The Guardian view on valuing nature: priceless things sold cheap | Editorial
One of the most important things about this week’s landmark review into the value of nature may appear to be a footling detail: its publisher. The 600-page report was commissioned by the Treasury, headed by Rishi Sunak, rather than the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose boss is George Eustice. The difference appears to be tiny – the two ministries are a mere 10-minute walk apart – but it represents a huge paradigm shift. For this is the first time any country’s finance ministry has put out a comprehensive study into the economic importance of maintaining a variety of life on Earth. Its author is Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge economist. His argument is both needed and subversive: our economic models and our models for how to run an economy both require urgent overhaul if humanity is to survive and prosper.
For so long, government ministers have treated biodiversity as way down the to-do list, beneath winning the next election and ensuring asset markets and public services are not in meltdown. Plurality and integrity of natural life, of everything from parasites to parakeets, is no more objectionable to a politician than the latest Attenborough documentary. But doing much about it has never seemed a high enough priority.
Until now, maybe. While the world is following every twist and turn in the battle against Covid-19, environmental experts from the UN to the World Health Organization have been busy pointing out that this pandemic’s root cause is humanity’s slow ravaging of nature. Annihilating forests to create farms and build roads, bringing wildlife into contact with people and their livestock, is fundamentally how this lethal virus spilled from wildlife into humankind. The result is 2.2 million deaths and rising fast. As Prof Dasgupta observes, the destruction of nature means that there will be another pandemic – and another, with all the devastation to life and economic value they could bring.
No wonder, then, that his report begins with the assertion: “Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all depend on our most precious asset: nature.” He is, admittedly, not the first economist to point this out. Think of Karl Marx arguing: “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values … as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature”. But mainstream economists both in academia and in policymaking have still to embed such ideas in their thinking. Among Prof Dasgupta’s useful suggestions is to dethrone GDP and to start factoring natural capital into our economic accounting.
Terms such as “natural capital” and “natural assets” horrify some environmentalists, who prophesy more marketisation of things that should never be bought or sold. That is clearly a risk. But if instead government officials foreground the value in nature and build it into policymaking, that can only be a good thing. The same goes for the report’s recommendation of making nature an integral part of education.
To season optimism with a dash of realism, the Dasgupta review may mark the start of a long process of making nature part of policymaking, just as Nicholas Stern’s 2006 review into climate crisis for the then chancellor Gordon Brown kickstarted decades of slow transformation in Whitehall. Perhaps 20 years from now the Office for Budget Responsibility will become the Office for Biodiversity Responsibility, and the Treasury’s red books will come with tables showing the impact of proposed measures on carbon use and the ecology. Fanciful? Perhaps. But that’s when we’ll know we have made progress.