It’s the biosphere, stupid!

It’s the biosphere, stupid! “Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature” (from “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review”)

That meets the guidelines for a 1bio story; a clear, vivid, polarizing message and style.  It is also short, sharp and clear.  And it is based on fact – lots of facts.  That’s where things get more complicated and where I need the help of mathematicians and data experts.

This came to my attention by an article in the mainstream media.  If you link to it now you may see this warning:

Which shows just how quickly news becomes history.  (Which is part of the problem. We get distracted by the next headline. But I digress). This headline is: “Economics of biodiversity review: what are the recommendations? Landmark report says GDP should be ditched as measure of wealth and nature valued to protect wildlife and humans“ The Guardian, Tue 2 Feb 2021 

If we then look for the underlying report we easily find it: Final Report – The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review

(Note: The actual report is not the subject of this post – I am only using it as an example. For more information I have some quotes at the end) 

From the link above we can choose what level of information we want:

“Headline Messages” (each one capable of being a 1bio story.  The full “Headline Messages” document contains 5 pages of text (10 pages with covers etc.)  Well worth reading – but how many people read 5 pages of text these days?

Or the full report – 610 pages! Very, very few people are willing to work all the way through this (I am working at it – slowly).  There is also an abridged version of only 103 pages.

Of the 610 page report 88 pages are references to other papers and reports. No doubt each of those will have a further list of references, all backed by masses of data.

Below that again are the foundations of science, economics, mathematics, logic, standards and so forth.  Things we take for granted, but which are often either misunderstood or deliberately misused in constructing counter arguments.

Here is our iceberg diagram around this particular story:

I need help from mathematicians and data scientists. Why?

Because I see 1biosphere.net doing 2 things: 1. Creating 1bio stories AND 2. Backing those stories with a clear link starting from the press release, the headline messages, the report itself, the sources, right through to the foundations.  Clearly that second point is a massive effort if “done by hand”.  Ideally there should be a way to create that trace and present it to the lay reader.  The key issues being:

  • Computer aided “tracing”, involving data management, possibly machine learning and other mathematical tools.
  • Presentation in a clear and accessible (probably visualized) manner
  • Annotated and updated with 
    • Both concurring and opposing viewpoints
    • Areas of certainty and areas needing further work

If we can create an unbroken trace the story becomes credible.  It may not sway minds, but is a brick in the total message. On the reverse, if we see a story and we can show breaks in the trace, or the trace ends before reaching a lower level (e.g. a story copied and embellished endlessly on a loop of social media) then we can discount and, hopefully, replace that story. 

In this example the “trace” appears obvious.  All the hard work has been done already. However individual points will still need to be clarified.  However if we tackle a more specific, local issue, (say water usage in central California) the story, the data and the trace all become more difficult, more emotional and more political (i.e. more Real-Life). (I will try and develop this or a similar example “soon”)

Bottom line: The support work behind the story is as, or more, important than the story itself.  It needs specialized methods and skills to do it well.


I do not intend this post to be about “The Dasgupta Review”. But seeing you are here I have added some excerpts to give a glimpse of what it contains.. However I strongly urge you to look at the review directly. It is a rich source of information and analysis.

In large part it contains technical / mathematical economics material. But as you can see from my extracts the author makes many efforts to illustrate the concepts and make them accessible. In addition to the “Headline Messages”, I attach the complete foreword by Sir David Attenborough and then some other random items that caught my attention.

THE HEADLINE MESSAGES

Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.

We have collectively failed to engage with Nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on.

Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations. 

At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure

The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it

We need to change how we think, act and measure success:

  • Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level
  • Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.
  • Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.

Transformative change is possible – we and our descendants deserve nothing less.


FOREWORD 

“We are facing a global crisis. We are totally dependent upon the natural world. It supplies us with every oxygen-laden breath we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But we are currently damaging it so profoundly that many of its natural systems are now on the verge of breakdown. 

Every other animal living on this planet, of course, is similarly dependent. But in one crucial way, we are different. We can change not just the numbers, but the very anatomy of the animals and plants that live around us. We acquired that ability, doubtless almost unconsciously, some ten thousand years ago, when we had ceased wandering and built settlements for ourselves. It was then that we started to modify other animals and plants.

At first, doubtless, we did so unintentionally. We collected the kinds of seeds that we wanted to eat and took them back to our houses. Some doubtless fell to the ground and sprouted the following season. So over generations, we became farmers. We domesticated animals in a similar way. We brought back the young of those we had hunted, reared them in our settlements and ultimately bred them there. Over many generations, this changed both the bodies and ultimately the characters of the animals on which we depend. 

We are now so mechanically ingenious that we are able to destroy a rainforest, the most species-rich ecosystem that has ever existed, and replace it with plantations of a single species in order to feed burgeoning human populations on the other side of the world. No single species in the whole history of life has ever been so successful or so dominant. 

Now we are plundering every corner of the world, apparently neither knowing or caring what the consequences might be. Each nation is doing so within its own territories. Those with lands bordering the sea fish not only in their offshore waters but in parts of the ocean so far from land that no single nation can claim them. So now we are stripping every part of both the land and the sea in order to feed our ever-increasing numbers. 

How has the natural world managed to survive this unrelenting ever-increasing onslaught by a single species? The answer of course, is that many animals have not been able to do so. When Europeans first arrived in southern Africa they found immense herds of antelope and zebra. These are now gone and vast cities stand in their stead. In North America, the passenger pigeon once flourished in such vast flocks that when they migrated, they darkened the skies from horizon to horizon and took days to pass. So they were hunted without restraint. Today, that species is extinct. Many others that lived in less dramatic and visible ways simply disappeared without the knowledge of most people worldwide and were mourned only by a few naturalists. 

Nonetheless, in spite of these assaults, the biodiversity of the world is still immense. And therein lies the strength that has enabled much of its wildlife to survive until now. Economists understand the wisdom of spreading their investments across a wide range of activities. It enables them to withstand disasters that may strike any one particular asset. The same is true in the natural world. If conditions change, either climatically or as a consequence of a new development in the never-ending competition between species, the ecosystem as a whole is able to maintain its vigour. 

But consider the following facts. Today, we ourselves, together with the livestock we rear for food, constitute 96% of the mass of all mammals on the planet. Only 4% is everything else – from elephants to badgers, from moose to monkeys. And 70% of all birds alive at this moment are poultry – mostly chickens for us to eat. We are destroying biodiversity, the very characteristic that until recently enabled the natural world to flourish so abundantly. If we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse. That is now a real risk. 

Putting things right will take collaborative action by every nation on earth. It will require international agreements to change our ways. Each ecosystem has its own vulnerabilities and requires its own solutions. There has to be a universally shared understanding of how these systems work, and how those that have been damaged can be brought back to health. 

This comprehensive, detailed and immensely important report is grounded in that understanding. It explains how we have come to create these problems and the actions we must take to solve them. It then provides a map for navigating a path towards the restoration of our planet’s biodiversity. 

Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core and provides the compass that we urgently need. In doing so, it shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology together, we can help save the natural world at what may be the last minute – and in doing so, save ourselves.” 

David Attenborough


EXTRACTS

“Global climate change attracts attention among intellectuals and the reading public not only because it is a grave problem, but perhaps also because it is possible to imagine meeting it by using the familiar economics of commodity taxation, regulation and resource pricing without having to forego growth in material living standards in rich countries. The literature on the economics of climate change … has even encouraged the thought that, with only little investment in clean energy sources over the next few years (say 2% of world GDP), we can enjoy indefinite growth in the world’s output of final goods and services (global GDP). That is a thought that should be resisted…”

“We are embedded in Nature; we are not external to it. No amount of technological progress can make economic growth as conventionally measured an indefinite possibility … Although there has been some recent recognition among a few economists and ecologists of these issues … this understanding remains far from widespread.

[from pages 27-28 of the full report] – [square brackets indicate my comments]

“Nature is mobile. We weaken the Antarctica ice sheet without ever going there; phosphorus discharge from farms in Minnesota contributes to a deadening of the Gulf of Mexico; emissions of soot from kitchens in the Indian sub-continent affect the circulation patterns of the monsoons; the Green Revolution’s demand for water, fertilisers and pesticides pollute the rivers and ground waters of the Indo-Gangetic Plain; fish in the North Sea eat microplastic originating in markets in the Bahamas; and so on.”

“Much of Nature and the processes governing it are also silent and invisible. The three pervasive features – mobility, silence and invisibility – make it impossible for markets to record adequately the use we make of Nature’s goods and services” 

[from pages 30-31 of the full report]

“Figure 2.1 [shows that]…Ecosystems are capital goods, like produced capital (roads, buildings, ports, machines). As in the case of produced capital, ecosystems depreciate if they are misused or are overused. But they differ from produced capital in three ways …: 

  • depreciation is in many cases irreversible (or at best the systems take a long while to recover); 
  • it is not possible to replicate a depleted or degraded ecosystem; and 
  • ecosystems can collapse abruptly, without much prior warning.”

[from page 52 of the full report]

“Human induced habitat destruction is today the leading cause of species extinction. A quarter of all tropical forests have been cut since the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) was ratified [in 1993]… generally speaking, many of the species found across large areas of a given habitat reside in small areas within it. That means habitat loss initially causes few extinctions, but the numbers rise as the last remnants of habitat are destroyed. At current rates of habitat destruction, the peak of extinctions may not occur for a long while, even decades…

….Species numbers cannot be observed directly. So, it is not possible to place bounds on species extinction rates as policy targets when the number of species lies within a large range (perhaps 8 to 20 million). In contrast, habitat destruction can be observed and verified. The approach taken by the CBD in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of 1992, which was to set limits on habitat destruction and specify Protected Areas is in line with this reasoning. That the targets are far from being met is not a fault in reasoning, it is, as in the case of international targets on carbon emissions, an inability of countries to design an enforcement mechanism.”

[from pages 105-106 of the full report][Bold emphasis is mine]

[from page 182 of the full report – I just like the diagram]

“Job Opportunities From Nature Conservation and Restoration … Compared to other sectors in the economy, investing in Nature may have higher employment returns. Investments in ‘Nature-based solutions’ (NbS) create jobs that typically have low training and education requirements, are fast to establish and require relatively little produced capital for each worker. This means on average, for every US$1 million invested in NbS, close to 40 jobs are created, which is equivalent to around 10 times the job creation rate of investments in fossil fuels.”

[from page 459 of the full report – I am not entirely happy with this analysis.  As we phase out fossil fuel related jobs we owe it to the individuals, and communities, to replace the jobs with equally meaningful and remunerated positions.  The reference to low training and education may make sense economically but intensifies the justifiable fear of loss of income, meaning and self respect felt by many in the threatened industries, e.g. mining, fishing, logging and the like]

“Every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, and to appreciate how it contributes to our lives. Establishing the natural world within educational policy would contribute to countering the shifting baseline, whereby we progressively redefine ourselves as inhabitants of an emptying world and believe that what we see is how it is and how it will continue to be. This shifting baseline has been termed the ‘extinction of experience’

[from page 498 of the full report]


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