This month’s edition of The Economist magazine contains a 14-page special feature on the relationship between economic growth and biodiversity. It describes an environmental Kuznets curve, whereby ecological conditions worsen in the early stages of development but improve after a certain level of prosperity has been reached – by which time people and nation-states have the technical means to satisfy their needs, and therefore the luxury of being able to think about matters beyond their immediate survival.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support such an idea and much indication that the opposite is, in fact, true. Concern for the environment – where it is demonstrated at all – tends to be localised. People in the UK care about fracking when it occurs in their backyard, but are not so worried about the effects of oil-extraction in Africa. Charitable donations show similar trends: people tend to give to causes that are near and dear.
While the special feature in The Economist attributes current forms of environmental degradation to people in developing nations, it ignores the role of prosperous states in exporting the costs of their own growth to poorer countries through climate change, resource extraction, wildlife trade and land-grabs – all of which destroy ecosystems and degrade habitats faster than could be achieved by the rural poor in affected regions.
Even the environmental ‘solutions’ that The Economist suggests can be used to tackle population pressures have hidden costs. The main one proposed – agricultural intensification – relies on fossil fuels; it causes nutrient run-off and soil erosion, which affects aquatic systems downstream, creating dead-zones in important coastal habitats; it requires irrigation, accounting for a large proportion of water withdrawals from freshwater bodies and aquifers; and it can not be practiced everywhere, meaning that forests are often turned into plantations.
There is ample evidence that prosperous nations waste a significant proportion of the food we produce, and that our dietary choices (reliance on processed food, dairy, meat, fish) and consumption patterns are more environmentally damaging than the subsistence practices of people living in developing countries.
As Jonathan Baillie – one of Synchronicity Earth’s advisers – pointed out in a short piece for The Economist Debates, we should be sure that if we rely on measure of GDP to understand our growth, we at least account for the costs of wealth-generation properly.
It is true that there are certain kinds of growth and technological intervention that can enhance planetary wellbeing but they are not contained in the linear models of economic prosperity and output that are proposed in The Economist. The interventions in our portfolio highlight how we can improve human wellbeing in ways that also protect biodiversity.