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 . . .

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What do you point at, Pointing Man?

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Today at Christie’s auction house a Picasso and a Giacometti became the highest priced painting and sculpture ever sold at auction.

It is the Giacometti work—a skeletal bronze called “Pointing Man, which sold for $US141 million—that I find myself drawn to and dwelling on. Almost six feet tall but with limbs as skinny as pipe cleaners, Pointing Man was created by the Swiss sculptor in 1947, when Europe was “in the grip of Existentialist angst,” as New York Times arts writer Scott Reyburn notes in a blog post about the auction.

Pointing Man (and other members of his sculptural family, such as the similarly emaciated Walking Man) seems the very embodiment of that period of questioning and despair. Sartre, the ur-existentialist, said of Giacometti’s sculptures that they were “halfway between nothingness and being.” “The flesh seems eaten off by a terrible surrounding emptiness,” notes the Museum of Modern Art. Giacometti called the figures “skeletons in space.”

The consumption of existence by the void was not just Giacometti’s subject, it was his artistic method. He would often start with a plaster figure 18 inches tall, wrote his biographer James Lord, then scrape away at it until it had “shrunk to the size of a pin.” As often as not, he would scrape through the night until there was nothing left but dust, or throw away some tiny nubbin of plaster in despair that he couldn’t convey his vision of reality. In the morning, his wife would rescue these rejects from the rubbish while the artist slept.

“I always have the impression or the feeling of the frailty of living beings,” Giacometti said. “And it is in their frailty that my sculptures are likenesses.”

It is in this respect that I have been thinking that Pointing Man would make a good mascot—or rather anti-mascot—for the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which we are said to be living.

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