“It is only a matter of time before economics makes room for nature,” writes economist Partha Dasgupta. Is it time to prove him right?
The natural environment is essential for human existence. It provides ecosystem services comprising supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural functions, which are integral to survival (millenniumassessment.org, 2020). Nature’s gradual degradation has revealed harrowing effects on wellbeing, including food and water shortages, health issues, and livelihood loss. For example, deforestation driven by intensive agriculture and extractive industries is catastrophic, causing both biodiversity loss and contributing to the spread of zoonotic diseases (Jiwani, 2020). These effects are of concern not only to public health, but as we have seen during this pandemic, to entire economies.
As we enter the Anthropocene – an era defined by humans as primary agents of change – calls for attention to biodiversity decline and its effects are amplifying.
Economic growth will be a priority following COVID-19 perhaps for years, and a green recovery is essential. Estimates indicate that 1.7x Earths are required to maintain living standards under current economic systems, which are driven by unsustainable production and consumption (Dasgupta, 2020). Therefore, viewing humanity as being able to function independently of nature remains misguided. As we enter the Anthropocene – an era defined by humans as primary agents of change – calls for attention to biodiversity decline and its effects are amplifying. Recently, world health leaders added to this voice, emphasising how healthy lives depend on a healthy planet. For example, poor air pollution has exacerbated the impacts of COVID-19. Hence, future stimulus packages should be designed with both public health and the environment in mind (healthrecovery.net, 2020).
Forward-thinking finance ministries have been noting what these calls mean for their work. Recognising this, Amsterdam has proactively embraced doughnut economics (Raworth, 2020). This model aims to ensure essentials such as food, healthcare, and political voice, are maintained while the planetary boundaries are not exceeded, as disastrous consequences for humans lie beyond these (Rockström, et al, 2009). The outcome? A safe and just space for humanity.
Collaboration combining social and technological innovation could spur further change.
Other concepts such as “degrowth” argue for organising society around the provision of essential goods and services, putting people over profit, and effectively, building a future where we can live better with less (opendemocracy.net, 2020). While these tenets are noteworthy, some argue that economic growth is not harmful per se. In fact, economic growth in places like the global south is necessary if issues like social inequalities are to be addressed (Wijkman, 2015). Rather, measures to harness sustainable growth such as establishing common-pool resources, renewable energy, the circular economy, nature-based solutions, technology, and even redefining how we measure growth could serve as alternatives provided, they are embedded firmly in green growth principles.
So, what next? Note that the public is rarely consulted on the management of the planet’s resources. Therefore, a cross-sectoral approach that identifies actions needed across spheres, including businesses, researchers, communities, and the public is crucial. Indeed, governments have taken extraordinary measures to address this pandemic that were unthinkable in modern peacetime such as the significant investment in health services and budgetary restructuring to extend social welfare provision. Collaboration combining social and technological innovation could spur further change.
The momentum surrounding “build back better” has potential to steer a course for a sustainable future within planetary limits. This is the time to embrace it.
By Alicia Ramos
A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team
5 June 2020
Include the true value of nature when rebuilding economies after coronavirus, Nature 581, 119 (2020).
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005.
Open democracy, Degrowth: new roots for the economy. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/degrowth-new-roots-economy/
Raworth, K. Exploring doughnut economics. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/
Rockström, J., et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472 (2009).
UK Government. The Dasgupta Review – Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity Interim Report. London: OGL, 2020
Wijkman, A. Commentary on The Degrowth Alternative Accessed June 2, 2020. https://greattransition.org/commentary/anders-wijkman-the-degrowth-alternative-giorgos-kallis