Canopy Hang-out by Carlos Pérez Naval. Highly Commended in the 11-14 Years category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2019.

Canopy Hang-out by Carlos Pérez Naval. Highly Commended in the 11-14 Years category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2019. Carlos' image was used in The Dasgupta Review.

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The world's obsession with economic growth is killing nature, report finds

Changing our economic system would create a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world for everyone.

In the west, nature has historically been left out of economics. A major new review is hoping to change that.   

Eminent economist Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta has led a review into how the world's financial systems have failed nature, and what we can do about it.  

Commissioned by HM Treasury, The Dasgupta Review explains that because we rely on nature for so much (including food, water, oxygen and a safe climate), nature is an asset to us just like roads, buildings, knowledge and skills. 

Beyond that, it's more than just an economic asset because it also has a worth of its own. You could compare it to human health: we value our health because it allows us to lead more active lives, and also because it's simply more pleasant to feel healthy. Likewise, we need nature to stay alive, but we also enjoy it when we experience it. 

People who manage very large sums of money are sometimes called asset managers. The review argues that we are all asset managers when it comes to nature, even if we're not farmers or fishers or foresters. 

But we have managed our asset very badly. The prosperity that humans have enjoyed (on the whole) over the last few decades has come at what The Dasgupta Review calls a 'devastating price'. The standard of living of the average person is higher than ever, but biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. 

This is partly because many countries measure progress through economic growth, the increase in the value of our national output. Governments place economic growth above all other priorities, but many have questioned how sustainable that's going to be. 

The review argues that instead of focusing on growth, countries should focus on wealth, and include nature in the list of things which might make a country or person wealthy. 

It says, 'Sustainable economic growth and development requires us to take a different path, where our engagements with nature are not only sustainable, but also enhance our collective wealth and well-being and that of our descendants.' 

In the review, Prof Sir Dasgupta calls the degradation of nature an institutional failure, saying, 'Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities.' 

A colourful squid in the dark of the deep sea.

Night Glow by Cruz Erdmann. This image was awarded the Young Grand Title Winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and was used in The Dasgupta Review.

What's the solution?

Currently, we are asking too much of the natural world, which presents a risk to both the economy and the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. We need transformative change.

Prof Sir Dasgupta recommends three areas of change:

  1. Ensure that our demands on nature do not exceed its supply.
  2. Change the way we think about economic success.
  3. Transform our finance and education systems.

To make it easier for nature to provide for us, we need to find better, more efficient ways of farming that will both preserve wild spaces and create jobs at the same time.

The world also needs to get used to the idea of consuming less and reusing, recycling and sharing what we have much more than we do now. Governments can nudge this along with policies that change prices and behavioural norms. 

Natural capital forms the bulk of wealth in low-income countries, and those on low incomes tend to rely more directly on nature, which means conserving and restoring our natural assets also contributes to alleviating poverty.

Countries also need to measure their wealth differently, not using gross domestic product (GDP), but by measuring all our assets, including nature.

We all need to help each other to protect the ecosystems on which we all rely, like rainforests and oceans. Financial investments need to be channelled into activities that support and protect nature. By contrast, billions of pounds are spent each year subsidising activities that run nature down. 

Plus, all of us need support in feeling connected to nature, and we need to help each other to demand change.

Prof Sir Partha says, 'The success stories from around the world highlighted throughout the Review show us what is possible. They also demonstrate that the same ingenuity that has led us to make demands on Nature that are so large, so damaging and over such a short period, can be redeployed to bring about transformative change, perhaps even in just as short a time. We and our descendants deserve nothing less.'