The Economics of Biodiversity: An Opportunity for Christian Thinking?

Prof Andrew Basden

Is it not stupid that Amazon, the company, is worth billions in the economy, while Amazon the rainforest is worth nothing – until it is destroyed for logging or agriculture? Its real worth, as a generator of oxygen and biodiversity is unaccounted for, even though we all depend on it.

Biodiversity (the huge variety of plants and animals in the Creation) is described so beautifully in Psalm 104 and Job 39, but is deemed of zero value unless it can be converted to money. And so we in the wealthy economies “destroy the earth” [Revelation 11:18].

GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the Treasury’s main measure of wealth, takes no account of the value of the natural world. Better measures have been suggested, but the Treasury has resisted them, sticking with GDP.

Until now, that is. On 2nd February 2021, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, was published, to review ways to incorporate the value of biodiversity. That it was commissioned, not by The Department of the Environment, but by the Treasury itself – is this a sign that the Treasury, at last, sees the need to change?

This article summarises that Review and what Christians might do about it, to contribute to a shift in outlook – and why Christians should do so.

The Economics of Biodiversity

The Review, The Economics of Diversity comes in three versions, full, abridged and as headlines. The full version (21 chapters) argues as follows. Humanity’s impact on and demands of nature (‘ecological footprint’) exceeds nature’s ability to support them, by 1.7 times in 2019. Natural capital should be included in economic thinking, alongside produced and human capital. The shallow ideas of the 1990s (that a growing economy is good for the environment and that human ingenuity will let this grow indefinitely) have proven false.

The economy is embedded in biodiversity and depends on it. Yet it has been destroying it. False and harmful assumptions abound, (e.g. “Standard economic models view our choices as self-centred.”), and “markets are a woefully inadequate system of institutions for protecting the biosphere” [p.83]. Externalities (“consequences of our impact that are not accounted for”) must be brought into consideration. So must the idea of commons (e.g. ocean, rainforest) and future generations, with full awareness of rural lifestyles and less-developed nations.

So Dasgupta painstakingly works out equations that incorporate such things, which the Treasury can use in their calculations.

The Review ends by suggesting three things that need to be changed as a minimum: (a) Rebalance our demand on nature and nature’s ability to supply by conserving and restoring. (b) Change our measures of economic progress, away from GDP. (c) Transform our institutions and systems, concerning global public goods, the global financial system, empowering citizenship, and education.

The Review has flaws, however. It adopts the anthropocentric idea of Ecosystem Services, valuing only what serves humans, rather than recognising Creation’s intrinsic worth, e.g. to God – though this is recognised. In seeking to work out equations (presumably because the Treasury expected this) it relies on rather crude models – though no cruder than those the Treasury already relies on – and hence over-simplifies some things less quantifiable. Of these, voluntary and unpaid human activity, and religious belief, are not adequately taken into account – though they are acknowledged. None of these are insurmountable.

Why Christians Can Contribute

There is much that Christians can affirm in this Review. It does not take sides between markets and justice, but recognises the importance of both, and more. It seems extremely comprehensive, advocating what we might call “wisdom.” But what can Christians do beyond that, to critique and enrich it?

The Review points out our unique times, “While our ancestors were incapable of affecting the Earth system as a whole, we are doing just that” – because of 7 billion population, technology, and economy. This helps us understand why Revelation 11:18 announces that “The time (kairos) has come … to destroy those who destroy the earth.” The time of judgment has arrived, with Creation “groaning” as never before [Romans 8:22]. Yet, in all judgment, God is merciful and invites repentance.

Is now the kairos for those who have been justified by Christ [Romans 8:1], who deeply understand sin and repentance, and have been made mature by the Holy Spirit [Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:22-23] to be “revealed” [Romans 8:19] as those who take the lead in caring for Creation in the ways God intended, and on all of which God has compassion [Psalm 145:13]? Has not the Gospel led us into a rich understanding of the diversity of Creation, including humanity?

The Challenge for Christians

Should we not contribute this understanding, even into the debate around The Economics of Biodiversity? The Review knows something of the sin in our accounting and financial systems (e.g. self-centredness in models), and of the need for repentance (e.g. “to bring about transformative change”). Might we not help the Treasury to adopt its thinking and work through its flaws? Not knowing Christ, the Review places its hope in human ingenuity; we know the Saviour-Lord who redirects human ingenuity away from self-centredness and towards sacrificial service.

How we do this? Not through any simplistic formulae, and especially not any standard right- or left-wing ‘Christian’ views of sin and repentance, but by working out a truly Biblical understanding. I have tried to make some initial suggestions on my summary of the Review. Those suggestions need discussion.

I find myself praying two things. (a) That, according to 1 Timothy 2:2, those in the Treasury and elsewhere who make policy, will read, understand and act on The Economics of Biodiversity – and act soon, not seeing its flaws as excuses to reject it but to work out solutions. (b) That Christians will step up to meet the challenge in a way that helps them overcome the flaws.

Let us leave behind our small ambitions and “seek first the Kingdom of God” [Matthew 6:33]!

Andrew Basden is Emeritus Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems from Salford University Business School, has been active in environmental affairs since the 1970s, including standing as Green Party candidate, and is on the leadership team of the Christian Academic Network. He hosts the Christian-oriented website Climate Change and Global Economy.

Photo: Orchids at Tansleydale (Andrew Basden)