Destroying a forest can actually increase GDP: why it’s time to rethink measures of poverty and well-being

A deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle, seen during an overflight by Greenpeace activists. Image: Getty.

Without nature, humans could be neither healthy nor happy. And yet the natural world can be completely ransacked without causing even a tiny blip on our usual measures of economic progress or poverty.

A major UN environmental meeting recently looked at launching an assessment of the different values that people attribute to nature, and what nature contributes to human societies. However, these high level discussions will be futile unless our measures of societal progress expand to explicitly include what nature does for human well-being and prosperity, especially for poor people.

Nature matters to people’s well-being in many different ways. It obviously provides us with basic needs such as food, clean air and water, as well as protection from environmental hazards. There is also a clear relationship with both physical and mental well-being, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have access to green spaces.

Beyond these instrumental roles, there is also evidence from around the world that nature is a more fundamental contributor to people’s sense of self. It is an integral part of what constitutes well-being, captured for some in the awe-inspiring moments when standing on top of a mountain, the breath-taking view of a beautiful river, or in the feeling of freedom associated with traversing a wide open landscape.

The problem with economic indicators

Despite the value we get from nature, our measures of progress and well-being remain much narrower, focused on what is visible and measurable. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the most prominent approach since the end of World War II, with GDP seen as a useful snapshot of the state of the economy and people’s well-being. What these figures often hide are those things, like the role of nature, that are not measured in the monetary economy, but are an important part of daily life and can be crucial for sustaining future prosperity.

There are alternatives. One that has gained some momentum is the Inclusive Wealth Index, which takes into account broader measures of human and natural well-being – its most recent assessment suggested that conventional GDP figures had greatly exaggerated growth over the period 1992-2010. In international development, the UN’s Human Development Index and the “multidimensional poverty index” both recognise a larger set of issues, combining material standards with measures of health and education. But they still do not adequately incorporate the role of nature.

Ignoring nature creates some perverse paradoxes. Measured GDP might actually increase as a consequence of a major environmental disaster, because of the economic activity created by the clean up and repair. Meanwhile, the environmental losses themselves don’t show up in economic measures. A country could get rich by cutting down all its primary forests (and many have), but the associated loss of habitat and wild species would not feature in national accounts.


Governments continue to make decisions based on a key set of headline figures. These include GDP and per capita income, which reflect economic prosperity, and, in poorer countries, the extent and incidence of poverty. But we can do better: our ongoing research focuses on developing environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty, based on the insight that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

Our research suggests that failing to consider these missing environmental aspects can result in an incomplete assessment of the multiple dimensions and underlying drivers of poverty. Consequently, the identification of the poor, as well as an understanding of what makes them poor, risks being partial, thereby posing a challenge to addressing poverty adequately.

The current status quo fails people, especially the poor, and also threatens future prosperity by undervaluing nature. Those who benefit from the current approaches are typically global elites who profit from environmental destruction (which goes unrecognised).

The losers are those most dependent on nature for their livelihoods and those especially vulnerable to environmental change. Even if nature is valued, it is typically converted into money equivalents, which favours those who are able and willing to parcel out nature into small commoditised bundles, which can then be sold to the highest bidder. This fails to take into account the views of those who believe that nature matters in other ways or in its own right, who care about the beauty of nature and the sheer joy that it provides to many.

The ConversationThe consequences of neglecting people’s varied views and aspirations have become apparent from recent political events in Europe and the US. Nature matters to our well-being, and people see their relationship with nature in many different ways. Recognising this is a crucial step towards building a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable society.

Judith Schleicher is a postdoctoral researcher in conservation, poverty & wellbeing, and Bhaskar Vira is a reader in political economy at the University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.