Picture credit: Dasgupta, P. (2021), The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. (London: HM Treasury). licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
In 1999, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L Hunter Lovins published a much hyped book in the development of environmental economics. “This is a huge deal” the then US president Bill Clinton said of Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution.
But was it?
The hype at the time was that this would finally make economists and law makers price the natural world into the balance sheets and account books of their economies, and that it was this that would ultimately save the natural world. Over twenty years since the book was published, and an HM Treasury commissioned report – The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, which was published in February – has advised the UK finance ministry to do…well, more or less the same thing as was advised by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins two decades ago.
Criticism of repetition is perhaps a little unfair as the review’s purpose is to bring together various ideas and recommendations made over the years to facilitate policy development aimed at reversing the tragic biodiversity loss that is becoming the defining characteristic of our times. And it is hardly the fault of Dasgupta et al. that previous recommendations need restating. The point, however, is simply that there is little in the review that is particularly new; that there is something rather disheartening in seeing the same things recommended time and again precisely because they have not been acted upon (you don’t need to recommend something that’s already in place).
The review itself is nonetheless an encouraging and inspiring document that has learned from mistakes of the recent past and seems to have genuinely attempted to at least address (if not fully counter) the key criticisms of what has come to be called the natural capital approach. For example, there is a recognition of nature as an end in itself; that its value extends beyond the merely instrumental:
Additionally, the review:
And at the heart of the review lies the wisdom, which shows signs of finally becoming the dominant common sense, that acting now is better for the economy in the long term; that inaction is far more costly than action:
I myself continue to have reservations about conceiving nature in the language of economics and capitalism. I can only hope that it acts as a translation, furthering pro-ecological ends, rather than a misguided reduction that distracts from the work that needs to be done and the difficult decisions that need to be made. For a clear break down of the critique of natural capital, see the below talk by George Monbiot (I linked to a Monbiot presentation in my last post – I hadn’t realised I was such a Monbiot stan!)
So what are the key recommendations?
1. Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.
2. Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.
3. Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.
Recommendation 1 speaks for itself and states the overall mission that should be adopted by all governments world-wide.
Recommendation 2, however, is where I believe the Dasgupta review shows signs of being quite radical:
Instead, Dasgupta advises that an “inclusive” measure of wealth is needed i.e. one that incorporates nature and accounts for the costs of the depreciation of “natural assets”. It is important to remember that this is not a review commissioned by any “hippy do-gooders” at the environment ministry. This is for the hard-nosed economists of the UK Treasury whose jobs demand they treat GDP with religious devotion. To advise governments to move beyond the simplicity of GDP as the most important measure, and growth economics more generally, is certainly not original, but it is radical and another sign of a turn in the general common sense.
Regarding my own research – the conceptualisation of an emerging natural resource (marine carbon sequestration and storage) and its required governance – recommendation 3 is exciting and affirming:
It is an example of my own field in context, stating the importance of international institutions and modes of governance for ecosystems that care little for human-conceived borders. It inspires me to work on my research with more passion and urgency and makes me hopeful that my developing expertise will be highly relevant in the years to follow. Indeed, the turn towards a more green economy – for a recent example, see the outgoing head of the OECD stating the need to prioritise climate change and biodiversity going forward – is evidence that we environmental PhDs are quite well placed and that the future looks bright for green postgrad jobs.
Ultimately, however, following my earlier point, it all comes down to politics, as the review acknowledges:
Recommendations are just that, recommendations, they sit on a shelf and gather dust unless acted upon. While we wait to see if the political class will follow their rhetoric with action, we can at least take inspiration from the Dasgupta review and find hope in the idea that we have placed ourselves, as environmental researchers, in a strong position to contribute to the economic changes that are required, and hopefully on the way, in the next few decades.
(all embedded images courtesy of https://www.pxfuel.com/)