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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