IGP Stories

Rethinking Planetary Prosperity: Are we Measuring What We Value?

Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

As the climate and biodiversity emergency continues to loom, there is a resounding recognition that we urgently need to reshape our current economic systems in ways that cease to erode the biosphere and exceed planetary limits. The case to do so has been recently made in a number of globally significant scientific and policy reports, including the UN environmental programme’s report Making Peace with Nature, and the UN Development Programme’s report on Human Development in the Anthropocene. Of equal importance is the recently published Dasgupta Review, a seminal text written by economist Professor Partha Dasgupta that makes a strong call for the radical transformation of global economic structures in ways that inherently value nature as foundational for human wellbeing.

Whilst these are welcome findings, the imperative for new economies that value biodiversity and ecosystem health leaves us with a host of challenges and opportunities centred on how we may best build alternative economic infrastructures in inclusive and sustainable ways. This endeavour is unavoidably bound up with questions of how different communities understand social and ecological prosperity and how this should be researched and measured.

To discuss these interrelated issues, Professor Dame Henrietta Moore and Professor Sir Charles Godfray came together in a broadcasted conversation entitled Rethinking Planetary Prosperity: Are we Measuring What We Value? hosted by the University of Oxford’s Martin School. Building from their exhaustive research experiences and respective strengths in the social sciences and population biology and ecology, Professor Moore and Professor Godfray took stock of how Dasgupta’s framing of biodiversity as a financial asset needs to be taken seriously across research disciplines and beyond.

The reasons for this, as highlighted by Professor Moore, can be seen in relation to the accounting frameworks constitutive of Dasgupta’s model for ‘Inclusive Wealth’. As an aggregate figure for natural, human and produced capital, Inclusive Wealth will not be enough in and of itself to address deep seated socio-political and environmental inequalities if it is not situated in inclusive design processes sensitive to the diversity of human livelihoods and value systems around the world.

The principle of inclusive design here is not just a methodological challenge, but an ethical imperative. Indeed, aggregate figures such as GDP that have typically formed the backbone of national policy making fail to address structural disparities and comprehend how these pertain to the specifics of people and place. This has not only facilitated a widening gap of livelihood inequality, but continued to alienate people from policy making and fuel the belief that politics can do nothing for the everyday citizen. In turn, a pervasive impasse towards top down climate emergency responses means that even modest climate solutions are met with suspicion, opposition or an aversion to compromise.

In light of this, any designs for future systems that embed our economies in the biosphere must do so in ways that understand the intimate and context specific relationship between people and place. For example, ongoing IGP-led research with smallholder farmers in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, north-western Kenya, has illuminated how decades of development schemes in the region have prioritised increasing productivity and economic growth through increased agricultural intensification and commercialisation. On paper, these policies may well have increased the productivity of certain sectors, yet they have also given rise to a range of interconnected and unforeseen problems. The surge of potato cash cropping in the highland forests, for example, has led to increased deforestation, reduced water retention of the forest ecosystem and increased soil erosion and landslides. Increased fertiliser run off is contaminating water sources, posing a serious health risk for thousands of people downstream. With these forests acting as one of Kenya’s five water towers, these issues are of national significance.

In attempting to address issues of food insecurity and increase household income by focusing on agricultural growth and productivity, expert-led policy initiatives have not meaningfully engage with local knowledge, practice, hopes and aspirations. They have failed to understand the deep connection between identity, community practice and place, resulting in the erosion of indigenous lifeways and resilience of local farming systems. The implications of this are far reaching, disproportionately affecting those who are furthest removed from the decision-making processes.

This is where the trans-disciplinary work on citizen-led prosperity indices at the IGP is so vital to Dasgupta’s call for a model of Inclusive Wealth. It is only by valuing the knowledge and voice of local citizens and being attentive to their hopes and aspirations within wider interconnected systems that we may be able mobilise communities for inclusive and positive change.

Herein lies the fundamental takeaway from a highly stimulating discussion. New economic infrastructures such as those proposed by Dasgupta are no doubt imperative for rebuilding biodiversity and regenerating the biosphere, but only if we place the tools for measuring what we value in the hands of communities around the world. It is in this way that we may be able to build diverse and resilient futures for planetary wellbeing and inclusive human prosperity.

Image credit: Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

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