Neoclassical economics perceives nature in terms of commodities: farm the land, trawl the sea, mine the crust; sell the stuff. Win. We’ve even calibrated economics to look at “winners” and ignore “losers”, so we are constantly selecting false stories of promise to continue selling the promise of economics. We often look at a hydroelectric dam in terms of the power generation and perhaps recreation services. Watch the winner! We don’t pay equal attention to every environmental loser, or any of them really. We don’t look at the river dynamics or geomorphology downstream, which affects agriculture and flood risk; we don’t consider the effects on fish stock and downstream fisheries; we don’t like to think on the flows of sediment, a resource downstream; we certainly never get as far as effluent being dammed up and releasing nitrous oxides, extraordinarily potent greenhouse gases, or the loss of the carbon sequestration value of downstream ecosystems.
Nature gives us a lot. In fact, everything. If you’re ever curious as to what nature gives us, imagine living on the moon. It becomes immediately clear that we have a vital dependence on nature. It provides air, water, food, tools and other immediately tangible services. It also provides some less tangible services, like recreation and a certain spiritual fulfilment as well as entwining itself fully with our cultural practices. Even political and social benefits are supported by natural services. And we get them all for free! We’ve had them since before money.
But, politics is in bed with economics. I’m not saying that certain political individuals are corrupted by certain economic practices; although that’s pretty true, that’s not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is that politics as a practice is in bed with neoclassical economics as a metric. (Neoclassical economics being the “if you can’t flog it, it’s worthless” approach, to simplify it.) The problem with neoclassical economics is that it is a selfish partner. It’s encouraging us to sell-out vast amounts of the things that, really, we want.
Think for a moment about what life is about. Just a moment: it’s too big a question to get a full answer in 5 seconds meditation, but some signposts will surely pop up to show you the kind of direction you’re looking in. Now think momentarily about whether money is the end-all of it: would you be content being rich without the opportunity to spend that money on personal and psychological needs? Would you trade in your health for wealth? Is money really an end-point, or is it a corrupted points-keeping tool?
The services that nature supply are not just our provisions (commodities). Nature also offers all the services that support those commodities, like soil, photosynthesis, water and nutrient cycling. We don’t need to set these processes up, all we need to do is not break them. Nature also provides many regulating services that we don’t sell, like climate regulation, flood regulation, water purification and many of our cultural needs. Nature is a system. And that system is integral to our security, vital and physiological health and social relationships.
And neoclassical economics is breaking it up.
Part of this is the fault of the human condition.1 We are very able to unthinkingly view an entity as not just distinct, but separate from its place in a system. I don’t mean that in a hippy-sense, I am thinking of a river being thought of as a supply of irrigation water without consideration for its role in other activities downstream: replenishing groundwater supplies, supplying sediment to the river banks and managing a natural flood defence, wetlands and other ecosystems it contributes to. Those ecosystems in turn may support economic uses of natural services, as well as supporting cultural and recreational uses. Human nature also means we tend to view gains on short term cycles, with little consideration or regard for the long term health of the systems that provided the commodity.
But it is not just the human condition. We can be made to think of ourselves and our activities as a part of a functioning system. It is politics, the system in which we govern ourselves or are governed, that isolates provision ecosystem services for economic uses as the metric by which we measure success. But, I take you back to the moments of meditation I asked you to do at the start of this post: is that really the way we fashion the success of our lives? Alternatively, do we actually value nature as a non-economic resource?
There are two lessons I feel we need to take away from looking at nature. One is that the services we receive from nature are a lot more than the economic metric we are asked to focus on. It provides us with commodities worth more than money and economic success: physiological and psychological health, security (from flooding and fire and salination), recreation and our cultural and spiritual needs.
The second lesson is that nature’s system has services that support itself: nutrient cycling, soil formation and primary production. We don’t consume these, but we are inextricably dependent on them. If we harness our needs in ways that destroy those supporting systems, then there will be no nature left to provide us with services.
History would suggest we need to consider one other thing in the way we manage nature. It is often the case that we can design an establishment or amenity that fits more than one purpose, and thus is complementary or analogous to the ecosystem functions we so desperately rely on. But we don’t. As a result there is nearly always a “loser”. And the “loser”/”winner” divide so often falls along class lines. Our conflict with nature is not only a moral consideration because of the effects we have on nature, but because the conflict nearly always exploits the vulnerable.
1 – The human condition, in turn, is the result of short-term survival thinking and natural selection, so the argument can be made that this is all just ecology as normal. I’d call that ‘extreme ecocentricism’, where one ignores human interest to the point of denying humanity is in any way an exceptional point of nature. That means, in turn, that human civilisation is ‘ecology and normal’, and like a too-virulent virus, it will burn through its host in this natural disequilibrium. I’m not saying that’s philosophically or empirically wrong, it’s just not a perspective that lends itself well to human wellbeing or social reform.