By Chris Lang
In February 2021, the UK Treasury Department published a 610 page report on “The Economics of Biodiversity”. The review was led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, an economist at Cambridge University.
Robert Fletcher, an environmental anthropologist at Wageningen University, has written a much-needed critique of The Dasgupta Review, published in the Journal of Political Ecology. Fletcher notes that the Review is the latest in “a series of similar reports endeavouring to demonstrate the economic importance of in situ natural resources in order to motivate their sustainable management”.
Fletcher lists the following reports: The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005); the UN Environment Programme’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2010) and Towards a Green economy (2011); the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Vision 2050 (2010) and Action 2020 (2014); the Capitals Coalition’s Natural Capital Protocol (2016); and The Nature Conservancy, the Paulson Insitute, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability’s Financing Nature (2020).
Nature as an asset
Fletcher summarises the arguments that The Dasgupta Review repeats in order to argue for squeezing Nature into a neoliberal economic system. Natural resources have been used unsustainably largely because they have not been incorporated into economic decision-making. In the “headlong rush for human development”, the ecological impacts of economic activity have been ignored.
The Dasgupta Review explains that,
The Review studies the wedge between the prices we pay for Nature’s goods and services and their social worth (the Review calls their social worth ‘accounting prices’) in terms of what economists call ‘externalities’. Over the years a rich and extensive literature has identified the measures that can be deployed (the forces of the law and social norms) for closing that wedge. The presence of the wedge is why the citizen investor will insist that companies disclose activities along their entire supply chain. Disclosure serves to substitute for imperfect markets.
The Review argues that ecologically-minded economists should develop new methodologies to properly value resources’ contribution to human livelihoods. Nations need to adopt economic accounting that “includes Nature as an asset” the Review states.
The Review recommends facilitating sustainable development by establishing protected areas, ecological restoration, and market-based instruments such as ecotourism, payment for ecosystem services, and REDD.
“So far, so familiar,” Fletcher comments. This neoliberal approach “has already been thoroughly critiqued by an extensive body of research and analysis”. He refers to the book he co-authored with Bram Büscher, “The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene”.
In their book, Fletcher and Büscher argue that,
capitalism is an inherently expansionary system driven by a demand for continual growth in order to overcome the cyclical stagnation that afflicts it. Hence, the last five centuries during which the world has been increasingly – though extremely unevenly – integrated within a single global economy and its resources progressively exploited should be understood, in large part, as a function of the demands of capital. One of the main means of sustaining this growth is through stimulating ever-increasing consumption of an expanded range of products that are often quickly rendered obsolete in order to spur still further consumption. Seriously addressing development, growth, and consumption must therefore lead to a critical focus on the capitalist economy itself.
Overshoot and overpopulation
The Dasgupta Review returns “time and again” to human population growth, Fletcher writes. The first chapter of the Review, titled “How We Got to Where We Are”, explains that, “As our human numbers grew, our impact on the planet increased with them.”
The Review is keen to distance itself from Malthusian arguments: “Today Malthus, the ‘pessimistic parson’, is seen as a ‘false prophet’, remaining as wrong as ever.”
But having argued that technological advances have allowed population growth far beyond what Malthus predicted, the Review moves onto Jared Diamond, whose book Collapse includes a chapter on the Rwandan genocide titled, “Malthus in Africa”.
The Dasgupta Review writes that,
Diamond reported that a number of societies that had deforested their land had been able to develop successful forest management practices and population measures, but that in contrast there were others – most notoriously in the public imagination, Easter Island – that had failed to develop successful management practices, and had collapsed as a result. He also found a common pattern in past collapses: population growth that followed access to an abundant ecosystem made people intensify the means of food production (irrigation, terracing, doublecropping) and expand into marginal land. Growing populations led to a mining of their ecosystems. That left communities vulnerable to climatic variations, as there was little room left for either mistakes or bad luck.
Fletcher points out that the Dasgupta Review echoes the I=PAT equation (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology), describing “Impact Inequality” in terms fo which, “I is in turn decomposed into three factors: human population numbers, global GDP per person, and the efficiency with which we convert the biosphere’s goods and services into GDP”. (In 2018, Dasgupta wrote a chapter with his daughter Alisha, titled, “Population Overshoot”. She works at the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Their chapter starts with a discussion of I=PAT.)
The Dasgupta Review also discusses Garrett Hardin. Fletcher notes that Hardin is another proponent of population control and that his “Tragedy of the Commons” is actually about global population growth, using overgrazing as a metaphor. The Review acknowledges that research has countered Hardin’s predictions by documenting sustainable resource management in common property regimes. But the Review claims that many of these examples are not sustainable. One of the reasons that “CPRs have deteriorated in many places”, the Review argues, “is rapid population growth”.
A chapter in the Review focusses on family planning as an instrument of environmental management. “The SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] are reticent about family planning,” the Review states, “and yet it is hard to imagine that they can be met without addressing the subject.”
Our current situation, the Review states, is “analogous to each of a crowd of people trying to keep balance on a hanging bridge, with a risk of bringing it crashing down”.
In 2014, Fletcher co-authored a paper titled “Barbarian hordes: the overpopulation scapegoat in international development discourse”. The paper gives an overview of the history in development and environmental politics of pointing to “overpopulation”, as a main cause of the problems we face.
The paper concludes that,
Ultimately diagnoses of both poverty and environmental degradation come down to either of two causal factors: (1) overpopulation; or (2) the structural inequality of the global capitalist system. A focus on overpopulation, in this sense, displaces focus from this second potential cause, blaming individuals themselves for their predicament rather than the overarching political economy in which they function.
Fletcher notes that the Review naturalises capitalism. Capitalism becomes the background reality underpinning, “and hence unquestionable within, the framework of analysis”. Fletcher refers to David Graeber’s brilliant book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” in which Graeber demolishes Adam Smith’s claim that it is “a certain propensity in human nature . . . to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”
Graeber points out that for almost a century anthropologists have been challenging Smith’s view of human nature. Studies carried out in real communities and marketplaces (as opposed to the imaginary ones beloved of economists) paint a very different picture. Graeber writes that “one is much more likely to discover everyone in debt to everyone else in a dozen different ways, and that most transactions take place without the use of currency.”
I think it’s safe to assume that Dasgupta hasn’t read Graeber’s book. “We are all asset managers,” the Review states at the start of a chapter titled, “Nature as an Asset”.
Whether as farmers or fishermen, hunters or gatherers, foresters or miners, households or companies, governments or communities, we manage the assets we have access to in line with our motivations, as best as we can. This Review pays close attention to a class of assets we call Nature and studies it in relation to the many other assets in our portfolios.
The Review follows the tradition of similar reports in framing nature as “a repository of ‘natural capital’ delivering ‘ecosystem service’ to humans”, Fletcher writes. The Review even states that it studies the natural world “in relation to the many other assets we hold in our portfolios, such as the vehicles we use for transport, the homes in which we live, and the machines and equipment that furnish our offices and factories”.
Fletcher writes that,
Within this frame, the Review is able to go so far as to claim that “Nature has features that differ subtly from produced capital goods” – as if the latter were primary and the former derivative, rather than vice versa.
The Review fails to address the inequality and resource degradation produced by political-economic forces. Instead it focusses on individual responsibility, and concludes that we need self-enforcement, and “connecting people with Nature at an early age”.
Fletcher concludes his critique of the Dasgupta Review by suggesting a different approach. He acknowledges that this approach is “so far outside its periphery that it is beyond discussion therein”. The approach comes from Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts:
[R]ather than presuming or starting with scarcity (or abundance), analysis … should begin with the precise and changing relations between political economy and mechanisms of access, control, and struggle over environmental resources. Scarcity and abundance are historically (and environmentally) produced expressions of such relations, and as such should not be the starting point of an analysis.