the landscapes and waterscapes around them, places that they were managing as natural commons, people would have an intimate daily knowledge of the natural environment. They feel responsible for that landscape – indeed they love and care for it. This direct knowledge can be contrasted to “mediated knowledge” – where knowledge is taken in from written texts, from televisions and computer screens.

In the new complex urban societies where land is private property and people have no intimate relationship with it the connection that generates vernacular knowledge of the land is broken. Knowledge is now mediated knowledge – someone else has provided the knowledge and there are two choices before this knowledge is taken in. First of all there is the choice of someone to write and publish information about something in the hope, the belief, or the expectation that it will capture the attention of an audience, a readership or viewers. Secondly there are the choices of readers, viewers, or listeners to decide to devote attention to the information being provided.

To be sure there are still stories, rituals, ceremonies and people wear badges and uniforms to signals their allegiances but these dimensions of knowledge are increasingly detached from land based natural processes and increasingly colonised by the marketing industry and used to generate wants where none existed before.
Furthermore economic processes are happening on a vast scale with global consequences – where the information about these processes is generated by experts in a technical language that is difficult to fathom unless one has the relevant expertise. This will often add yet another link in the chain between information provider and general public – a journalist who acts as a simplifier, a populariser.

What is often not appreciated is that human attention is also a scarce good.[15]

When we are awake we can devote our attention to only so much and we must choose what to devote attention to (and/or who to devote attention to/’spend’ attention on). In this connection, attention is not only to be regarded with metaphors from consumer behaviour, as if we were allocating it between people and topics, like we allocate our money between goods on supermarket shelves. What we devote our attention to can often be regarded as more like an obligatory activity of the type that occurs in wage labour – and sometimes even as citizenship duty. For example, children must give their attention to their teacher, now and then I must give my attention to the tax office by filling in their forms. Also we have to give our attention to our supervisors at work. We can, if we are so minded, decide to devote some of our attention to political tasks, like the green movement, out of a sense of community and collective responsibility, if you like, out of a sense of citizenship.

For most people, everyday life means that they must routinely devote most of their attention to their domestic tasks, maintaining the house, looking after the children and other dependents, to getting the shopping in, and to their work. What they allocate their attention to is therefore partly “drilled”. Much of the corresponding personal relationships therefore have a rather automatic, routine, character. At the end of the working day most people are often tired. They are not really able to devote their attention to highly complicated issues. Because so much is asked from them in their work, and also in their consumption and domestic activities, and in the raising of children, they are continually under time pressure. That has the consequence that they have often no more mental energy to do other than sit at the TV and give themselves over to the simplifications that the mass media “gives” them.

This business of “allocating attention” therefore happens everywhere in society. Naturally the print, and even more the electronic mass media function as attention capturing, directing and channelling agencies. The radio and TV media are the attention capturers and channels of our society par excellence. There is a huge interplay between them and politics and economics. One might even say that political power is the power to have priority access to the mass media to set the agenda for policy and to frame political debates. Political and economic activity are sub sets of a bigger process of allocating focused attention – alongside attention given to various diversions, sports, game shows, celebrity gossip, dramatic entertainment and so on.

The politics of attention in our society has therefore become rather like a one way street. The power structures want people to devote this “scarce good”, that measures up the units in which our lives are measured, exclusively to themselves. They want us to devote our attention to their agendas. They oblige people in their jobs to devote their attention in a particular direction, and in their free time too they make what is a theft of their time – through bombardment with advertisements and the domination of the mass media discourse. They spread sweet dreams or broadcast programmes which function to tranquilise, to reassurance and to escape. (Hollywood as a dream factory).

In the circumstances it is not really surprising that people are vulnerable to having their opinions and understandings shaped by campaigns planned in the public relations industry which, together with the advertising agencies, work closely with the media organisations.

By and large conventional economic theory does not consider where people get their information and ideas – it is just assumed that people have fixed, not malleable, tastes, that they act individualistically and rationally with all the information that they need, that they are not swayed by the influence of others. The notion that opinion, values and tastes are shaped collectively by a mediated and selective presentation of reality, by the framing issues in the media and that all of these are shaped to the interest of powerful people in society is not really compatible with economic models or the ruling ideology that “the voter” and “the consumer” are really taking the ultimate decisions.

One of the few economists to take this on board was John Kenneth Galbraith, whose book The Affluent Society, first published in 1958, argued that, for much of the modern economy, production preceded wants rather than, as economic theory assumes, the other way round. “The even more direct link between production and wants is provided by the institution of modern advertising and salesmanship. These cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist. A broad empirical relationship exists between what is spent on the production of consumer goods and what is spent on synthesizing the desires for it.”[16]

So how do the advertisers do this? Often it is by an astute manipulation which forms motivations through the use of stories, rituals, ceremonies and culture. The moral of the stories told by the advertisers is that the audience is lacking in something that possession of the brand will give them. For example, to be attractive, to be tune with the American grand narrative of rugged individualism, personified by the cowboy, one needs to buy Marlboro cigarettes and participate in the social ritual of smoking them. By contrast to a totem identification with a creature, or plant, based on deep knowledge and loyalty to part of the natural world, one defines oneself by ones brand loyalty. The consumer ‘totems’ are the designer labels that fashionistas wear – a sign of their discrimination, knowledge and affluence as consumers.

Perhaps economists rarely venture into these fields because we can see that advertising, marketing and public relations employ methodologies which, if taken seriously, undermine the credibility of their approach of “methodological individualism”, as well as the simplicities of “utility theory”. For example, in order to construct market demand curves economists have a methodology that just adds together the demand curves of individual people. Their approach implies that people do not influence each other. Yet this assumption that people do not influence each other is difficult to square with the very existence of a fashion industry and the efforts that marketing departments work on to create collective consumption trends. These marketing approaches actively foster disutility because they ‘work’ by creating dissatisfaction. They seek to put in people’s minds the idea that their intended purchasers cannot live without some new product. They are also intended to be disruptive of relationships because they are based on fostering rival status display.

Sales departments, advertisers and public relations companies do not take people’s preferences as given. They are a big part of the economy and mostly, economists ignore them. The sales departments and the marketers do not use ideas from “utility theory” – they take ideas from group psychological dynamics, crowd psychology and approaches from psychotherapy theory which explores the interplay between human emotion and cognition. We need to do this too in order to understand advertising and PR on its own terms – and hence its usefulness to the people who pay for it, and its ability to influence the political process.

To understand the mechanisms by which non-indigenous ‘homo economicus’ are trashing the planet we need to escape from the facile idea that consumers have independently formed innate preferences – preferences that also inform their political thinking. A good start to understanding what happens in the real world is to take a quote from Edward Bernays. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and drew on his uncle’s ideas, and those of other psychologists interested in group psycho-dynamics and crowd psychology, to establish the ‘propaganda industry’ in the 1920s. This was later renamed “Public Relations” to disassociate it from the successes that Dr Goebbels had had using the same techniques to enrol mass support for the Nazis in Germany.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” Edward Bernays, “Propoganda” (1928)
Crucial to this control of the group mind and the regimentation of the masses is the ability to create and manipulate what has been called “the consensus trance”. According to psychologist Charles Tart groups agree on which of their perceptions should be admitted to awareness (hence, consensus), then they train each other to see the world in that way and only in that way (hence trance). The emperor without any clothes is an example of this idea.

What sustains the trance is the fear of ostracism.

With their “methodological individualism” economists have no way of making sense of “the group mind” – and the “group mind” is here being maintained by people’s desire to belong of which we have spoken already – only in this case the desire to belong has no underpinning ecological rationality.

The operations of the PR industry are crucial to understanding mass ignorance and mass values of the environment. In 2010 science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway published a book called “Merchants of Doubt” which drew parallels between what has been happening in the discussion of climate change and other public policy debates about smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. A number of contrarian scientists were working with conservative think tanks and private corporations to ‘keep the controversy alive’ on these issues and challenging the scientific consensus. The PR industry was at work.

There is a certain irony in all of this as conservative economists like to claim the superiority of the market because it is supposed to best produce what corresponds to the aggregation of individual preferences. How these preferences are formed is supposed to be of no business of economists. Yet here we have a lucrative market served by companies and foundations that seek to shape the preferences of the public by creating doubt where the scientific consensus is that no such doubt exists. In other words this is a market sector that exists to distort the accurate formation of preferences….

….or perhaps, to these people, since the market is the optimal way of organising resource allocation, if any problem arises which the market cannot resolve without some kind of intervention from outside, then it must follow, inevitably, that the problem is not real.

What we might be witnessing here is an ideological consequence of market fundamentalism – a sort of collective denial of aspects of reality by a group of people to avoid cognitive dissonance. What suggests this is the fact that the past of a number of these contrarian scientists. Earlier in their lives they were fierce anti-communists involved in research on the atomic bomb or on rockets to deliver atomic bombs. To a mentality prepared to contemplate fighting a thermonuclear war, climate catastrophe is probably a price worth paying in order to retain a market economy uncomplicated by state enforced mitigation policies.

I don’t suppose there will be many neo-classical economists reading this book because the response of neo-classical economists to their critics – and there have been lots of cogent critics over the last two centuries – is to ignore them and just go on repeating the same message.

Even when prominent neo-classical economists are forced to admit that a key part of their thinking is in error, the textbooks still reproduce the error and not the criticism…. However, were a neo-classical economist to be reading this piece then I would imagine that they would say that this is all about politics, social psychology and not economics.

This way of putting reality into boxes that protect something by splitting off the difficulties into another box is familiar to therapists. Bankers do it too – things that might damage a company’s reputation, or are particularly risky, are placed in another company, “a special purpose vehicle”, registered in an offshore tax haven, so they “don’t really count” as a part of the bank that set them up.

However, the problem of acquiring accurate information cannot be expelled from economics as if the insights of other subject disciplines don’t count. Since information is heavily mediated by agencies that select and shape it for their clients there is no way around the fact that information and its twin brother “misinformation” arises in a field distorted by power structures. (An analogy would be the way that the path of light is bent by the gravitation of objects of great mass in physics). Finding the truth to make economic decisions is problematic because interests are at stake.

The fact is that, in order to take decisions as to whether or not to buy a commodity consumers need to know about that good. If they are environmentally aware, or concerned about social issues, they will, for example, want to know about the so-called “external costs” which, to repeat, are all pervading. That will make it in someone’s interest to try to control that information.

Managers too will want to know about many things and it will often be in someone’s interest to mislead them. For example a business purchasing drilling rights will want to know the likelihood that the well will turn out dry or how quickly it will deplete. This information is likely to be subject to distortion. A company that knows that a gas field that they bought is not as productive as they had originally hoped, and that depletion rates are quick, will probably want to get out if they can – but to liquidate their investment they will want other suckers to believe that the gas field is productive, and worth paying money for. The same logic applied when Goldman Sachs traders offloaded securities that they privately labelled as “toxic waste” while misleading those buying them to believe that they were valuable.

Governments too will want accurate information. It is their job to know when production processes are risky, dirty and costly to keep serviced if they are to take rational decisions about public infrastructure. But it will frequently not be in the interests of companies to be fully upfront about these things. The fact that a quiet small town is going to be subject to an onslaught of heavy trucks passing through it, or the fact that jobs promised by a development will be taken by staff back at their HQ thousands of miles away, or what chemicals are being used in an industrial process, may be things that companies would rather the politicians and the public did not know.

Instead of a fairy story that economic decisions are taken by people appraising all the available information in conditions of “rational expectations”, realism demands that we acknowledge that decisions are likely to be taken in a variety of “states of knowing/unknowing”:

– Known unknowns – things/situations that you know you don’t know about;

– delusions and wishful thinking – errors in which you (and perhaps your group) have an emotional investment which are thus difficult to shift

– denials – things which are too painful to know so you ignore information that confirms them

– informational assymetry – unknowns for some people that are known to others (vested interests blocking information flow);

– costly information – situations where getting to know costs so much so that that partial or innaccurate knowing or even ignorance may be chosen instead

– deception and secrecy – hiding knowns from others and/or fostering errors or delusions (by using secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens for example)

– technical information – information that is difficult for lay people without a specific competence to interpret

– Taboos – things/situations that a peer group/the law/ company business culture think you should not try to get to know

– paranoias – hypotheses about the nature of unknowns that impute motives by others that are to be feared

(Some things will be ‘unknown unknowns’ – but by definition we cannot articulate them until ‘after the event’ as this information emerges during the course of activity)

In each case the information needed will probably need to be actively researched, will often be available only from and through media(ted) sources and information will be open to distortions by vested interests. Information may turn out to be “misinformation”. “Rational decisions” are only going to be made in the light of adequate information that is properly interpreted in a process that is fair to all the actors and affected parties.

This will often not be straightforward – and not only because of crude manipulation by spin doctors. Mass opinion is also formed by the taken for granted way that the media and “experts” present and prevent real deliberation by pre-supposing the conceptual frames in which information about issues are chosen, researched and presented. Academic discourse is a powerful force for affecting the way that issues are framed – and in the case of the environment and climate change the issues are typically framed using concepts adapted from mainstream economics.

For example, by framing issues to do with climate change in economics language a powerful taboo is implicitly imported into any discourse, a taboo that does not have to be made explicit, because it is “understood” as self evident: on no account can any options be considered that do not involve continued economic growth.

Using economic theory as the concept system imposes a set of presumptions that limit democratic deliberation of issues. Economists enforce a view in which a mathematical procedure gives us the answer to what to do about questions like climate change or biodiversity loss, not debate and contestation of different views and value systems. Because it is supposed to be a calculation of what people people are prepared to pay is all that counts it automatically follows that the money perspective wins. As Professor of ethics, Clive Hamilton puts it

“This is perhaps the ultimate conceit of mainstream economics, the equation of market behaviour with democracy itself”

What happens then is that all the control over the decision making process is effectively grabbed by economists on behalf of people of wealth. The key information used to assess an environmental issue takes the form of measurements which economists make, of variables that economists decide are the relevant ones, using financial measuring rods that economists decide are the right ones to use, in a research procedure that takes for granted value systems and processes of judging things on behalf of the public that are preference
utilitarian – i.e. does not necessarily reflect and respect the widely different ethical systems used by the public which are not all utilitarian at all – eg rights based ethics.

Having destroyed democratic debate in the framing of the issues the economists then frame the allowable solutions. Business and other “economic actors” (eg consumers) must be incentivised to behaviours that protect the environment. This is achieved by “giving nature (or its attributes like ‘eco-system services’) a price” and “hardwiring it into financial markets” (UNEP).

The critique of this way of doing things is found elsewhere in this book. Suffice it to say here that this situation allows what is called “environmental policy” to be colonised by corporate agendas which have very little to with saving the world from environmental destruction and everything to do with corporations gaining strategic control of value chains – for example in genetic and technical information, in production processes and resources in energy, biomass, water and land. A techno-innovation juggernaut is constructed with the help of the state…the destruction of the environment continues and economists give their blessing.

In conclusion, the emergence of non-indigenous market based societies has powerfully undermined the very possibility of acquiring the kind of adequate knowledge, connected to the necessary purposes and belief systems, that are needed to protect nature and the environment. Indigenous societies are fighting back, desperately. However, the global economic system that is destroying the environment has not just lost access to knowledge known in earlier centuries, it has evolved institutions whose role is to actively block the population from knowing and to lead them away from the knowledge that they need to protect themselves from the perilous state of the ecological system.

Note: This is an excerpt from Brian’s book Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis, published by Feasta. You can read other excerpts here.


[1] Olof Johnsson-Stenman “What should we do with inconsistent, non-welfaristic, and undeveloped preferences” in Bromly D and Paavola J Economics, Ethics and Environmental Policy Blackwell 2002, p112-113
[2] Noam Chomsky , “How to Destroy the Future” London Guardian, 4th June 2013
[3] Bill Stanner, quoted in Gammage, page 145
[4] quoted in Gammage p 145
[5] Eyre, quoted in Gammage p 146
[6] Bruno Barras, ‘Life Projects: Development our Way’ in In The Way of Development Blaser, Feit and McCrae eds. Zed Books 2004, p 50
[7] ‘Non-Indigenous Culture’: Implications of a Historical Anomaly”,
[8] Frank Birkin and Thomas Polesie, “The relevance of epistemic analysis to sustainability economics and the capability approach” Ecological Economics, May 2013
[9] Peter Harries-Jones, “The ‘Risk Society’: Tradition, Ecological Order and Time-Space Acceleration” in In the Way of Development Blaser, Feit and McCrae eds. Zed Books 2004 p 290 to 291
[10] Ibid p 291
[11] Quotes cited in Deborah McGregor’s article “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Sustainable Development” in Blaser. Feir and McCrea pp 78 and 79.
[12] Harries-Jones, op cit p 291
[13] Andreas Weber, “Enlivenment. Towards a fundamental shift in the concepts of nature, culture and politics” Heinrich Boell Foundation, Publication Series Ecology, 2013 available for download at
[14] Gammage
[15] George Franck, Oekonomie der Aufmerksamkeit ISBN 3-446-19348-0
[16] Quoted in John Kenneth Galbraith The Essential Galbraith Houghton Mifflin 2001 p 34

Featured image: Signs. Author: Chris Coolen Source:

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One Reply to “Information, preferences, knowledge and belief”

  1. Great article Brian!

    I’d like to get you in for a Podcast with us on the Doomstead Diner. We did a recent podcast with David Korowicz, and have another scheduled with Graham Barnes to be recorded this week.

    Might as well get the whole FEASTA crew in here. 🙂


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