Another Life: UK report urges global policies to meet hidden costs of ecological damage

Michael Viney: Education in nature from an early age recommended by author

 Bumblebee on flower

Bumblebee on flower

 

For those who think there’s still time to save what’s left of the planet’s natural world, a 600-page report commissioned in the UK by Her Majesty’s Treasury makes absorbing and sometimes surprising lockdown reading. It arrives as Ireland’s losses and failures are given fresh exposure by the National Biodiversity Forum.

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, by Prof Philip Dasgupta of Cambridge University, is the first such study to be sponsored at such a lofty financial level. As an independent, global assessment, its breadth, authority and urgency are a match for the Stern review of 2006, which helped launch UK action on climate change.

Dasgupta insists that our species is embedded in nature and dependent on its services and that we’ve plundered its assets in pursuit of wrong ideas about perpetual economic growth. He urges global policies that put a value on natural assets and meet the hidden costs of ecological damage.

All that, you would think, should make him a goodie in the eyes of anyone green. Sir David Attenborough endorses him in a foreword and a wide sample of expert reaction, online at the Science Media Centre, is warmly approving.

There are some, however, who have a gut reaction against putting the natural world into anyone’s capitalist portfolio. Their views are championed in the UK, for example, by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot.

“The notion that nature exists to serve us,” he argues, “that its value consists of the instrumental benefits we can extract, that this value can be measured in cash terms, and that what can’t be measured does not matter, have proved lethal to the rest of life on Earth.”

To assess if ecosystems have moral standing, he even goes so far as to suggest that a useful comparison is with ourselves

This is less than fair to Dasgupta . He grants that giving value to nature only in terms of contribution to human wellbeing “is an altogether limited point of view . . .[people] could ask, for example, whether the biosphere had value before modern humans appeared on the scene some 200,000 years ago”.

He wrestles at length with the philosophical problem of putting a price on nature. “The sacredness of Nature,” he writes, “points to an existence value, even intrinsic worth, that we impart to it.” There are even legal studies that propose “wild law”, giving rights to plants, animals and ecosystems.

To assess if ecosystems have moral standing, he even goes so far as to suggest that a useful comparison is with ourselves. He weighs arguments for the “personhood” of ecosystems that an economist may find “strange and muddy”. But they offer, he suggests, “the first step towards an understanding of the full value of Nature, including its moral worth”.

His “limited point of view” finds gross domestic product, the usual national barometer of wealth, a wholly unsuitable measure of sustainable economic growth.

With the natural world “our most precious asset”, governments have to find ways of protecting it – with investments in forests, soils and the oceans and with nature embedded into all economic decisions.

He sees beginnings in China’s Gross Ecosystem Product and New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework. But he urges transformative global change in attitudes to nature on a scale to match the economic Marshall Plan that followed the second World War.

It is less costly to conserve nature, he insists, than try to restore it. Protected areas need proper funding for management, a point that chimes well with a critical new report from Ireland’s National Biodiversity Forum. A red flag.

His review is an up-to-the minute survey of biodiversity science, but also of relevant human behaviour

Reviewing implementation of the current Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021, it finds “a very disturbing picture of losses and declining trends. Two-thirds of wild bird species are red or amber listed birds of conservation concern, one third of wild bee species are threatened with extinction and 85 per cent of internationally important habitats are ‘unfavourable’ . . .”

A key cause is “political failure to adequately fund the National Parks and Wildlife Service and to ensure that sectoral policies work with nature rather than against it”. Or, as Dasgupta observes: “We rarely appreciate the presence of regulating and maintenance services – it is only when they are absent that we feel their worth.” Nature’s losses, he adds, are abetted by its “mobility, silence, invisibility”.

His review is an up-to-the minute survey of biodiversity science, but also of relevant human behaviour. Education in nature from an early age comes high among his urgings for change, even to a basic course in ecology, plus field work, for all first-year university students.

This can be an intellectually taxing report, and I wonder how many TDs and Ministers would be prepared to read it.

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