08 Sep 2015
by Scott G. Blair

Can Adam Smith Ever Be Green?



The 27th Annual EAIE Conference in Glasgow is just around the corner. To warm you up to the multitude of issues that will be addressed in the days of the conference, we are running a week-long coverage of the 2015 Conference Conversation Starter here on the blog. Today’s post, the second of the series, tackles the legacy of one of Glasgow’s most notable scholars in history: Adam Smith. Whether you’re a fan or a foe of his work, this piece is guaranteed to incite reflection and get the conversation started!

Looking for commonalities between Scottish economist Adam Smith and the agenda of internationalisation of higher education in Europe today might strike many as an exercise in anachronistic thinking. It certainly did to me as I set out to write an article on the topic for the 2015 Conference Conversation Starter. What do student mobility, credit transfer, teaching in English, joint degrees, institutional partnerships, and global learning have to do with 18th century economic theory? If you think for a moment about the influence Adam Smith has had in shaping the economic rules of our modern world − and thus the outlook and experience of 20+ million students enrolled in European universities − the question becomes a bit more pertinent.

Why Adam Smith is important

In this spirit, let’s start with the question of his influence. Adam Smith’s classic treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 during the Scottish Enlightenment, marked the birth of modern capitalism and his idea about the causes of wealth − enlightened self-interest, the division of labour, and laissez-faire markets. It probably did more to raise global standards of living than any other idea in history. Smith published his book at the dawn of the industrial revolution and it was welcomed by an emerging class of businessmen, bankers, and proto-industrialists bridling against the interventionist and restrictive policies of that mercantilist age. Smith’s seminal book had a profound and long-lasting impact on popular attitudes and, indirectly, on the subsequent economic policies of governments.

Indeed, so influential were Adam Smith’s ideas about the underlying causes of productivity and wealth that most of today’s business practice, concepts and related terminology are directly associated with his work. Market economy, laissez-faire, free trade, economic individualism, enlightened self-interest, deregulation, supply and demand, competitive markets, resource allocation, equilibrium − these constitute the techniques, outlook and credo of economic orthodoxy prevailing in our modern world today. They originate with Adam Smith.

In short, what Newton did for physics, Darwin for biology, and Freud for psychology, Smith did for the nascent field of economics. He articulated the foundational principles of modern economic organisation and, in doing so, sparked the revolution in economic activity we call capitalism and which, with its spectacular success over time and space, we now call globalisation.

As such, Adam Smith’s work and influence as thinker, moralist and economist, his promotion of intellectual exchange, his enlightened rationality, his dedication to liberty and individualism, his innovative economic analysis, and his wide scholarship all still stand as worthy achievements upon which international educators and students might profitably reflect 250 years later.

And while few today have actually read The Wealth of Nations − a fate reserved, by the way, for many such modern classics − most would probably be familiar with its basic tenets as described above. More revealingly − and this is the important bit − most would probably also embrace as self-evident the basic premises Smith advances regarding the nature, processes and benefits of production and trade in today’s global economy. Smithian economic principles remain widely taught in business education programs across the globe.

Why Adam Smith is problematic

But here’s the rub: what Adam Smith could not know in his day, we have learned in ours: there are limits to economic expansion. Smith’s economic model is premised on ever-expanding growth, yet the real world system in which it operates is restricted both by finite resources and finite capacities to absorb waste, especially carbon waste in the form of climate warming CO2. Having paid very little heed to these restrictions, we should not be surprised by our poor record of environmental stewardship since we started reading (or not reading) The Wealth of Nations.

In fact, one might wonder whether the single most important problem we face in the 21st century − i.e. how to consume sustainably and share equitably − was inherent in Smith’s economic theories from the start. In such a case, educators charged with implementing a strategy of internationalisation, as well as articulating corresponding learning outcomes, might ponder what legacy of Adam Smith they can usefully pass on to students today.

This is the question I ponder in my essay for the Conference Conversation Starter, and because we don’t actually read Adam Smith on our own anymore and are thus largely taught only the pre-packaged and selective version of his thought − the laissez-faire and “invisible hand” part − I came out concluding that the work of Adam Smith, while historically important and certainly interesting, is in today’s world extremely hazardous for the welfare of the planet – given its failure to factor into the larger equation the externalities of global capitalism. These include the impact on the climate; the threat to flora and fauna; land, sea and air pollution; the inequitable distribution of global wealth; and the depletion of valuable finite resources.

Why Adam Smith should rest in peace

Given what Adam Smith says about ethics and moral consciousness in his other key publication, The Theory of Moral Sentiments − and what in fact comes close to articulating a proto-idea of sustainability − I think Adam Smith would be appalled at the spectacular ‘success’ of global capitalism that is today venerated in his name. And this is because today’s consumerist excesses and related environmental repercussions would have violated his 18th century moral principles and sense of natural harmony and equilibrium. Similarly, as a bright student studying logic and moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, he surely would see that today’s global economic processes − with his name all over them − are not sustainable in the 21st century.

In short, the urgency of sustainability is one too few students learn today, certainly in business and economic programmes but also across the disciplines. More to the point, it is certainly not a lesson students learn reading through Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The legacy of Adam Smith, as taught today, can never be a green one. Requiescat in pace should be our counsel.

Because if the internationalisation of higher education here in Europe is to have any meaningful ethical and moral grounding within today’s global ‘order’ − an order, by the way, under real and unprecedented systemic stress − the goal of environmental sustainability needs to be at the centre of the academy’s student learning outcomes. Despite his reputation − perhaps even because of it − I think Adam Smith would be the first to embrace this sort of forward-looking teaching and learning agenda.

Scott is a consultant for Transnational Learning Consulting.

If you’re joining us in Glasgow you’ll receive a hard copy of the Conference Conversation Starter on-site, but you can already sneak a peek at the full book by downloading it from My Conference. If you’re an EAIE member, you can find it in the Member Centre today. Make sure to stay tuned as we have more exclusive blog posts from contributors coming up this week!

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