So much of the climate debacle is about the tension between our economic aims and our hard environmental limits, as is explored at length in Sarah Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics. A large part of Raworth’s book aims to emphasise just how deep accepted economic wisdom goes, with it being impossible in many academic circles to question growth as the ultimate aim of any economy. It should not be so controversial to say that, clearly, endless growth is not possible if we want to also live on a planet that can sustain our species. And yet, questioning the viability of ceaseless economic growth remains awkward.
The intersection of the natural world and our economies is often fraught with difficulties. To me, one of the distinct oddities of the way we conceive of our world – human society and natural resources both included – is that we struggle to communicate the value of the living world without attaching dollar signs to various natural resources. The world’s stock of natural assets is often thought of as our ‘natural capital,’ and includes geology, soil, water, air and all living things.
For example, the WWF valued the oceans at $24 trillion a few years ago. That’s a lot, so at least they’ve attached a hefty price tag to one of our most extensive natural assets, but it seems bizarre to me say that the oceans have any numbered value at all. According to the WWF report, “oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe and absorb 30% of carbon dioxide emissions.” Given that sequestering carbon dioxide is one of the most urgent issues of climate change, as even if we went zero carbon overnight we would still be at risk from all the noxious gases that are already in the atmosphere, fucking up the oceans seems to be worth far more than any economic analysis would suggest. Yes, it can be useful to see how much the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe depends on the oceans, as it might create a greater impetus to appreciate and protect these life-giving systems. But to me, it seems like conceiving of our planet’s largest and most extensive ecosystems as just another part of the same machinery we use to build human societies is ripe for exploitation. Our oceans, rainforests, rivers and fertile ground are not just another item on the list. They are the paper on which the list is written.
It speaks to a profound lack of creativity in the way that we think that we are unable to conceive of enormous ecosystems as anything other than a line on the balance sheet. It shows how self-centred we continue to be, as if the way that humans might use this resource is still of paramount importance when we consider the planet.
As is being made clearer and clearer each day, the ultimate value of the oceans, rainforests and impressive global biodiversity extends far beyond a single number. How do you put price on oxygen? While we might try – portioning off parts of forests to the agricultural sector and tallying up canisters of oxygen for industry or science – the truth is that an adequate oxygen supply, effective carbon dioxide sequestering mechanisms and enough arable land to grow food are truly priceless commodities.
There are a few reasons why governments and economists want to price a country’s natural assets. For many nations, the sale of natural resources underpins much of the country’s economic aims, so figuring out exactly how much oil there is hidden beneath the ground or how many acres of land could accommodate grazing cows is relevant for, you guessed it, growth projections. This is the reason for many of the increasing conversations around climate justice, as without money from other sources most developing economies have no choice but to mine and drill for toxic fossil fuels and other natural substances in order to provide work and income for their citizens. After the palm oil boycott kicked off earlier this year, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments called out the Western palm oil buyers for proposing to stop their purchases, saying (rightly) that this would stunt their economies. One of the things many poorer countries have in abundance are glittering natural minerals and fuels, making an awareness of just how much stands to be made from the sale of these items incredibly important for the governments of developing nations around the world.
Beyond development, the exact worth of natural assets is also important for calculating GDP, the metric we currently use for evaluating the size of an economy. However, GDP is an impressively flawed metric, as explored at length in David Pilling’s excellent book the Growth Delusion, making this insistence that we price every forest and lake even more absurd. Even if this was a useful way of auditing a country’s economic activity, it would still be true that these prices are only relevant if you plan to sell the natural resources in question. All dollar values are meaningless unless you have some intention of selling them for that money; otherwise, the items in questions are literally price-less. This insistence that things only have value if they are tradable or saleable, hopefully for a large sum, seems to me to speak to many of the core issues at play when we talk about global warming. Nations have to get used to seeing their rainforests, lakes, rivers, coastlines and breathable air as inherently valuable, regardless of whether or not they ever bring in another rupee or yen or euro or whatever.
At first it may seem like the case for oil and minerals is more challenging. Huge oil reserves have little aesthetic or cultural significance and an enormous potential payoff. However, at this point, it should not be difficult to see what the benefit is to a nation – and the entire planet – of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Not taking the opportunity to turn coal, oil and gas into electricity is a transition at the core of the climate crisis, and the crux of many of the conversations around climate justice. Developing countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, among others, have asked the international community to compensate them for those lost dollars, money these nations need to transition to a greener economy and provide for their citizens. So far, their call has not been answered, and drilling has begun on some of South America’s most valuable oil reserves, which are sadly located below rainforests.
The most useful reason for thinking about the ‘worth’ of enormous natural resources must be to illustrate the profound cost of surviving without these systems. The continued deforestation of the Amazon is set to cost $3.5 trillion over the next thirty years, in various social and economic losses, losses that will need to be made up through some other means. Over the next century, dealing with the effects of climate change is set to cost untold trillions, making protecting our atmosphere crucial from both a social and an economic perspective. But that isn’t how these valuations are used, for the most part. Tallying up a nation’s natural capital as part of the GDP calculations serves to see natural resources as something to be sold, mined and exploited in exchange for cold hard cash – a trade-off we have to start considering with more gravity. Ultimately, this comes back to the same thing that underpins most of the climate conversations: greed. To leave oil in the ground, to leave the oceans un-fished, to leave the rainforests standing tall all involves sacrificing beef sales or plentiful fish markets or gallons of fuel to power our most polluting industries. Some fish, beef and fuel may well be necessary, but as much as 30% of all food is wasted, contributing massively to emissions, and many fossil fuels are burned creating the energy to make items we don’t need. By mining natural resources and communities until they are left bare you might make a few extra dollars – but do you need to? Have you considered how much it will cost to address that damage years down the line? It may seem like a profit in the moment, but it is likely creating the most enormous deficit, one we will all be paying for.