Ecological economics is referred to as both a transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing strong sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.

Ecological economics was founded as a modern movement in the works of and interactions between various European and American academics. The related field of green economics is, in general, a more politically applied form of the subject.

According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation. Ecological economists have questioned fundamental mainstream economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis, and the separability of economic values from scientific research, contending that economics is unavoidably normative rather than positive (empirical). Positional analysis, which attempts to incorporate time and justice issues, is proposed as an alternative.

A primary objective of ecological economics (EE) is to ground economic thinking and practice in physical reality, especially in the laws of physics (particularly the laws of thermodynamics) and in knowledge of biological systems. It accepts as a goal the improvement of human well-being through development, and seeks to ensure achievement of this through planning for the sustainable development of ecosystems and societies. Of course the terms development and sustainable development are far from lacking controversy. Richard B. Norgaard argues traditional economics has hi-jacked the development terminology in his book Development Betrayed.

Well-being in ecological economics is also differentiated from welfare as found in mainstream economics and the 'new welfare economics' from the 1930s which informs resource and environmental economics. This entails a limited preference utilitarian conception of value i.e., Nature is valuable to our economies, that is because people will pay for its services such as clean air, clean water, encounters with wilderness, etc.

Ecological economics is distinguishable from neoclassical economics primarily by its assertion that the economy is embedded within an environmental system. Ecology deals with the energy and matter transactions of life and the Earth, and the human economy is by definition contained within this system. Ecological economists argue that neoclassical economics has ignored the environment, at best considering it to be a subset of the human economy.

The neoclassical view ignores much of what the natural sciences have taught us about the contributions of nature to the creation of wealth e.g., the planetary endowment of scarce matter and energy, along with the complex and biologically diverse ecosystems that provide goods and ecosystem services directly to human communities: micro- and macro-climate regulation, water recycling, water purification, storm water regulation, waste absorption, food and medicine production, pollination, protection from solar and cosmic radiation, the view of a starry night sky, etc.

There has then been a move to regard such things as natural capital and ecosystems functions as goods and services. However, this is far from uncontroversial within ecology or ecological economics due to the potential for narrowing down values to those found in mainstream economics and the danger of merely regarding Nature as a commodity. This has been referred to as ecologists 'selling out on Nature'. There is then a concern that ecological economics has failed to learn from the extensive literature in environmental ethics about how to structure a plural value system.

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