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Sir Partha Dasgupta Addresses the Climate Action Assembly II

Sir Partha Dasgupta addresses the Climate Action Assembly II at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good morning. It’s an honor to be with you. Please accept my apologies for not being with you physically. And also the fact that I’m actually recording this in advance of the event for technical reasons. So I shouldn’t be able to respond to any questions that you may have after I’m given my remarks. But please feel free to write to me should you wish to and I’ll get back to you on that.

If you plot global GDP, world population and global GDP per capita from year one C.E. that is to the present, you will find each curve to be pretty flat until about 1750. Then rising gently and taking a sharp turn upward from the immediate postwar years 1950, for example, global GDP has grown more than 15 times since 1950. World population has grown from some 2.5 billion to 8 billion today per capita global GDP has increased nearly fivefold to some 18,000 dollars ppp annually. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 46 years to 72 years, and the proportion of people in extreme poverty has declined from some 60% to under 10%. 

Now all this would be unadulterated good news. But for the fact that we have achieved those successes by mining Mother Nature to the point where there is an enormous global overreach into her goods and services. Crude estimates suggest that the ratio of our global demand for nature’s goods and services, and her ability to meet the demand on a sustainable basis is about 1.7 and almost certainly underestimated by the way.

When’s the refrain that we need 1.7 earths to support the current global standard of living. Extinction of species in the Anthropocene, that is the period since 1950, have been occurring at 100 to 1000 times the background rate which was approximately 0.1 to one species extinction per million species per year. These statistics are a rare example of a point of contact between economics and the earth sciences for prominent members of the latter see 1950 as the year we entered the Anthropocene, a phrase that you have come across in recent years. 

Now, in my review of the economics of biodiversity which I submitted to the UK government about two and a half years ago, I tried to blend ecology with economics in such a way that we could discuss economic possibilities into the future in a way in which Mother Nature is embedded or rather we’re embedded in Mother Nature in a seamless way.

And I want to make a few comments along that line. Now, in recent years, ecologists have drawn a distinction between Mother Nature’s provisioning goods, food, water, timber, fuels, fibers, pharmaceuticals and non-living materials, and her maintenance and regulating services, prominent among which are carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation, nutrient recycling, decomposition of waste, pollination, soil regeneration, purification of water, and maintenance of the biosphere’s gaseous composition.

Now, the former, that is to say provisioning goods, consists of goods that with human effort and ingenuity are transformed into the final goods and services that are reflected in GDP. That’s why we pay attention to provisioning goods. In contrast, maintenance and regulating services create provisioning goods. We are mostly unaware of the processes that give rise to those services. Think of the things that are happening deep in the soils, in the thickness of tropical rainforests and in the ocean depths. But they are the foundation on which we exist. And because there are several steps removed from our direct experience, we underestimate their significance. The problem is there are tensions between our demand for provisioning goods and our need for maintenance and regulating services.

When we engage in mining, pouring and more broadly in the land use changes accompanying expansions of crop agriculture, animal farming, plantations and construction, nature’s ability to supply maintenance and regulating services is diminished. Over a third of Earth’s land surface is currently used for crops and pasture. Most new cropland has replaced forests and most new pasture land has replaced grasslands, savannas and shrublands. In the process, much biodiversity has been lost that has correspondingly weakened maintenance and regulating services, including Mother Nature’s ability to regulate climate. It’s the latter which we talk about mostly, but there are millions of other services that Mother Nature offers us and we ignore them to our peril.

There is a further distinction between Mother Nature’s goods and services. Although technological advancements have repeatedly shown ways to substitute provisioning goods for one another. Fossil fuels replacing timber, solar panels and wind farms substituting for fossil fuels in energy production and so on. Nature’s maintenance and regulating services are complementary to one another, one another. Destructing one sufficiently disrupts the others. The mutual influence of climate change and destruction of the world’s tropical rainforest is an example of this complementarity.

Complementarity is among the latter. Tell us that we are embedded in nature. We are not external creatures. Nature isn’t, of course, a house of cards. She’s resilient. But we humans are now so clever that we could convert her into one if we choose to do so. As I fear we are doing currently. Climate change is one example, of course, but this entire loss of biodiversity that I’ve just hinted at is an example of the other. 

Now there are three features of nature’s maintenance and regulating services and that’s what I’m concentrating on here because they’re so badly neglected in our economic thinking.  And these three features consist of one that Mother Nature is mobile. She’s always on the move, whether it’s the wind, whether it’s ocean currents or the flow of rivers. And of course the movement of creatures, animals, insects, and so forth, which makes, of course, property rights very difficult to enforce. What we do here translates into the future effects has consequences in the future and far away, perhaps, and you’re familiar with that aspect of Mother Nature’s characteristic, namely mobility. But there are two other features which I want to concentrate on now.

One is she, many of these processes are silent and they’re invisible. And I’ve suggested that they are, when you think about deep in the oceans, what’s going on there in the soils and so forth. And I liken this concentration of processes to the fact that we may think of Mother Nature as a bewildering array of rhythms of widely different periodicity and spatial extent.

Think of the speed with which bacterial life transforms itself. 

Second, compare that to an oak tree or the succession of forests, which we’re looking at now we’re looking at periodicity of hundreds of years. And then there are of course ocean currents which take thousands of years to roll. Okay. And, and it seems to me that it is the processes of the nature’s processes, the maintenance and regulating services on the basis of which all of life depends, that is at the heart of much religious thinking.

When I was in school in Varanasi, we had a daily assembly, at which our music teacher and her students would chant, sing Vedic hymns. And they would be addressing there would be incantations to dawn, dusk, birth and death, creation, and so forth. And so these hymns spoke to these rhythms, something that we have not lost touch with because we’re concentrating on provisioning goods on needs for these goods, which are supplied by these processes. In vocation to this process, processes bring us in touch, at least bring me in touch with what I can only call the transcendent. And avoiding thinking about these processes as we tend to in the modern era has also shaped our sense of the aesthetics. We think nature is orderly.

Great art looks at still life scenes, natural scenes from a distance, and they’re always clean, at least in our sense of cleanliness. And in fact, we’ve evolved our sense, the sense of aesthetic sense is evolved to think of nature as an orderly and neat object. And by nature, of course, I mean all the ecosystems, the mangroves, forests, the coral reefs, the wetlands, the rainforests, and the grasslands, and so forth.

But it seems to me when you concentrate on processes, then you begin to see that in me our perception, our aesthetic perception is biased.

In the autumn, when you go for a walk and you see rotting leaves, fungal growth on decaying timber, it’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. But of course, if you think of them as processes, if you accept them as manifestations of processes, they have an unearthly beauty. The two features that I emphasized at the start, that Mother Nature’s processes are often invisible and silent, makes life very difficult for us in the sense that we easily tarnish her. And the reason is that silence and invisibility and spatial range of events makes it very difficult to monitor our own behavior.

Others can’t see what we are doing. And so the law or social norms of behavior are not very effective. They’re not effective because for norms to function, people need to know what you have done and then you can be told off if you like. And of course, the law can’t operate unless there’s ways of verifying what a miscreant has done.

Which is why in my review, I ended by recognizing that there is just so much we can do to alleviate the problems that we have created for ourselves by relying on the law or even social norms of behavior because monitoring is so difficult.

So what does one do? It seemed to me and that’s where the review ends. We need to be our own judge and jury and it’s self-monitoring that we can keep us from spoiling nature, insulting her to the extent that we do sometimes even without knowing. How do you generate that? It seemed to me that the only way to do that is if we develop a love for nature, a love for the processes that describe nature. How do you create that love? Again it seems to me it will be education.

That is, from the earliest stages of our lives we are trained to be naturalists so nature studies join forces with reading, writing and arithmetic as the basic educational topics. Then when children from the earliest years, particularly now that we are becoming an urbanized society, mock around in nature, dig up a bit of soil to see what’s going on. Getting an understanding of these bewilderingly fascinating processes will generate a reverence for this incredible world we have been born into.

Thank you very much.

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