Economic Perspectives on a finite Planet: in conversation with ROldan Muradian
Economists for Future: Neoclassical economics typically analyses the earth’s ecosystems using the conceptual framework of ‘natural capital’. What do you see as the problems with this framing?
Roldan Muradian: To conceive the Earth’s ecosystems as ‘natural capital’ is part of a worldview that puts human beings at the centre of all concerns. From this perspective, human interest should be the key driver of collective decisions, including those dealing with the way we relate with nature. This vision is part of a utilitarian and anthropocentric philosophical tradition, with a strong root in Western culture. This way of seeing the world has many caveats. I think that the ultimate cause of the current global environmental crisis is precisely the anthropocentric and utilitarian worldview that underlies current capitalism. To look for solutions within the same frameworks seems deemed to fail. What we need is a moral revolution, equivalent, for example, with the abolition of slavery in the XIX century. Slaves were also considered a type of capital. The core of the abolitionist discourse was however not based on economic considerations, but on moral ones. We need to stop seeing us, humans, as entitled to appropriate, destroy or transform Earth’s ecosystems at our will, in the same way that European white men saw themselves as entitled to enslave Africans. Racism and the annihilation of ecosystems have the same basis, deeply embedded in the predominant social values of our particular historical period and culture.
E4F: Conservation policy often assumes that ecosystems can be managed sustainably by simply adjusting the price which is paid to the owners of natural capital – the so-called Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) approach. Do you think this is correct?
RM: I think it is not correct to conceptualize PES as prices to be paid in a market for ecosystem services. Empirically speaking, most PES do not fit in what we could call a market. Most of them are public schemes, much closer to conditional cash transfers, for instance. PES can take place in different types of institutional settings. They can be seen as individual incentives, collective incentives, tokens for facilitating collective action, rewards, or markets, depending on the way they were designed, the context in which they operate, and the actors involved. Markets for ecosystem services seldom arise in real life. The main reason being that most ecosystem services are public goods, or common pool resources, and it is very difficult to create markets for such types of goods. Markets are usually not the most appropriate mechanism to solve collective action dilemmas. Community or public interventions are more effective to solve that kind of social problems. Most environmental conflicts and problems are social dilemmas that hardly can be solved by market transactions.
E4F: In a recent paper you argued against ‘utilitarian environmentalism’ in economic analysis. What do you mean by that and why is it important to leave it behind?
RM: By “utilitarian environmentalism” I mean the type of environmentalism that assumes that environmental protection should be promoted because it will bring about benefits for human societies in general, and for economic development, in particular. As stated in the answer to your first question, from this perspective, we should invest in the protection of Earth’s ecosystems as far as doing so is useful for us, humans. However, I share the proposition that the protection of other forms of life in this planet is a moral choice, not necessarily a requirement for economic development. In addition to the arguments outlined in the first answer, we could add that the human species can adapt to very extreme environmental conditions, including degraded and extremely simplified or controlled landscapes. Furthermore, the annihilation of ecosystems can be economically rational, or not, depending on the values we collectively give to them. Social values (including economic values) reflect our moral stands. By leaving utilitarian environmentalism behind we could devote more attention to key issues and social decisions, such as the allocation of rights that determine the configuration of our societies, and the way we relate with the natural environment. For instance, the rights of environmental defenders to act and exist, or the rights of rivers not to be polluted.
The Bolsonaro government in Brazil had denied the constitutional rights of indigenous communities to delimitate and manage their own territories (no single indigenous land has been declared during the past four years, despite more than a dozen requests). To acknowledge those rights is a moral imperative, not a matter of efficient allocation of economic resources. Moreover, indigenous lands have been one of the most effective mechanisms for biodiversity protection in Latin America and Brazil. However, Bolsonaro is against indigenous lands because he thinks their conversion into croplands or mines would enable economic development in the Amazon and Brazil.
I think that allocating an economic value to indigenous lands (using valuation methods, for instance) is misleading as a way to have arguments against the biodiversity destructive policies of the Bolsonaro government. First, because such kind of study has little capacity to convince people opposing biodiversity protection. And secondly, because it would miss the key narrative mobilized by the defenders of indigenous territories. They are fighting for the right of living in a different way, the right to live in peace, to exist.
E4F: The environmental discourses which dominate global political and academic debates are typically rooted in the experiences of the ‘green middle class’ in Global North countries. The green growth vs. degrowth debate is one example of this. How can we centre the discourses of people from the Global South, who often have completely different environmental and economic aspirations?
RM: This is really a key issue, which deserves a lot of attention. To associate environmental protection concerns with the political preferences of the well-educated middle class is a big mistake. We, in Latin America at least, need to develop our own narratives, able to resonate with a large share of the population. As stated above, indigenous communities are important defenders of key ecosystems for the whole planet (such as the Amazon Forest). They are not environmentalist, in the European sense. They do not vote for the green party and are not vegan. Neither can their activism be neither considered as an example of the “environmentalism of the poor”. They are not poor. When their habitat has not been destroyed by illegal miners, illegal cattle ranchers or loggers, they live in conditions of abundance, not of scarcity (very different to the conditions of the inhabitants of slums). They become poor when they are forced, by violence or displacement, to live in the peripheries of cities. European categories and Eurocentric concepts do not fit well here.
With its emphasis on voluntary frugality and the reduction of consumption and production, the degrowth narrative has serious limitations to mobilize people beyond the well-educated middle class. Francia Marquez (a well-known environmental defender that became vice-President of Colombia) popularized the expression “vivir sabroso”. A narrative coming from the Afro-Colombian communities in the pacific coast of Colombia, and difficult to translate to English. “Enjoyment of life” could be a close translation. It is about dignity, rights, and putting the enjoyment of life at the centre of social decisions, through the development of healthy social relations, food security, basic income, access to a universal health system, art expressions and peace among humans and between humans and nature. This is a narrative that can indeed resonate with a large share of the population in the Global South. We should leave behind not only utilitarian environmentalism but also the tendency to take the “green agenda” as a separate policy issue. In Latin America, solving social inequalities and ensuring basic human rights are fully intertwined with environmental protection. They cannot be treated as separate policy concerns. We do not want to be “green”, we want to live “sabroso”.
*The Economists for Future team is thankful to Nikhil F. Ghosh for conceptualizing this series.
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