New economical and philosophical thinking could help restore and preserve our planet’s biodiversity, writes Dr Anil Graves, senior lecturer at Cranfield University.
The Earth is our home and we cannot do without it. From an economic perspective, the creatures it has nurtured are the very basis of our prosperity. From a welfare perspective, they have provided us with essential life support services, protecting us from cosmic rays and providing us with breathable air. Our economies, whether free-market, or centralised, are dependent on the resources that the Earth has built up over millions of year, yet, at the same time, we use our planet as a dump for waste.
Given that the Earth is our only home, and that we are fundamentally and inextricably dependent on it and our fellow creatures, it is somewhat surprising that we are so cavalier, and frequently brutal in our relationship with it.
We are living through a sixth mass extinction, caused by ourselves. Our relentless search for profit strains and diminishes the earth’s functions.
Each year, billions of tonnes of resources and billions of tonnes of waste find their way into the environment.
When environmental assets and the benefits they provide are degraded or lost, this imposes real costs on society, which are often borne by third parties in the form of externalities.
The efficiency provided by the market is predicated on the assumption that prices reflect the true costs of production. But prices are an imperfect indication of the costs borne in the production of goods and services, which is a clear and inevitable case of market failure.
While attempts have been made to put a value on untraded costs imposed by human activity on the environment, the process is complex, expensive, time-consuming, and incomplete, because it’s very difficult to value non-market benefits, such as the existence value of a species, or the spiritual value associated with a beautiful view. Human interaction with the environment is staged through an economic system that is fundamentally flawed.
In a general sense, the current rate of resource consumption cannot continue much beyond the mid-point of this century, and this inevitably will be accompanied by decreases in per capita food availability, and eventually, catastrophic declines in human population.
The pattern and rate of demand for resources is driven by population growth, economic prosperity and new technologies. However, it is wealth – and the asymmetries of power that this implies – that provides individuals with the ability to consume natural resources and also drives the technological developments that change the rate and pattern of consumption.
The consumption of energy – which in some senses can be used as a proxy for the consumption of natural resources generally – shows that individuals living in wealthy nations consume far more than their counterparts in the sub-continent. Their impact on life support systems, such as the global climate regulation is, therefore, correspondingly large.
This suits the ultra-rich, but has been disastrous for the poor and for the environment. The idea of the free market has been used by the very few to capture unprecedented quantities of wealth, on a global scale, impoverishing the masses. The centralised state economy has been used for much the same purpose, with similar results.
If we wish to survive as a species and enjoy the benefits that we have so far enjoyed from the earth, we need to make space for our fellow creatures and each other. Achieving this requires a move away from dogmatic assumptions that simplistic economic models should direct our activities, and a constant reassessment of the relationship and balance of power between policy and liberal entrepreneurship.
Revolution of the mind
More fundamentally, achieving this positive outcome requires a revolution of the mind, in particular, to release us from the notion that happiness is only to be found in the conspicuous consumption of goods and services.
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Photo credit: CIFOR from Flickr