The Dasgupta Interim Review on the Economics of Biodiversity – Feedback

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On 30th April 2020, an Interim Report on The Economics of Biodiversity was published by the UK government. Commissioned by UK Treasury and led by economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, the report is shorthanded as ‘The Dasgupta Review’, following the  tradition established by the 2014 ‘Stern Review’ on The Economics of Climate Change authored by economist Professor Lord Nicholas Stern.

The report invited feedback saying ‘To support the ongoing work of the Review, we would welcome feedback in response to the below questions relating to the detail set out in this interim report’ (p. 54). My response to the Interim Report, hereafter ‘The Review’, is structured around the four questions asked in Section 3 of the report.

 

1. Are there aspects of the key concepts outlined in this interim report that are not logical, clearly explained or that you have questions about? Please explain.

I applaud The Review’s clear statement that ‘the economy’ and economic activity generally are embedded in the biosphere – as in the important acknowledgement ‘that humanity and our economies are embedded in the biosphere’ (p. 5) – and the assertion that this will help us ‘to recognise the limits Nature places on the economy’ (p. 6).

At the same time, I think a number of problematic conceptual issues remain in the report that are detrimental in terms of supporting an adequate response to the severity of damage to both ecosystems and society (as outlined at various places in The Review, for e.g. pp. 2, 19-42). Below I summarise some conceptual challenges posed by the ‘key concepts’ utilised in The Review:

 

‘… without Nature there would be no life’ (p. 2).
This strange statement opens the Introduction to The Review. It seems to propose Nature (the capital is important here) to be something of a distant metaphysical ideal, perhaps akin to a transcendent God, from which ‘life’ emerges. In doing so, the statement seems to downplay how human embodied life is intimately a part of (rather than apart from) ‘nature’ too. We do not only ‘rely on Nature’ (p. 2). We are nature, and actions that enhance ecological flourishing are also actions that nourish ourselves. I appreciate that The Review makes this point later in the report – thus ‘[i]t is only when we appreciate that we are part of Nature and that Nature nurtures us that we will have fewer needs for reviews on the economics of biodiversity’ (p. 49). Opening The Review with this latter observation would perhaps set a different ‘tone’ from the outset.

 

The Review follows the statement ‘without Nature there would be no life’ almost immediately with two constructed economic metaphors, speaking of these as if they are revealed fact rather than very specific frames for conceptualising human relationships with beyond-human natures.The first metaphor is that ‘Biodiversity plays an important role in the provision of many of the services we receive from Nature’. A foundational key concept in The Review is thus shown to be that ‘biodiversity’, i.e. the full diversity of present life on earth (as defined on p. 8) exists as a ‘provider of services’ to people, these services flowing from ‘stocks of natural capital’ (pp. 8, 13). This concept of nature and biodiversity being a ‘service provider’ to people is highly constructed and contested, however, as well as historically very recent. A different way of conceptualising human relationships with beyond-human natures might effect a complete reversal of this relationship by enhancing a sense of ‘people serving nature’, or at least of the relationship being more fully reciprocal than the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘service-provider’ metaphors permit1.The conceptualisation of ‘biodiversity’ as playing ‘an important role in the provision of many of the services we receive from Nature’ (p. 2) is followed in the next sentence by a second metaphor. This is that the diversity component of biodiversity can be construed as akin to ‘a portfolio of natural assets’ that metaphorically exists in a relation to risk and uncertainty that is ‘just as’ how ‘diversity within a portfolio of financial assets’ spreads risk for investors (p. 2, emphasis added).

Somewhat confusingly, The Review later states quite categorically that ‘Biodiversity is not an asset. Rather, it is a descriptive feature of assets we call ecosystems’ (p. 16). Nonetheless, in the Introduction to The Review, the swift metaphorical move from ‘biodiversity’ to ‘natural assets’ that are just as ‘financial assets’ forms the conceptual basis for much of the analysis and proposals that follow in The Review. It is repeated, for example, in the underpinning concepts that include a view of ‘Nature’ ‘as an asset, just as produced and human capital are assets’, an acknowledgement ‘that we are failing to manage our assets efficiently’, and that ‘the loss of Nature’ can be understood ‘as an asset management problem’ such that what we must do is ‘manage our overall stock of all capital assets more efficiently’ (p. 5, emphasis added, also pp. 14, 18). This metaphorical elision of ‘biological diversity’ and ‘produced and human capital’ is highly problematic, so much so that it is possible it will act against the intentions of The Review towards amplifying socioecological resilience and regeneration.2

There are three main reasons for why this metaphorical move is problematic:

  1. the reframing of ‘biodiversity’ as ‘a diversity of natural assets’ akin to ‘a diversity of financial assets’ (and/or ‘produced and human capital’ assets) does violence to the meaning of the term biodiversity, as originally conceptualised. The neologism ‘biodiversity’ entangles two terms – ‘biological’ and ‘diversity’ – with biological diversity first coined around a century ago as follows: ‘[t]he bare statement that the region contains a flora rich in genera and species and of diverse geographic origin or affinity is entirely inadequate as a description of its real biological diversity’3. Effecting a conceptual transformation of the diversity of species and genera into a ‘portfolio of natural assets’ shifts attention away from the embodied presences and particularities of different kinds of ‘genera and species’. In doing so significant epistemic violence is done to the original meaning of the term ‘biological diversity’, because it is hard to imagine how diverse financial assets can be in any way equivalent to the array of qualitative differences in life-forms making up biological diversity. As such, the elision between ‘biological diversity’ and financial assets here is unhelpful if it is the health and care of material and embodied natures and the inter-relationships between diversities of life-forms that is to be effected by a revised ‘economics of biodiversity’. Indeed, given that the first of the 2010 Aichi Targets of Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD), i.e. that “people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably”, has clearly not been met, it is surely time to consider whether it might in fact be the very drive to construe nature’s ‘value’ in primarily economic terms (as, for example, in the major UN/EU TEEB programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) that has been a major part of this failure;
  2. nature’s diversity and associated emergent and unpredictable complexity behaves in very different ways to a portfolio of financial (or other) capital assets. This means that serious category errors are effected in the conceptual elision between nature’s diversity and a diverse portfolio of financial assets. One dimension here is in terms of ‘efficiency’. Biological and ecological understandings of ‘biological diversity’ might note, for example, that proliferation, excess and ‘redundancy’ are features of such diversity, and seem to be important for conferring resilience4. Indeed, ecosystems might in some respects be seen to be highly inefficient. Simultaneously, the imposed rationalisations effected for efficient commercial productivity of single items is one of the primary causes of biodiversity disruption and decline. Efficiency in commercial mass production of single products, for example, is why timber is produced in monocultures, and plantation crops create water-intensive ‘green deserts’. In some respects, then, economic efficiency is seriously inappropriate as a lens through which to consider the resilience and regeneration of biological and ecosystem diversity. It is additionally disastrous when considering the reductions of cultural and linguistic diversities effected through the institution of efficient industrial and monocultural production globally;
  3. the conceptual conversion of nature’s diversity and complexity into a portfolio of financial and produced assets can permit the real material capture of ‘natural assets’ onto the balance sheets of those able to hold such portfolios of financial(ised) assets5. This problem is one of potentially amplifying the serious economic inequalities underscoring the resource appropriations causing environmental decline and socioeconomic deprivation as two sides of the same political economic coin6.

 

The introduction to The Review correctly states the severity of the problems linked with mistreatment of biodiversity and ecosystems and these concerns are elaborated elsewhere in The Review. The causes of these declines are not well articulated, however, and this oversight critically hampers the identification of appropriate responses. For example, it seems to me to be untenable to approach biodiversity decline as an asset management problem, without foregrounding the historical and present roles of appropriation and colonisation underscoring present socioecological damage globally. Biodiversity decline is foundationally not a problem of unpriced externalities or poor ‘asset management’ (pp. 16-17). It is an outcome of a colonising mindset that promotes a hyperseparation between humans and other types of beings, and rewards individuals and organisations able to appropriate and transform land, other species and people into capital assets and commodities.

 

Regarding the use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ (p. 3) as the term used by ‘Earth scientists’ to name ‘the new age we have entered … in which human activity has become the dominant influence on the biosphere’, please note that this term has not to my knowledge been formally approved as a recognised subdivision of geological time7. Thus, although the term might be useful heuristically, technically it is not accurate to say that ‘Earth scientists have named the new age we have entered ‘the Anthropocene’’ (p. 3). Indeed, if the term is being used heuristically to point towards the environmental significance of human activity then a more heuristically accurate term for the era in which we find ourselves is perhaps the ‘Capitalocene’8. Although clumsy, this term foregrounds the role of capital/ism in forcing the transformations and ‘great acceleration’ of the present moment, as well as highlighting that it is not ‘humanity’ in general that has forced these changes, but the owners of capital and the entrepreneurial and state-supported desire for capital accumulation.

 

It is frustrating to see The Review repeat ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ assertions that ‘Nature is free at source and open to all’ and that this gives rise to ‘externalities’ as the ‘unaccounted-for consequences for others’ (p. 16); as well as that the worth of Nature to society is effectively unpriced because ‘the private rate for investment in most of Nature remains low, even zero’ (p. 17). These assertions make sense within the conceptual worldview of capitalism, for it is within capitalism that the value of ‘Nature’ is apparently ‘low, even zero’, such that what is valued is only nature’s transformation, via the application of human labour, into produced and/or financial capital that can be owned as enclosed property. The lack of acknowledgement in The Review of the historical, cultural and class specificities that make possible the ‘truths’ of these assertions, makes the rest of the analysis a very blunt instrument for understanding the damage to diverse socioecologies effected by this mode of production as it has taken hold globally. At the heart of this observation are the diverse cultural modes of value and valuation enacted historically and across the globe, diversities that are as threatened as ‘biological diversity’ by the economics of neoliberal capitalism9.

 

In part, the conceptual issues raised above emerge from the fact that the intended audience of The Review ‘is economic and finance decision makers in the public and private sector’, amidst an aim ‘to shape international response to biodiversity loss’ in advance of the 15th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the CBD (p. 5). Given, however, that the issue of biodiversity loss is relevant to ‘us all’, and that it is unclear that it is economics that has the answers to this problem, it seems critical to widen both the scope of who The Review is intended to speak to, and the circle of expertise that can contribute to the framing of issues in The Review.

 


2. Are there any important issues or concepts not adequately considered? Please explain.

I think that for The Review to more foundationally attend to the issues of its concern – particularly ‘what we must urgently do differently to enhance our collective wealth and well-being, and that of our descendants’ (p. 3) – a radical rethinking of the concepts on which it is built is needed. I have indicated above some possibilities in this regard. A rethinking and reemphasis along these lines would, I think, bring to the fore some rather different issues and possible responses and in doing so move more meaningfully beyond business-as-usual. In particular, it is very noticeable that while underpinning concepts include ‘confronting difficult questions’ such as around ‘what and how we consume, how we manage our waste, and the role family planning and reproductive health can play’ (p. 6), the role(s) of economic inequality and the maldistribution of land and resources are not foregrounded as critical underpinning concepts for The Review. Similarly, whilst the need to ‘reshape our understanding of sustainable economic growth’ is foregrounded, there is an avoidance of the dissonance between simultaneously affirming ‘the limits Nature places on the economy’ and affirming ‘sustainable economic growth’ (pp. 6, 7).

Given the present shock to the UK economy and to peoples’ well-being presented by COVID19 (as noted on p. 3), we are in a prime moment for articulating and considering alternative issues, concepts and approaches. I have listed a few below in response to Question 4.

 

 

3. Are there any further suggestions you have for improving the Review’s intellectual foundations on the economics of biodiversity?

Figure 1.B showing ‘The relationship between the economy and the biosphere’, which also appears on the front cover of the report, seems strange. This is the Figure:

 

This figure seems to depict ‘economic activity’ in ‘the north’ (although including what looks like the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt) emerging from a ‘global south’, predominantly Africa, depicted in terms of continental outline only. For a report emerging from UK circumstances, it is unclear why a figure like this that draws attention to the land-mass of Africa rather than the UK is being used. I strongly urge reconsideration of this image. It can be read as depicting a neo-colonial development relationship between ‘north’ and ‘south’, with Africa specifically perhaps supplying raw materials for development in ‘the north’.

 

4. What else should the Review consider in developing the options for change?

As noted above, an opportunity exists for articulating and considering very different framings of both problems and possibilities for change regarding socioecological concerns. In terms of possibilities for change, these might include emphases on the following dimensions:

 

Well-being

The Review frequently speaks of achieving ‘economic prosperity’ (e.g. p. 4). It is encouraging, however, that ‘the current health crisis’ is also mentioned as ‘an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by’ the term ‘economic prosperity’ and elsewhere The Review speaks of ‘looking beyond GDP’ in maximising ‘our wealth and wellbeing’. The time of focusing on economic growth as the primary indication of prosperity and well-being is surely over. We need different measures of societal and ecological health. Numerous examples exist to demonstrate possibilities here, from economist Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth10 to the New Zealand prime-minister’s recent foregrounding of ‘societal well-being’ and her affirmation that politics needs ‘to be more altruistic, and more long-term, to address the deep-rooted challenges we’re grappling with as the economy changes’11. Given the significant changes already underway in the UK, an opportunity exists to respond by becoming a leader in amplifying societal and ecological well-being in ways that foreground different kinds of measures of wealth;

 

Universal basic income

One of these measures could be a guaranteed Universal Basic Income. As noted above, systemic and growing inequality lies at the heart of environmental decline. I would say that inequality is even more of a concern than population growth and indeed has been shown to be a strong predictor of biodiversity loss12. This point relates too to gender inequality (by which I mean income and other disparities based on whether a person is biologically sexed as male or female), a point enhanced by research (as referenced in The Review) showing that fertility has an inverse relationship with both economic security and, importantly, the educational, economic and political equality of women. A universal basic income is critical here for both relieving the multiple pressures effected by poverty and creating wider societal equalities. Ultimately, meaningful redistribution of land, property and resources is critical so as to engender and amplify the kinds of significant societal collective action needed to support broader environmental care objectives.

 

Serving nature

I think we need to abandon the framing of nature as a ‘service-provider’ whose services can be paid for and thus monetised, in favour of cultivating discourses that celebrate and encourage practices of human care for beyond-human natures, and normalises such values as the appropriate and right thing to do. Economic metaphors for human relationships with beyond-human natures instead are profoundly alienating. They are especially so given a context in which people have very unequal access to both the ‘services’ provided by beyond-human natures, and the so-called stocks of ‘natural capital’ providing these benefits.

 

 

Connected peer reviewed publications

Sullivan, S. 2018 Bonding nature(s)? Funds, financiers and values at the impact investing edge in environmental conservation, in Bracking, S., Fredriksen, A., Sullivan, S. and Woodhouse, P. (eds.) Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter. London: Routledge Explorations in Development Studies.

Sullivan, S. 2018 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies 31(3): 47-76.

Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2017 ‘Mathematics maybe, but not money‘: on balance sheets, numbers and nature in ecological accounting. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 30(7): 1459-1480, special issue on ‘Ecological accounts: making non-human worlds (in)visible during moments of socio-ecological transformation’, edited by Markus J. Milne, Shona L. Russell and Colin Dey.

Sullivan, S. 2017 Natural capital, fairytales and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.

Sullivan, S. 2014 The natural capital myth; or will accounting save the world? Preliminary thoughts on nature, finance and values. LCSV Working Paper 3.

Sullivan, S. 2013 Banking nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation. Antipode 45(1): 198-217.

 

 

Notes

  1. I have written about this framing problem and its historical emergence here: Sullivan, S. 2009 Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider. Radical Anthropology 3: 18-27.
  2. I am amongst numerous scholars and commentators who have written on these concerns. See, for example, Sullivan, S. 2018 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies 31(3): 47-76, and references therein. Also see Levidow, L. 2020 Turning Nature into an asset: corporate rent-seeking strategies, pp. 225-257 in Birch, K. and Muniesa, F. (eds.) Turning Things into Assets. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Arthur Harris, J. 1916 The variable desert. The Scientific Monthly 3(1): 41-50, p. 49.
  4. See, for example, Erhlich, P. 1988 Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. New York: Random House.
  5. As analysed in Sullivan, S. 2018 Bonding nature(s)? Funds, financiers and values at the impact investing edge in environmental conservation, pp. 101-121 in Bracking, S., Fredriksen, A., Sullivan, S. and Woodhouse, P. (eds.) Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter. London: Routledge Explorations in Development Studies.
  6. See, for example, Mikkelson, G., Gonzalez, A. and Peterson, G.D. 2007 Economic inequality predicts biodiversity loss. PloS ONE 2(5): e444.
  7. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene (last accessed 31 May 2020).
  8. This term has emerged within critical environmental history and historical geography, becoming linked with Donna Haraway who attributes the term to Swedish scholar Andreas Malm, as well as to the work of Jason Moore. See Haraway, D. 2015 Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165, p. 163.
  9. For fuller discussion of these intersections, see Sullivan, S. 2017 On ‘natural capital’, ‘fairy-tales’ and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.
  10. Jackson, T. 2009 Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. London: Routledge.
  11. Parker, C. 2019 New Zealand will have a new ‘well-being budget,’ says Jacinda Ardern. World Economic Forum.
  12. Mikkelson et al. 2007, op cit.

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