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synergy vol 1 issue 2

Synergy Issue 2, Oct 1999

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Protect and survive
By focusing on wealth creation we are failing to protect
what we have, says John Gray

INCREASINGLY I am coming to believe that protecting the environmental riches we already have is, in economic terms, far more important than seeking growth and creating new industries.

Sadly, preserving what we have seems to be unfashionable in Europe.

Green organisations are having great difficulty maintaining their membership, and politicians pay lip service to environmental problems. It looks as if the agreements reached at Kyoto will do little to slow global climate change, while the Rio Declaration has led merely to endless discussions rather than action to save the world's biodiversity.

As the rainforests burn, the drive to generate wealth continues unabated. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, she told Britain's Natural Environment Research Council that the research it supported must lead to wealth creation. This policy has continued, and the council's latest mission statement reaffirms that one of its aims is to contribute to Britain's "economic competitiveness".

This trend of directing environmental research toward wealth creation is also apparent in the rest of the European Union. In the EU's research agenda for 1999 to 2002--the fifth Framework programme--the priority is "to link the ability to discover to the ability to produce... leading to future wealth and job creation".

So, for governments at least, it seems that finding out more about the world we live in is worth doing only if it generates wealth. But wealth creation has to be seen in the context of globalisation of the economy, and the globalisation process pays scant regard to the environment.

As another John Gray, an eminent Oxford political scientist, says of environmental consequences of the globalisation process:

"More and more of the Earth will become less and less habitable. At the same time the price will rise for the few societies rich enough to be able to keep their environments livable. Profits will fall and capital will migrate."

The problem with the global economy is that the environment is not costed properly.

Herman Daley, an American ecological economist, believes that some Western economies have already entered what he calls the phase of uneconomic growth. He defines this as growth whose enivronmental and social costs are greater than its benefits. For example, he argues that the real cost of chopping down a mahogany tree is not simply how much it costs to fell the tree and transport it to the sawmill but also the cost of producing a new 200-year-old tree.

Likewise, it is not what it costs to remove a mangrove forest and to build and operate a shrimp farm where it stood, but what it costs to restore the disused shrimp farm to the original mangrove forest that is the true cost.

These "externalities", in economists' jargon, are the real environmental costs that Daley wants properly addressed. Robert Constanza and his colleagues at the University of Maryland tried to put a value on the "goods and services" provided by natural ecosystems (Nature, vol 387, p 253).

The goods and services that they talk about include things like cleaning up pollution, "regulating" the climate, purifying water and protecting the coastline. The figures are huge, and show that the value of the entire biosphere is around $33 trillion a year, or 1-8 times the global GNP.

Only when influential economists, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank accept these data and apply proper costing of externalities will the true value of the environment be appreciated.

Such studies make it clear that looking after what we already have--wealth protection--should be a key political goal.

All nations need a sustainable agriculture that does not degrade the soil, and their citizens need clean water and sustainable fisheries.

Decision makers should be trying to protect the environmental riches that we have rather than just stressing wealth creation.

-John Gray is professor of marine biology at the University of Oslo, Norway, and a former chairman of the UN's Joint Group of Experts on the Sceientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection.

Source - New Scientist
15 August 1998



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