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Patrick Bapty

Appreciating assets

4 February, 2021

This week, Prince Charles and David Attenborough took to the stage to talk (again) about the perils of our abuse of the natural world and the need for fundamental shifts in how we value it and manage it. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the latest BBC natural world series – it was actually the launch of a report commissioned by HM Treasury. 

The Dasgupta Review is a 606-page global review of the economics of biodiversity led by Cambridge economist, Sir Partha Dasgupta. It shows how our collective undervaluing of the natural resources that underlie our health and wellbeing are endangering the prosperity of current and future generations: the very definition of unsustainable. It provides a comprehensive review of the evidence and calls for three transitions to reverse this failure: better balancing the supply and demand of natural resources we consume; improving our measures of economic success by considering ‘inclusive wealth’ (a stock) over GDP (a flow); and transforming our institutions and systems to enable and sustain these changes. 

The review inevitably focuses on how we measure value and makes a clear analogy between ‘natural capital’ and financial capital, describing us all as asset managers (of natural capital), the need for portfolio diversity, and rates of return. Analogies can be helpful, and framing ecology in the language of economics will make sense for a lot of key decision makers in the Treasury and beyond. Although there is something undeniably uncomfortable in referring to the natural world in these terms and promoting the further expansion of marketisation.  

However, whether or not putting a price on nature feels comfortable, fundamentally changing the way we view our relationship with nature, by increasing the value we confer to natural resources, is essential and will provide a welcome end to our current failing experiment – giving nature very little value.  

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