Bridging the economy/environment divide

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Achim Steiner addresses media at the World Parks Congress, Sydney, November 2014

At last year’s World Parks Congress—a gathering of the “protected areas community” held every ten years under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—there was much talk about the need to recognise the economic contribution of parks and other protected areas.

One of the clearest advocates for an economic transformation in which natural capital is recognised and explicitly valued was Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and under-secretary-general of the UN.

“We need to bring into the treasuries and ministries of finance and the systems of rational accounting a much better appreciation of the value that protected areas deliver,” he told congress delegates in Sydney. As competition for resources and public finance intensifies, societies will not invest in nature protection without an economic justification, he said.

Traditional markets have a role to play, says Steiner. Although markets have historically treated the environment as a limitless (and therefore unpriced) good, they are an essential mechanism for restoring nature “to its rightful place at the centre of well-being, which is the ultimate purpose of the economy.” By giving due weight to the economic performance of natural capital, markets can undergird, rather than undermine, nature protection.

Indeed, until the environment’s economic contributions are included in national and corporate balance sheets, he says, a true accounting will not occur. “Conventional measurements of both macro- and microeconomic performance—GDP and corporate profit respectively—are substantially wrong because externalities are not accounted for, and they will continue to be wrong until the valuing of economic activities also includes their impacts, and the assessment of profits also value the negative externalities of business. In short, you cannot manage what you do not measure.”

In the midst of such commentary on the economics of nature, Steiner made a surprising comment. “I believe that the entire Planet Earth is a sacred site; one that sustains life, prosperity, civilization and spiritual values.”

In conversation with Steiner, I asked him how he reconciled such incommensurate values as sacredness with the metrics of economic markets. Here are some edited excerpts from that discussion . . .

KW: I pricked up my ears when I heard you say that protected areas contribute to an understanding that there is something sacred about the planet. We are in a time of the relentless monetisation of nature, and you yourself—

AS: —could be part of the problem [laughs]

—well, you speak, as we all do now, this language of ecosystem services and economic benefits, but what I struggle with is the fact that this seems to feed into a human-dominant, anthropocentric, business-as-usual mindset, and I think that’s a problem. Even as we speak, the G20 summit is about to get under way in Brisbane. They’re going to be talking about growing the economy, and here we’re talking about growing the environment, and never the twain shall meet. Well, of course, sustainable development is supposed to be where the twain do meet, but it seems that it will be on the economy’s terms, rather than on the environment’s terms. How do we overcome this seeming impasse between environmental and economic priorities?

It’s a vital question. There is no doubt that economics has become a powerful tool by which we transact decisions that we take in our societies. But I try to distinguish between economics as a discipline and the different economic paradigms that societies adopt. I think what we in the environmental community have to appreciate is that we argue from the vantage point of an ecological rationale on which we superimpose certain ethical values and questions. Is a life tomorrow worth more than a life today? How do you trade off between the two? This is where I think the 20th-century economic paradigm has to some extent led us astray. It has traded off an ethic concerning intergenerational equity or even present-day equity for a theory that as long as we have economic growth everybody will be better off.

Let us be honest: that paradigm has worked for many people for a long time. Basic services today are available to hundreds of millions more people than they were even 20 years ago. So to deny the 20th-century paradigm that if you grow you can make everybody better off would be wrong.

However, a few things have happened to change the picture. One is equity. Another is sustainability. We have reached a point where that notion of better life through greater growth is no longer sustainable from a social or an environmental point of view. Here economics becomes a double-edged sword. It can be an ideology and a paradigm that forces you to submit yourself to the logic of the so-called forces of the market, or it can be a way of shaping markets. I would argue that we have for decades if not centuries, in a simpler form, taken social, ethical public choices to regulate markets. Markets do not simply function like a law of physics. They are social constructs and they embody choices. That’s why you have a Scandinavian model of a social welfare state and a United States model of a social welfare state—two very different choices and pathways.

Given the influence and significance of financial and economic parameters for public policy today—the crudest being GDP growth, but also unemployment, inflation and so on—we need to be able to relate what we know about the ecology of the planet to an arena in which the discussions are not about species diversity and ecosystem resilience but about livelihood opportunities and employment levels. And this is where the concept of a green economy becomes immensely powerful, because it brings the domain of ecology and natural science together with economy and social science.

So we need to disentangle the two uses of economics you’re talking about? To distinguish the tactical uses of economics from ideological economic theories about growth and free markets?

I think it’s vital, because otherwise we become enslaved to some very parochial and narrow interests.

Economy vs environment—in New Zealand it’s a dualism and a battle that has come to be expected and almost unquestioned in decisions about resource use and development. There are going to be these two sides to every question, and the only way to resolve the question is an adversarial push and shove as often as not arbitrated by the environment court. What troubles me is that we seem to be locked into this split. There’s no ability or incentive for either side to give ground, because it’s a war out there.

I see three phenomena at play here. One is that choices need to be made, and some are in the short, medium and long term. The short term, as an exclusive horizon, presents a very different set of choices to be made than the medium or long term. So, for example, in the short term we have coal, we will use coal, it’s the cheapest way to get our lights on, and I don’t have any responsibility to the medium or long term because that’s somebody else’s problem. So that’s the first schism in this debate—the time horizons. And it takes a degree of courage and personal commitment to not rationalise life in favour of the short term.

The second one is that it’s sometimes quite comfortable to be in opposing camps. It’s always easier to attack the other side rather than begin to construct bridges that are never clear-cut, and often uncomfortably complex, but allow us in fact to move toward one another. So polarity in politics, polarity in society, polarity in the environmental movement—we have the goods and the other side is wrong. Life is much simpler that way.

The third phenomenon is that the level of knowledge we have today about what’s happening to our planet, about ecology, atmospheric science, the basic biochemistry of our planet, means that we are in a very different moment in history. We know so much more about the consequences of our actions today. Ignorance is no longer a valid rationale for making certain choices. So, for instance, we know enough about climate change to make judgments about the risks of acting or not acting.

We also know that with seven billion people, at the level of resource consumption and inefficiency that we operate now, we are hitting real planetary boundaries, and that’s where you come into the notion of living in the Anthropocence. To me, you can opt for an Anthropocene narrative that says, “Because we humans are so immensely powerful and have proven in just a few hundred years that we are capable of affecting, degrading and perhaps ultimately destroying the fundamental life-support systems on the planet, the age of the Anthropocene is the doom and gloom scenario of planet Earth.”

Or you can opt for a different narrative, which recognises that we are the first generation that lives in the realisation that we have fundamentally changed planetary systems, but that we have a level of scientific knowledge and technology, plus the economic means, to choose different directions as no generation has had before. The Anthropocene could be the enlightened age of different choices.

Which narrative will prevail?

I think we will more likely go for the latter. Partly, the choice will be dictated by the reality of climate change. Never before in the history of human consciousness have we had to face, in the space of just a few decades, the fundamental questioning of an entire age of industrialisation and fossil-fuel-based development, forcing us to rethink the future of our economy. And let us not forget that environmentalism has been fantastically influential in a very short period of time. We’re talking today about a circular economy, about a recycling economy, about an energy revolution in the way that we will power our economies. Just look in the last decade at the explosion of renewable energy onto the world’s energy markets. Yes, we are still accelerating in the wrong direction, but underneath that there is a phenomenally rapid emergence of new choices being not only available but also exercised. The question is: can we make this transition in a window of time that enables us, in climate change terms, to stay within the two-degree range—in what has been called a safe operating space for humanity?

I think it’s not a given which way the Anthropocene will play out. Arising from the ability of humans to influence planetary systems is the thought is that the planet is ours to manage. I don’t see a lot of sacredness in that equation. Sacredness seems to get squeezed well out of the picture, replaced by human-centred solutions. How does one find or create or foster a narrative to counter the hegemony of humans? What have you seen that counters the arrogance of that picture?

I have a very straight answer for that. I look into the eyes of an 8, 9, 10-year-old child when I tell them about what I do, what conservation is about, what looking after the planet means. There’s something immensely powerful about standing in front of a classroom of young children and talking about it. The amazing thing that happens—and it happens every time—is a natural understanding of what it is I’m talking about. And what that tells me is that the point of view of Homo sapiens as a greedy animal that is hell-bent on destroying the planet is not at all a DNA-programmed behavioural pattern. In fact, children grow up with an innate sense of a relationship with nature and the importance of looking after nature. What happens is we socialise, educate, rationalise, and that’s where the paradigm of the 20th century takes over.

Part of the problem is the way we impart knowledge. And the other part is about management. Let me explain how I understand that. The planet left to itself—or let’s say the planet five or six thousand years ago—did not require management, right? The planet looked after itself. Our challenge in the 21st century is this: how do you manage the presence of seven billion human beings with all their capacities to consume, to produce, to affect the planet?

Even 20 or 30 years ago there was the belief that what happens 100 years down the line is beyond my time horizon. What we struggle with today is the inability of us as humans to comprehend the magnitude, the scale and the speed with which changes are happening. It’s not part of our innate ability to comprehend that with seven billion people you can affect the entire atmosphere, fish the oceans empty, destroy entire ecosystems. What is going to define the next few decades is whether human consciousness, based on the drama of what we observe, can make the necessary changes to our social and economic behaviour. Framed that way, the Anthropocene becomes an enticing discourse and a way of thinking and talking about the future.

One thought on “Bridging the economy/environment divide

  1. Thanks Kennedy for today’s comments when on the National Programme. And for your continuing efforts to get the essence of our predicament across to the populace in ways that affects what politicians promote and decree. It’s a hard road we’re on.

    Best wishes,

    Brian Turner

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