The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review
Summaries and Comments

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review was published by UK HM Treasury on 2nd February 2021. As the author, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta remarked,

It is stupid that Amazon, the company, is worth billions while Amazon, the rainforest, is worth nothing unless it is destroyed for logging or agriculture.

The Review suggests how biodiversity might be properly valued in economics, so that this stupidity can be stopped. The significance of this review is that it was commissioned by the UK Treasury, not Department of the Environment, which signals that the Treasury has at last! woken up to the need to properly value things that are truly valuable. May they adopt it and do so immediately, despite some flaws.

Wasteland in Manchester
(c) Andrew Basden, 2014

Often I enthuse over a new idea and then, as I read it, I see its flaws and limitations and my enthusiasm wanes. Not so Dasgupta's Review, even though I see flaws and limitations.

Two Parts:

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Andrew Basden,
Emeritus Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy of Information Systems, University of Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.



Part I - Overall Summary and Appreciative Critique

In this part, I offer a more readable summary of what The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review says - its 'message' - followed by an appreciative critique. The material for this part was drawn from the Detailed Summary and Comments, below.

Overall Message of The Economics of Biodiversity

The Review starts ("Chapter 0") by putting our situation into historical context. Humanity now has an impact on nature that exceeds nature's ability to support it: our total global ecological footprint is greater than the earth can sustain (currently by 1.7 times, and growing). This has come to be so only during this past century, and it is serious.

It then continues, in the next few chapters, to show how we may see Nature as an Asset, and thus bring it into economic considerations. There are three kinds of assets: produced capital, human capital and natural capital. Since economics has tended to ignore natural capital, false ideas have arisen. However, the economy and all human enterprise is embedded in, and depends on, nature, so we must bring natural capital back into our economic thinking. He does this using the idea of Ecosystems Services, which focuses on how ecosystems (nature, the biosphere), provides services for humanity of many kinds. Ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity are productive (for us) and more resilient in themselves. But (Chapter 3), the biosphere, not being a linear system, can be grossly disrupted by fragmentation and tipping points and we cannot easily recover what we lose. This is why "markets are a woefully inadequate system of institutions for protecting the biosphere" [p.83].

Since The economy is embedded in nature and depends on it, it suffers when biodiversity is lost - both material and so-called non-material economies are undermined. Human Impact on the Biosphere (Chapter 4) must be taken into account in Treasury calculations, so a simply Impact Inequality is introduced, as a basis for discussing, throughout the rest of the Review, what needs to be done and why. It is:

N y / a < G( S ) )

where N = world population, y = per capita standard of living (probably measured in GDP), a = efficiency with which humanity extracts from nature (ax) and relies on nature to cope with its waste (ay), G = Regeneration rate by which nature recovers and S = stock of nature's capital.

The left side expresses humanity's demand on nature (sometimes called ecological footprint). The right expresses nature's ability to meet that demand. Alarmingly, humanity's demand is currently much greater than nature's ability to supply, so it is imperative that we find ways to reduce our demand on nature. The problem is that the factors in this equation are not deterministic but involve risk, so Chapter 5 discussed how Risk and Uncertainty may be tackled. In particular, Dasgupta says, we need to calculate when to change course, away from "business-as-usual". Doing so will involve institutions, within which we interact with each other, including households, markets, communities and the state. Given that we must trust one another to fulfil our obligations, what should our institutions be like to support this. Such trust is (part of) "social capital", a concept central to the economics of biodiversity.

The next three chapters (7, 8, 9) discuss the relationship between Human Institutions and Ecological Systems. Externalities (consequences of our impact that are not accounted for within monetary systems) are of major importance; example: For example, while Amazon, the company, is worth billions, Amazon, the rainforest, is worth nothing unless it is destroyed for logging or agriculture. Is that not stupid! Externalities also mean that wealth is transferred from the poor to the rich, because "because national accounts do not record externalities" so "Modern consumption patterns, relying as they do on imported primary goods from distant parts of the world, are prone to being underpriced." [p.190]

Externalities must be considered carefully in the Impact Inequality (population size, standard of living, and efficiency of use of nature's goods and services). Doing so is not easy. (Common pool resources, shared locally) are important especially for poorer peoples, but are fragile, and often deteriorate for several reasons. Human behaviour (including consumption choices) must change, and population growth must be stemmed.

But how do we take well-Being of future Generations into account (Chapter 10)? We must be careful how we discount their value and calculate return on investment. Unfortunately (Chapter 11), until recently, the various empirical measures of well-being have omitted connectedness with nature. Recent studies show its importance. Urbanisation with economic growth has disconnected most from nature.

So we must find a way of Valuing Biodiversity (Chapter 12). There are several ways of doing this within economics. One way (Chapter 13) is that (Ecosystem) Services are provided by assets (durable goods of positive worth that we inherit or pass on). They must include natural capital as well as human and produced capital. Dasgupta calls this "inclusive wealth", and suggests this should replace GDP as the measure of the economy. Chapter 13* proposes equations for optimum allocation of goods and services.

Chapters 14 to 20 extend those topics. There are major differences in sustainability across the world, especially affecting less-developed nations (Chapter 14). Trade has been very bad for biodiversity because it decouples demand from supply, but things can be done to ameliorate this (Chapter 15). Demand from land and the ecosphere, for food, minerals, fibres, timber etc., has greatly reduced biodiversity under the current economic system and technology, but maybe different techniques or technology can help us increase our efficiency (Chapter 16). Transition to sustainability incurs several kinds of risk that must be managed (Chapter 17). Considered as an economic asset, there is sufficient ecological stock for the future if we conserve, protect and restore. Conservation and protection of nature is more important than restoration, because restoration is never 100% and usually more costly in the long run (Chapter 18). However, restoration of degraded ecosystem (rewilding is one example) has an important part to play - but it requires "unprecedented ambition", and should be brought into land-use planning (Chapter 19). Finance for conservation and restoration can come from both public and private sources, each of several kinds (Chapter 20). Engagement, monitoring and influence are all important to achieving this.

The final Chapter 21, discusses Options for Change. We must do three things:

Appreciative Critique of The Dasgupta Review

(This critique follows the principles of LACE: Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich)

Dasgupta's The Economics of Biodiversity is a magnificent contribution, a comprehensive review of how the fields of economics and finance can serve, rather than underming, climate and environmental responsibility. Given that the Treasury has for too long been wedded to GDP, by which the environment and climate are grossly undervalued, this opens a door for them to move on and take biodiversity into account. The Review covers many real-life issues that are often overlooked.

Here are three examples I like. In Chapter 11, he points out that many measures of well-being have, until recently, omitted and overlooked connectedness with nature. (Therefore, the fact that none or few of the empirical studies of well-being give importance nature, does NOT mean nature is important.) In Chapter 14, he argues how biodiversity loss reduces prosperity, especially of less-developed nations especially. This starkly shows that those who say "focus on poverty and don't waste effort on environmental matters" (voiced by some anti-environmentalists), are completely wrong, and that such a policy would undermine the very thing they claim to want to do? Chapter 15 argues how trade has been very bad for biodiversity because it decouples demand from supply, especially when carried out internationally.

Therefore, in the following critique of it, I do not want to undermine Dasgupta's excellent Review, but rather to suggest ways in which it could be enriched and made even more workable. I will suggest some specific points, at which it could be improved (and Christians especially might contribute), then suggest a more radical discussion is needed, which is relevant not only for HM Treasury but for everyone.

First, Dasgupta has mathematized the economics of biodiversity (probably because the Treasury required this) and resorted to a somewhat rationalistic kind of economic theory and, in Chapter 10, utilitarian ethics. These weaken the Review's discussion of some things, such as voluntary activity, attitude, faith and beliefs. It tends to think in terms of resources and rights more than an attitude of responsibility. Though Dasgupta does recognise the importance of some of these, he tends to gloss over them and fails to offer any systematic way they may be taken into account, and he seems to hold a rather too optimistic view of human nature; we suggest a systematic approach to these below.

For example, while I welcome his economic argument of how trade destroys biodiversity by decoupling demand from supply, will merely fixing the economic system solve that problem? Is it not also a problem of attitude? If we take an attitude of responsibility and detailed consideration of the other, then trade can continue without biodiversity loss. But usually, our attitude is self-absorbed, even self-centred, and decoupling merely gives us the excuse to, and convenience of, not thinking about the other not being concerned.

For example, he deliberately adopts the Ecosystems Services approach because, though he recognises that this precludes allowing non-human creatures value in themselves, he wants to bring them into economic thinking as assets, and by doing so he opens a door for policy makers and economists to take biodiversity seriously. I suggest that, once they are through the door, we should lead them on further, into areas where they recognise the innate value of Creation. Gunton et al. [2017] might offer a way forward, arguing that we must go beyond putting a price on value to "Valuing the Invaluable". How this is possible is briely outlined later.

The assumptions Dasgupta makes, for example when discussing how to cope with risk, lead to over-simplification, especially because they ignore the aspect of faith, beliefs and commitments. For example, "we assume that the decision-maker (DM) is a concerned citizen: her viewpoint is societal" ignores the reality of selfishness, hidden agendas, leading to curruption. Humanity has not yet discovered any legal or economic system that can cope with these; they require a change of heart - see later. Dasgupta tries to deal with risk in a rationalistic way, whereas perhaps one answer is to foster a attitude of responsibility.

In Chapter 9, Dasgupta argues that human behaviour is influenced by others, socially, being either "competitive" or "conformist", and he then uses those categories throughout the chapter. I find that greatly disappointing. The pair come from rationalism of the 1920s and allow no insight into real human behaviour, including justice, love and commitment to causes, which cannot be squeezed into those categories. Later I will suggest that we can enrich our understanding of human behaviour by reference to multiple aspects.

In Chapter 16, Dasgupta seems quite optimistic about the ability of technology to reduce our ecological footprint. He does not seem to address the issue of changing lifestyle - which our later discussion suggests is crucial. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK and other nations were relying on changing electricity supply technology to renewables, but Eckhouse & Martin [2020] warn that the pandemic greatly hinders that advance. Change in technology cannot be relied on as the full answer.

Finally, nowhere in the full Review did I find any questioning of the presupposition of economic growth. The option of shrinking sectors of the Economy does not seem to be discussed, though it is recognised occasionally that some economic activity is actually harmful. What the Review does is to try to present the rationality of how to bring biodiversity into the equations, without telling people which norms should guide the use of those equations.

I am praying, according to I Timothy 2:2, that those in the Treasury who shape policy and strategy (and the budgets) to read it, understand its significance, change their thinking, and act on it - and fast! - rather than shelve it, as so often happens. I am also praying that Christians will engage positively but critically help them overcome some of its weaknesses.

See below for more detailed summary and comments, and specific suggestions for how Christians might contribute.



Part II - The Detailed Summary and Comments

In this part, each chapter of The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review is summarised, with points of interest indicated, along with comments and a few suggestions on how Christian thinking might contribute to enrich the Review and make it more effective at The Treasury and elsewhere.

Manchester Meadow
(c) Andrew Basden, 2014

Key:

Message: Brief summary of what I understand the chapter to be saying.

POI: A point of interest from the chapter.

Comment: A comment by me, usually on a POI.

Christian contribution: What contributions Christians might make to this debate, maybe even to Treasury thinking. The contributions are not just from individual Bible verses as such, but from the principles they express about how Creation is designed by God to work well together, in all its varied aspects. Many are alluded to in the Mosaic law, but also come from aspects of love and mercy by Jesus.

Chapter 0 How We Got to Where We Are (21-34)

Message: Humanity now has an impact on nature that exceeds nature's ability to support it: our total global ecological footprint is greater than the earth can sustain. This has come to be so only during this past century, and it is serious.

  • Comment: Dasgupta takes it as given that he must set this in an evolutionist framework of thought. Young-earth Creationists should not let that put them off. Instead, I ask that they simply skip over material they don't like, because most of the Review does not depend on it. Thank you.

    Chapter 1 Nature as an Asset (35-50)

    Message: There are three kinds of assets: produced capital, human capital and natural capital. Since economics has tended to ignore natural capital, false ideas have arisen. However, the economy and all human enterprise is embedded in, and depends on, nature, so we must bring natural capital back into our economic thinking.

  • POI: People in poorer nations manage ecosystem assets as part of their daily living, while those in wealthy countries do so much less, because they are distant from them.

  • POI: Ecosystems yield natural capital of two kinds: (a) provisions for our human and produced capital (e.g. food, relaxation, minerals), and (b) coping with our pollution and waste.

  • POI: There is a difference between market price of assets (price they fetch on the market) and the, usually larger, "accounting price", which is the "price that reflects the true value to society of any good, service or asset" (p.38).

  • POI: Two false ideas:

  • POI: Instead, human enterprise, and the whole economy, is embedded in nature and depends on nature.

  • Christian contribution: That those two ideas (growth good for environment and can continue forever) are false resonates with Biblical thinking, from the Mosaic laws about treating animals and land well, through the prophets who linked human sin with natural disaster, to Jesus' words that we cannot serve God and Mammon, and the foolishness of the man who thought he could just accumulate wealth, which are echoed in the letters.

    Chapter 2 Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (51-82)

    Message: The whole economy depends on (is "embedded in") biodiversity. Ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity are productive (for us) and more resilient in themselves.

  • POI: The ecosystem is a process, and all its processes should be considered together. From an economic perspective, these may be see in terms of stocks (e.g. plants, animals) and flows (e.g. of nutrients, chemicals) needed for living.

  • POI: From an economic perspective, resilient ecosystems provides services (Ecosystem services, ESS), of three kinds: provisioning (e.g. food), regulation and maintenance (e.g. absorbing waste), and cultural (e.g. aesthetics).

  • POI: Regulation-maintenance services are hidden, their value too often overlooked until they are lost, so we must ensure we remember them. Biodiversity supports regulation-maintenance services.

  • POI: For nearly a dozen reasons why biodiversity is important for ecosystems, see the final section, pages 74-75.

  • POI: Ecosystems do not maximize [p.], even if maximization occurs in economics.

  • Comment: There are many implications from this. One is that attempts to impose maximization of yield from ecosystems for economic reasons is likely to damage the ecosystem - as in fact has been found. Another is it raises the question of whether maximization is actually valid in economics, or is harmful.

  • Xn: Christians might make a contribution to this. Levitical laws required leaving edges of fields, and to leaving gleanings for the poor and animals, not maximizing harvests. The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control - which is pure economic and not biological. Christians can perhaps contribute a rich study of non-maximisation to economics, and its benefits. Might Creation, including economics, work better without an idol of maximization? See On Maximization.

  • Comment: Dasgupta's economics-oriented perspective simplifies biodiversity into equations - but presumably that is what the Treasury requires?

  • POI: Dasgupta recognises he adopts an anthropocentric approach (Box 2.8) and gives a reason for doing so. Comment: I feel his reason for anthropocentrism is rather weak, being a reaction against disputes within Hindu theology about the Ganges being a goddess.

  • Christian contribution: The Bible shows that, though humanity are intended as 'shepherds' of Creation, there is much in Creation that does not serve human purposes (e.g. Job 39). This offers a different reason for a non-anthropocentric view: It is all meaningful to its Creator, alongside us.

  • POI: Ecosystem Services. Dasgupta adopts the ESS approach, presumably because it is commensurable with economic measurement and amenable to mathematical treatment within equations. It is also fairly worked-out in detail. Comment: However the source ESS list (CICES) omits Oxygen though includes water.

  • Comment: This, however, cannot take into account that nature has value apart from humans. Gunton et al. [2017] argues for a wider approach, which can, and offers a conceptual tool with which to think about them (Dooyeweerd's aspects).

    Chapter 3 Biospheric Disruptions (83-100)

    Message: The biosphere, not a linear system, is grossly disrupted by fragmentation and tipping points and we cannot easily recover what we lose. This is why "markets are a woefully inadequate system of institutions for protecting the biosphere" [p.83].

  • POI: Dasgupta brings in concepts of non-linear systems to deal argue the above, such as Ecological "memory".

    Chapter 4 Human Impact on the Biosphere (101-36)

    Message: Since The economy is embedded in nature and depends on it, it suffers when biodiversity is lost. Both material and so-called non-material economies are undermined by biodiversity loss. This chapter offers a simple mathematical expression, the Impact Inequality, by which we can understand that and discuss it throughout the rest of the report:

    N y / a < G( S ) )
    The left side expresses humanity's demand on nature (sometimes called ecological footprint). The right expresses nature's ability to meet that demand. Alarmingly, humanity's demand is currently much greater than nature's ability to supply, so it is imperative that we find ways to reduce our demand on nature."

  • Alarmingly, global average human demand (ecological footpring) in 2019 was 1.7 earths (1.7 times nature's ability to meet it). In 2020, the global ecological footprint reduced to 1.6 earths because of the pandemic. Still far too large.

  • POI: The Impact Inequality: Human demand on nature is
    N * y / a.
    Nature's ability to meet that demand is the function
    G( S )

  • So we must find a way to both reduce Ny/a and increase G(S). The rest of the Review discusses ways to achieve this.

  • POI: This simple inequality is very useful, referred to throughout the rest of the Review. With it, Dasgupta helps us understand many things that are going on, and makes suggestions for going forward. Sometimes he splits it in two that add together, NY/ax and NY/ay, where ax refers to the efficiency with which we extract from nature, and ay, that of nature's coping with our pollution and waste.

  • POI: This chapter ends with: "The stresses humanity has inflicted on the biosphere to the point where our mode of conduct is not sustainable are due to institutional failure writ large. That failure is not only due to malfunctioning markets, but also to households, communities and states. Ultimately, the finger should point to we citizens." [p.130] Though he does not use the word, he is calling for responsibility at all levels.

  • Comment: Given that the Treasury requires quantitative conceptual tools, this inequality will be useful to them. But it can be too simple, not being amenable to including 'intangibles' like goodwill or justice, and offer loopholes (see below).

    Chapter 4* The Bounded Global Economy (137-42)

    Message: (Not yet summarised.)

    Chapter 5 Risk and Uncertainty (143-64)

    Message: Since environmental matters are not deterministic, we must calculate risks and uncertainties in order to decide when to change course and what to do about it.

  • POI: He uses Savage's 1954 theorems of risk. He sets out clearly the assumptions made.

  • Assumptions: (a) "we assume that the decision-maker (DM) is a concerned citizen: her viewpoint is societal." (b) DM "ranks choices on the basis of the expected values of societal, or social, well-being". (c) DM can assign subjective probabilities to choose among "available portfolios". (d) In most cases, people are identical, so social and individual well-being correspond.

  • Comment: Each one of those assumptions is an over-simplification, especially because they ignore the aspect of faith, beliefs and commitments.

  • POI: Dasgupta tries to present a mathematical way to calculate risks and especially to decide when to change course away from 'business-as-usual'.

  • Comment: He does not speak the language of responsibility in handling risks. For example, would the decision when to change course be taken differently if we emphasised responsibility and self-giving love, not just mathematics? However, I suppose the Treasury requires mathematics!

  • Christian Contribution: Without negating the mathematics, we can offer understanding of how beliefs, commitments (including aspirations and expectations), how goodness and how responsibility are active and important in the way risks are met.

    Chapter 6 Laws and Norms as Social Institutions (165-186)

    Message: We interact with one another in "institutions" (arrangements that govern collective undertakings). Given that we must trust one another to fulfil our obligations, what should our institutions be like to support this. Such trust is (part of) "social capital", a concept central to the economics of biodiversity.

  • POI: Interesting that trust is central to his argument.

  • Comment: Sadly, however, he has a rather narrow of trust, reducing it to its social aspect, of trusting others to meet their obligations, and using very rationalistic-economistic and self-centred ideas of its operation (such as in the Prisoner's Dilemma). A social understanding of trust is important, but it would benefit from enriching with a fuller understanding of trust, especially its juridical, ethical and faith aspects.

  • Christian contribution: Jesus' admonition to "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no." People of other religions find Christians generally trustworthy in keeping their promises. Trust involves willingness to sacrifice [McGibbon 2018], which is the opposite of the self-centredness presupposed by rationalistic economic theory.

  • POI: Four kinds of institution: households, markets, the state, and also communities (civil society). The first three are conventional, and Dasgupta adds the fourth.

  • Comment: Those four are a subset of kinds of ihstituion identified by Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. Their ideas could make contribution.

  • POI: There is a link between government corruption and biodiversity loss. But it is not well-understood.

  • Comment: The possibility of that link should not be used in arguments either way.

    Chapter 7 Human Institutions and Ecological Systems, 1: Unidirectional Externalities and Regulatory Policies (187-204)

    Message: Externalities (consequences of our impact that are not accounted for) are of major importance, and must be considered carefully in the Impact Inequality (population size, standard of living, and efficiency of use of nature's goods and services). Doing so is not easy.

  • POI: Externalities mean that wealth is transferred from the poor to the rich, because "because national accounts do not record externalities" so "Modern consumption patterns, relying as they do on imported primary goods from distant parts of the world, are prone to being underpriced." [p.190]

  • Comment: Is there a danger that self-centred vested interests will tend to focus on the two elements other than that in which they are damaging the biosphere? Christian contribution: A Christian view would say that then those interests should at least offer active, sacrificial activity to work effectively in those two elements, and then begin to work sacrificially on the element they are damaging. Doing the former might change the attitude enabling the latter to be done.

  • POI: In a "well-functioning market" all externalities are accounted for - but then he discusses many distortions of markets.

  • Comment: Dasgupta speaks about rights more than responsibilities. However, rights are narrower than responsibility, especially an attitude of responsibility, because responsibility not only takes rights into account but goes beyond them into generosity and self-giving. (In Dooyeweerd's terms, rights are meaningful only in the juridical aspect, responsibility in both the juridical and ethical aspects.)

  • POI: However, Dasgupta does mention some of the problems of rights-based thinking, e.g. clashes.

  • Xn: Christian thinking emphasises attitudes of responsibility (justice and love) as the key elements that make society work well.

  • POI: Interestingly, he seems not to favour pollution taxes [p.192].

  • Comment: Dasgupta does not seem to bring discretionary wealth into his considerations. He seems to lump all wealth together and presuppose it is all to do with needs. Yet is not discretionary expenditure guided by different norms and forces than needs? Does it not also bloat the non-essentials in the economy?

    Chapter 8 Human Institutions and Ecological Systems, 2: Common Pool Resources (205-20)

    Message: CPRs (common pool resources, shared locally) are important especially for poorer peoples, but are fragile, and often deteriorate for several reasons.

  • POI: Garrett Hardin's (1968) Tragedy of the Commons. Dasgupta uses it as the basis for his quantitative calculations, but recognises a number of inaccuracies in it, which he tries to take into account. One of these is the community's (tacitly or explicitly) agreed norms. This is the conceptual tool that he forges for our use in trying to work out the economics of biodiversity, especially in the light of the need to do justice to the poor.

  • POI: However, the Tragedy of the Commons (and its extensions) does not seem an appropriate conceptual tool for considering global commons like the atmosphere.

  • Comment: Dasgupta asks why poorer communities tend to keep CPRs in common and not divide them into private ownership, and then proceeds to seek an answer in economic rationality, in terms of risks etc. But are not culture and beliefs an important reason too? Is this an example of where Dasgupta's economic-centred perspective blinds him to important aspects?

  • Christian contribution: Work out how culture and beliefs can be brought in, to enrich Dasgupta's ideas, and send it to the Treasury.

  • POI: Dasgupta recognises that CPRs are not always well-managed. Though he treats them as of considerable importance and value in the economics of biodiversity, he does not blindly think they are marvellous.

  • POI: Four reasons why CPRs have deteriorated (whereas those who try to argue for private ownership usually point to only one or two): (a) external forces (e.g. warlords, governments) undermining the security of the CPR; (b) rapid population growth; (c) central fiat by government; (d) cooperation is fragile.

  • Christian contribution: Jesus' and the Bible's emphasis on love and self-giving, and looking after the poor, are the forces that make cooperation stronger, and also have been known occasionally to curb tyrants etc.

    Chapter 8* Management of CPRs: A Formal Model (221-58)

    Message: How to conceive of alternative institutions.

  • POI: Interestingly, it seems that whether a CPR is locally-managed, owned by the state, or divided up into private properties, matters less than I had expected. However, that finding is from an economic (and mathematical) perspective and other aspects of human functioning modify that finding.

    Chapter 9 Human Institutions and Ecological Systems, 3: Consumption Practices and Reproductive Behaviour (229-50)

    Message: Human behaviour (including consumption choices) must change, especially to reduce population growth.

  • POI: "Textbook economics, even graduate textbook economics, takes the human person to be an egoist." Alarmingly, "That same assumption influences the way income-expenditure models that government ministries of economics and finance use to determine their nation's public finances are interpreted." [p.229]

  • My snide comment: No wonder government financial planning keeps going wrong!

  • POI: Covid-19 offers a "natural experiment" in human behaviour, which shows something beyond egotism.

  • POI: Dasgupta argues that human behaviour is influenced by others, socially, being either "competitive" or "conformist". He then uses those categories throughout the chapter.

  • Comment: I find that greatly disappointing. The pair come from rationalism of the 1920s and allow no insight into real human behaviour, including justice, love and commitment to causes. Whilst c+c might be seen when one focuses solely on the social aspect, is there something that determines what the community conforms or competes over, which cannot be explained in such terms? Justice, love and commitment are meaningful in the juridical, ethical and pistic aspects, and influence social functioning. Is it any wonder that Dasgupta, though recognising things like responsibility and generosity, does not adequately accommodate them into his approach in any systematized way? I suggest that Dasgupta, or the Treasury, need to take those into account. They are the same aspects as Gunton et al. used for ecosystem valuing.

  • POI: 3 pages on changing consumption patterns; 10 pages on curbing population growth, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Family planning and contraception are discussed at length (though not, thankfully, abortion). Comment: Is population and "reproductive health" a 'darling' topic for Dasgupta?

  • Comment: Danger that UK policy-makers will use the latter as an excuse for doing little about our own consumption? Also, do not "Black lives matter"?

  • Comment: I found this whole chapter either disappointing or repugnant. But the Review as a whole has enormous value and makes sense without this chapter. See my prayer at the end.

    Chapter 10 Well-Being Across the Generations (251-82)

    Message: To take future generations into account, we must be careful how we discount their value and calculate return on investment.

  • POI: Well-being is different from consumption. (p.266)

  • POI: Investment must be in natural capital as well as human and produced capital. For example, Natural capital: letting forest grow is an investment; Human capital: training teachers; Produced capital: building roads. (p.274-5)

  • POI: "Let the market decide" cannot work because it ignores externalities. (p.262)

  • POI: People must see through the eyes of others rather than through their own.

  • Christian contribution: Is that not a major Christian attitude, e.g. Philippians 2? Do not Christians have considerable knowledge and wisdom of the intricacies of doing this, which could be useful in the debate?

  • POI: Dasgupta reviews three moral philosophies for dealing with future generations: Utilitarianism, Rawls' "ignorance utilitarianism", and intuitionism.

  • Comment: Dasgupta seems to adopt a form of utilitarianism, especially since it seems to allow him to bring well-being into equations. However, as he admits (p.255), utilitarianism presupposes "ideally and impartial spectator" who has "a universal point of view", including across generations. The philosopher Dooyeweerd showed that is impossible not only in practice but in principle, and others, e.g. Kuhn, agree. What Dooyeweerd offers, however, is a different way to see through the eyes of others, not by rational spectatorship but by functioning with others in the ethical aspect of self-giving love, putting the other first, and doing so as an attitude rather than an action, and doing so even when we don't have full knowledge of the other. That ethical functioning is also a Christian attitude.

  • Critical comment: It seems to me that Dasgupta's discussion of moral philosophy is very limited, despite its detail. He does not include virtue ethics, for example. And most of his theories come from 1928 - 1974. I felt that much of this chapter is not worth reading, not until the end.

    Chapter 11 The Content of Well-Being: Empirics (283-98)

    Message: The various empirical measures of well-being, until recently, have omitted connectedness with nature, but recent studies show its importance. Urbanisation with economic growth has disconnected most from nature.

  • POI: Various ways of measuring well-being, some objective, others subjective (such as happiness, life satisfaction).

  • POI: But until recently these have omitted and overlooked connectedness with nature. Comment: Therefore, the fact that none or few of the ordered lists of well-being factors omit nature, does NOT mean nature is important.

  • (Other Research: On p.289, Dasgupta cites research that compares perceived life satisfaction across various countries, finding that high and low scores are found in both low- and high-income countries. What it would be interesting to find out is whether committed Christians tend to have a higher score in all countries than do non-Christians. After all, did not Jesus say he had come to bring life that is abundant?)

    Chapter 12 Valuing Biodiversity (299-320)

    Message: There are several ways in which biodiversity can be valued, and by which it can be accounted for in economics.

  • POI: The ways biodiversity if of value (to us) [with aspect in which each is meaningful]:

  • POI: Re. moral standing, Dasgupta differentiates person from human being, and discusses three beliefs about personhood. He prefers the second, in which personhood arises from complexity, because that enables him to assign personhood to ecosystems.

  • Comment: I find all three flawed. It is probably because the presupposition of a difference between personhood and human being may be questioned. He lists several religious beliefs about personhood, claiming that Christianity locates personhood in the soul. That misrepresents Christianity, because it is true only of the version grounded in pagan Greek philosophy. That which is grounded in the Bible adopts a more Hebrew idea, that personhood and human being cannot be separated, and the one is an aspect of the other.

  • Suggestion: To value biodiversity, use Gunton et al.'s Valuing the Invaluable idea of locating value in each of the aspects (of which some are found above), regardless of how or even whether those serve human interests. Each aspect is a way in which biodiversity (or anything else) can be meaningful and hence of value.

    Chapter 13 Sustainability Assessment and Policy Analysis (321-56)

    Message: (Ecosystem) Services are provided by assets (durable goods of positive worth that we inherit or pass on). They must include natural capital as well as human and produced capital. This is "inclusive wealth", which should replace GDP as the measure of the economy.

  • POI: Dasgupta offers six questions that policy-makers ask about the economy. (p.329)

    Chapter 13* Accounting Prices and Inclusive Wealth (357-62)

    Message: Equations for optimum allocation of goods and services.

  • POI: Dasgupta's equations take into account:

    Part II - Extensions

    Chapter 14 Distribution and Sustainability (365-76)

    Message: There are major differences in sustainability across the world, especially affecting less-developed nations.

  • POI: Biodiversity loss reduces the prosperity of less-developed nations especially.

  • Comment: Does this not tell us that those who say "focus on poverty and don't waste effort on environmental matters" (example) are wrong, and that such a policy would undermine the very thing they claim to want to do?

    Chapter 15 Trade and the Biosphere (377-94)

    Message: Trade has been very bad for biodiversity because it decouples demand from supply. But things can be done to ameliorate this.

  • Comment: Is the decoupling of supply and demand merely an issue of economics, logistics or knowledge? Or is it more an issue of attitude? If we take an attitude of responsibility and detailed consideration of the other, then trade can continue without biodiversity loss. But usually, our attitude is self-absorbed, even self-centred, and decoupling merely gives us the excuse to, and convenience of, not thinking about the other not being concerned. Was it not for this reason that God destroyed Sodom and exiled Judah [Ezekiel 16:49]?

    Chapter 16 Demand for Provisioning Services and Its Consequences (395-414)

    Message: Demand from land and the ecosphere, for food, minerals, fibres, timber etc., has greatly reduced biodiversity under the current economic system and technology. It may be that different techniques or technology can help us increase our efficiency.

  • POI: It seems that going 100% organic in food production is more possible than I expected.

  • Minor critique: His section on genetic modified foods glosses over its impact on biodiversity but dwells mainly on injustices to farmers. Can we fully trust that section?

  • Comment: The main solution he offers is technology and techniques. He does not seem to address the issue of changing lifestyle. From a Christian perspective is not self-control as part of the fruit of the Spirit [Galatians 5:23]?

    Chapter 17 Managing Nature-Related Financial Risk and Uncertainty (415-32)

    Message: There are three kinds of risk to financial prosperity: physical risks (e.g. cyclone destroys cities), transition risks (incurred by the uncertainties and disruption of transitioning to sustainability) and litigation (especially against firms that do not transition fast enough).

  • POI: White, black and green swans - the expected risks and two types of unexpected risks. White swan risks, like car accidents, are relatively certain and predictable from statistics of the past. Black swan risks, cannot be predicted from the past, are significant in magnitude and intensity, with large externalised damage. Green swans are similar in magnitude and damage, but are likely or certain to occur, such as increasing drought, water stress, heatwaves and flooding.

    Chapter 18 Conservation of Nature (433-48)

    Pairs with Chapter 19, on Restoration.

    Message: Considered as an economic asset, there is sufficient ecological stock for the future if we conserve, protect and restore. Conservation and protection of nature is more important than restoration, because restoration is never 100%. Conservation planning along with multilateral environmental agreements can help achieve these.

  • POI: Protection and Restoration are not a drain on finances. They are not only socially and environmentally beneficial, but also even financially beneficial too. I did not expect that.

  • POI: PADDD: Protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement. An understanding of why designating areas for protection of nature might not work as well as it should.

  • Comment: I find that, though Dasgupta recognises that environmental regulations are not kept, he seems rather optimistic about human nature.

  • Comment: Dasgupta advocates differentiating protected from non-protected areas. While that might be appropriate in some places, it is is not as good as getting people to live lives of environmentally sensitive integration, in which we live in such a way that all around us is biodiversity. The separation approach is undermined by PADDD, and also destroys wildlife corridors.

  • Christian contribution: The human heart needs to be changed, and the Holy Spirit can achieve that. Empirical evidence for this may be found in revivals etc. This also enhances respect and care for nature - as evidenced for example by the fact that it was evangelical Christianity that led to setting up of the RSPCA. Radical change of heart can help undergird the environmentally-sensitive integration, because those living there would "value the invaluable" [Gunton et al. 2017] in nature.

  • Christian contribution: Also, I find that when I obey the principles of the Kingdom of God, unexpected benefits accrue and everything begins working better.

    Chapter 19 Restoration of Nature (449-64)

    Message: Avoiding degradation should be higher priority than restoration of degraded ecosystem, because it never gives 1005, but restoration has an important part to play. Restoration requires "unprecedented ambition". Restoration includes rewilding, nature-based solutions and 'sustainable production' landscapes and seas. Restoration should be brought into land-use planning.

  • POI: I find it interesting that Dasgupta urges us to bring natural capital into spatial and land-use planning. Planning should not just be about physical and economic development.

  • Christian contribution: The importance of faith and faith communities. It is faith, more than rational calculation and planning, which inspires and lends perseverance.

    Chapter 20 Finance for Sustainable Engagement with Nature (465-82)

    Message: Finance for conservation and restoration can come from both public and private sources, and each offers several different sources, such as taxes, investment and payment for ecosystem services, at domestic-national and global levels. Engagement, monitoring and influence are all important to achieving this.

  • POI: Dasgupta recognises [p.466] that some finance is harmful in its repercussions. This goes against the usual assumption, underlying the idea that ever-growing GDP is desirable, that all finance is good and to be welcomes. That, it seems to me, is a welcome and very significant shift.

  • Comment: I would add that some finance (and GDP) is useless or non-essential.

  • Comment: I also suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that certain sectors of The Economy have been especially harmful, and that the ones that spread the virus are the very ones that generate inordinate amount of climate change emissions and/or biodiversity loss, especially aviation, other travel and hospitality. They are also sectors where much of our economic activity is non-essential. Does the pandemic offer us the opportunity to shrink those harmful sectors of The Economy? See Making Sense of Covid-19.

    Chapter 21 Options for Change (485-96)

    Message: We must do three things:

  • POI: On environmental taxes. No OECD or G20 country collects more than 1% of its GDP in environmental taxes, beyond those related to energy or motor vehicles. By contrast, reverse subsidies, from the poorer nations to the richer ones, are around 6% of global GDP {p.489-90}. As Dasgupta says, "There is scope, therefore, to raise further revenue through environmental taxation." However, "Such taxes need to be designed carefully, to avoid potential shifts to other activities that damage Nature (leakage), to avoid the risk of crossing tipping points (if {P.491} behaviour is insufficiently influenced by the tax) and to ensure the environmental harm being taxed is measured to a reasonable degree of accuracy."

  • POI: Interestingly, Dasgupta suggests that a fair price be paid for (maintining) global public goods like the rainforests, in view of the ecological services they provide. I have long thought it would be useful to pay Brazil and Indonesia, for example, for the oxygen their rainforests generate for us, but this could perhaps be extended to biodiversity services as a whole.

  • POI: Embed environmental considerations along entire supply chains.

  • POI: The most economically effective route is to "leave nature alone".

  • Comment: I feel Dasgupta is rather optimistic about the potential for education. Education is undoubtedly needed, but will education really solve the problem?

  • Christian contribution: The human heart is "desperately wicked" and needs radical reorientation and transformation, which the Holy Spirit offers. Then education and all these other solutions are likely to work much better.

    Conclusion

    Governments sometimes commission reports and then put them on the shelf and ignore them. That the Treasury has commissioned The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review is indeed good news, but it must not shelve it. It must act to take it seriously. The Review is not the end, but the beginning, and there is a long way to go.

    So I pray, in line with I Timothy 2:2, that those in the Treasury who form policy will read, understand and heed The Economics of Biodiversity, and act on it - and do so fast because there is little time left. Its flaws can perhaps be addressed by Christian contribution. It offers an opportunity for Christians to make a really useful contribution to the debate, as I have indicated above.

    A suggestion for Christian involvement in this debate, especially in discussions with Treasury and economic people: Do not stand on theological doctrines or theories to judge Dasgupta or nor impose them on those who might form Treasury policy. Rather, let us identify clearly in our own minds, and yet humbly and mercifully, the major gaps in Dasgupta's ideas, some of which are indicated above, and then let us work out, and speak in terms of, practical ramifications of omitting these from economic thinking and planning.

    See Also

    References and Notes

    Dasgupta P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. HM Treasury, UK. Available at:

    Gunton RM, vanAsperen E, Basden A, Bookless D, Araya Y, Hanson DR, Goddard MA, Otieno G, Jones GO. 2017. Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution April 2017, 32 (4), 249-257.

    McGibbon S. 2018. Towards an Aspectual Conception of Trust. PhD Thesis, University of Salford, UK.


    Created: 22 February 2021. Last updated: 4 March 2021 a little more in Conclusion. 6 March 2021 Ch 4 rewrite; completed ch 5,6. 7 March 2021 Added Overall as Part I; Detail as Part II, and pix.