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Traditional Economics Has Absolutely Screwed Us

UN’s biodiversity crisis report screams for new ways of natural accounting.

Mitchell Anderson 9 May

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Capitalism is killing the planet. That is the gist of an exhaustive United Nations report on the bleak state of the world’s biodiversity. One million species face extinction in what has been aptly called a global murder-suicide, driven by a race to commodify ecosystems and externalize the costs of their destruction.

If you were looking for a perky read to start your week, this report was not it. However, the collective efforts of 350 leading experts from 51 countries have resulted in the definitive wake-up call for those still doubting the dire consequences of business-as-usual on our one and only planet.

A Noah’s ark of iconic species seems bound for oblivion due to our growing collective consumption and population. Will your children be able to enjoy a world with wild elephants, orcas, or blue whales? Sixty per cent of primate species are threatened with extinction. The taste of a tuna sandwich may soon be consigned to lore.

All of this has been happening in plain view but only recently has this become economically relevant by cutting into the bottom line. Up to $577 billion in global crop production is at risk due to collapsing populations of pollinating insects.

One-third of commercial fish stocks are in steep decline with another 60 per cent being fully exploited, leaving only seven per cent of the world’s fisheries under safe management. This is exacerbated by regulatory failure where landings may be 50 per cent higher than reported, and illegal fishing accounts for up to one-third of the global catch.

Expanding agriculture is one of the main drivers of exploding extinction rates. Between 1980 and 2000, about 100 million hectares of tropical forests — roughly the area of France and Germany combined — were converted for grazing, monoculture plantations like palm oil, or short-term subsistence farming. Desperate humans and multinational companies both encroach on remaining rainforests, seeing only as far as the next growing season or financial quarter.

Why does economics prioritize palm oil over orangutans? Because palm plantations are profitable, producing almost five times the oil yield per hectare of sunflowers, coconut or soybeans. Consumers too unintentionally contribute to this destruction, driving a market for a ubiquitous ingredient found in everything from lipstick to ice cream. Good people bustling through their busy day unaware of the treasures being knocked to the floor in nature’s china shop.

Conventional capitalism is failing because it considers the services provided by nature such as oxygen and food production as free and limitless. Only an economist could fail to see how a collapsing biosphere might be bad for business. Thankfully the dismal science is belatedly beginning to account for some glaring omissions on the planetary balance sheet.

The World Bank is now promoting natural capital accounting, which includes the living world in those metrics worthy of measure. Seen through that recently radical lens, many of economic tools trotted out for decades by policy-makers are profoundly counterproductive.

The UN study found that $325 billion in subsides shoveled at the fossil fuel industry around the world actually result in $5 trillion in costs to degraded natural systems on which our survival depends. A further $100 billion in handouts to the agricultural sector also helps accelerate extinctions.

Throwing public money at the fishing industry to scale up already devastating catching capacity is another bad habit embraced by almost every non-landlocked nation on Earth. It seems the first step in ending a planetary breakdown is to stop funding it with our tax dollars.

Economic failures abound elsewhere. Allowing our oceans to be used as a free garbage dump has driven a 10-fold increase in marine plastic pollution since 1980, threatening 86 per cent of marine turtle species and almost half the seabirds and marine mammals.

And in case you needed another reason to dislike tax havens, UN researchers have you covered. Besides shielding up to 15 per cent of global wealth in jurisdictions of convenience, it turns out tax havens also play a significant role in the demise of ecosystems by channeling money to the majority of vessels implicated in illegal fishing.

Looming over all these various threats to the natural world are ever-increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Without comprehensive carbon pricing, fossil fuel companies can continue to externalize the costs of their dangerous product at the expense of our children’s future.

It is also not surprising that the UN found those areas controlled by some form of Indigenous governance — at least one-quarter of the world’s land base — had significantly healthier ecosystems. Having a cultural connection to the land coupled with ancient local knowledge avoids replicating many of the mistakes so often made by so-called experts. A healthy distance from the wage economy seems to help as well.

If we are trying to find a balance of humans and nature on the land, why not look to those who have been doing exactly that for millennia? The long overdue process of Indigenous reconciliation is not a lefty luxury; it is vital for biosphere survival.

However, First Nations, like nature, are also under assault. According to the UN, Indigenous peoples around the world report increasing examples of illegal incursions on their land, destruction of surrounding areas and targeting of their leadership. Between 2002 and 2013, at least 1,000 environmental and Indigenous activists and journalists have been murdered or collaterally killed in resource-related conflicts.

The future hangs in the balance, perched on a ballot box. Are we going to support leaders with the courage to face the future, or dangerous populists harkening to the past? The election of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro may go down in history as one of the world’s great ecological catastrophes. Eight former ministers in previous Brazilian governments warned this week that Bolsonaro is systematically destroying legal protections for the rainforest and Indigenous peoples.

Premiers Doug Ford, Jason Kenney and Scott Moe are local examples of a similar mindset that will make public policy worse before it gets better. We as voters need to own up to the great responsibility of democracy and not snatch at ballot bait dangled every four years on the campaign trail.

It’s been said that imagining an environmental apocalypse is easier than a green utopia. If we are to arrive where we want to go, we need to first believe we can get there. The 350 contributors to this report were emphatic that avoiding the worst consequences is entirely possible if the collective will is there.

Can our economic system be re-jigged to exist in harmony with nature? We have no choice but to act quickly. There is no planet B.  [Tyee]

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