This post is by Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, chair of Green Alliance and member of the advisory panel of the Dasgupta Review.
I’ve served on so many official reviews over the last twelve months that my head should be spinning. I’ve loved them all, but the current one – the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity – may prove the most challenging and exciting yet.
To those of us who’ve worked in the field of nature protection for a long time, and despaired of getting the turnaround we so badly need, this report offers hope. Real hope. But it will only be delivered if it goes with an acceptance of some basic truths, and the adoption of some new principles.
A crystal clear message
The interim report describes the economic analysis that will underpin our final report. It’s written in academic language, but its message is crystal clear. Some of it sounds so obvious that it should not need stressing, but the fact is it does, because we have presided over a terrifying decline in both nature and the systems that underpin it. This, if we do not respond now, will be our collective undoing.
The report’s argument goes like this.
All human and other life on earth is dependent on the biosphere and the ecosystems that form it. Ecosystems are assets like any others, and if we viewed them that way we would both understand and look after them better. In fact, we calculate that they give an annual rate of return of +19 per cent, far greater than most conventional assets if only we acknowledged it.
But we don’t, because ecosystems, unlike many other assets, don’t have a value in our economic system. Nor do we capture the externalities (uncounted costs) of many of the things we do. So we have, for too long, taken nature for granted and exploited it.
A key reason for this is that the economic models we use today don’t recognise that humans are embedded within nature, viewing us instead as something apart and somehow independent.
In fact, ecosystems have an astonishing capacity for regeneration, but since around 1950 (the beginning of what we call the Anthropocene) the rate of our exploitation has overtaken their regenerative ability. They are now declining dangerously. Planetary boundaries are being breached and we are reaching tipping points from which we cannot return. Our current pattern of living globally requires 1.7 earths.
If we accept this analysis, if we are to restore nature and live within its capacity to regenerate and secure our long term future, we have to change our economic models and systems; and our mindsets and institutions; and our behaviour. So what must we do?
The main drivers of our exploitation (there are others) are population growth and human consumption, which have outstripped both the stock and the capacity of our ecosystems to regenerate and thus produce what humans need to survive. We won’t succeed unless we address these factors. And what we describe in the interim report as the ‘Impact Inequality’ shows just how far adrift we are from a sustainable state.
It will be the task of the full report to explain what we need to do, but there are some clear signals in this interim report.
Three areas of action are needed
Fundamentally, we have to get to a point where we operate within the limits of the regenerative capacity of earth’s ecosystems. We suggest action in three areas:
1. Change the trajectory
We must change the trajectory of the metrics that are driving the most damaging changes. Education, especially of women, has been shown to reduce family size and population growth, but there is less evidence of effective measures to reduce consumption and better manage waste. These are urgent priorities.
2. Change our models and systems
We need to change our economic and institutional models to recognise that we operate within and not independently from nature. For example, we will need to:
– stop using perverse subsidies, which fund, however indirectly, the loss or damage of ecosystems to achieve short term economic goals (for example many agricultural subsidies are perverse);
– as a first step, change the metrics we use to indicate success; for example, GDP has no balance sheet; a new measure of NDP (Net Domestic Product) would at least include, crucially, depreciation;
– adopt the ambition of sustaining, for the long term, inclusive wealth. This concept embraces all our capital goods: produced, human and natural, and needs to be built into our economic systems and institutional rules, including accounting systems.
3. Value nature
Finally, we must all learn to value nature for the intrinsic benefits it offers us, by giving everyone access to nature and green space, and educating our children about its importance culturally, emotionally and spiritually.
This is a radical analysis and there will be radical recommendations which flow from it. But perhaps the very moment when we are reeling from the impacts of a pandemic caused at least in part by our exploitation of natural systems, is the best time of us all to rethink our priorities and embrace a future where we realise, and embrace, the centrality of natural systems to our collective future.