Healthy and General

UN: Short-Term Economic Gains Harming Well-Being and

6 min read

(Beyond Pesticides, July 15, 2022) Nature is too often sacrificed to a global and outsized focus on short-term profits and economic growth, according to a new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report warns that policy making, broadly, does not reflect the value of Nature’s roles in supporting human life and activity, never mind all the peripheral benefits (aesthetic, emotional, spiritual) people derive from the natural world. The report calls on leaders in all sectors to integrate the contributions of Nature in development and deployment of policy in a more-comprehensive way — as Le Monde writes, “beyond being ‘a huge factory.’” Beyond Pesticides offers a seminal reminder from Fred Kirschenmann, PhD: the prevailing philosophy of maximum efficient production for short-term economic return at the expense of Nature causes havoc in the world and will not work in the future; instead, we must develop a broad ecological conscience that guides all that we do.

The report’s Summary for Policymakers was approved on July 11 by representatives from 139 Member States; the report itself is the culmination of four years of effort by 82 collaborating scientists and experts from multiple disciplines. The same member representative approved an additional IPBES report that urges the member governments to sustainably manage the wild plant and animal species on which the world’s populations depend for their survival.

IPBES co-chairs Patricia Balvanera, Brigitte Baptiste, Mike Christie, and Unai Pascual noted, according to the UN’s press release, that examples of “embedd[ing] [N]ature into policymaking are ‘in short supply.’” The press release asserts that, although “economic and political decisions have predominantly prioritized market-based values of nature . . . they do not adequately reflect how changes in the natural world affect people’s quality of life.”

As Le Monde reports, for example, re: the biodiversity crisis: “According to IPBES, the value that is predominantly attributed to biodiversity, its market value, does not reflect the value of its contribution to humanity. And furthermore, doing so does not allow us to face the huge challenge of the loss of biodiversity. With their limited vision of what nature gives us, the political and economic decisions being made today are, on the contrary, ‘a key factor’ in the origin of the crisis.” An IPBES webpage leads with this headline about the values assessment: “Decisions Based on Narrow Set of Market Values of Nature Underpin the Global Biodiversity Crisis.”

Looking to history to explain some of this situation, we find that a combination of factors is likely at work, not least of which is the Industrial Revolution and its massive impacts — made possible by the extraction and burning of (finite) fossil fuels. Reaching farther back in time, we recall the Enlightenment (and biblical) notions that humans are somehow separate from, and destined to dominate and subdue, Nature. Dr. Kirschenmann argues that these led to people focusing dominantly on humans and their enterprises, and — detrimentally — less and less during the past half millennium on the natural world and its welfare.

From that paradigm — and fertilized by cheap energy, the rising power of corporations during the past 100 years, and their influence on government — have flowed particular approaches to human activity, including specialization, a focus on productivity, and the neurochemical and economic “feel-goods” of short-term profit. Those approaches are easily recognized in what they have wrought — most of the woes and crises of modernity, including:

  • galloping climate change
  • chemical saturation of humans, other organisms, and the natural world
  • depleted resources (which were always finite, but which human hubris has often chosen to ignore)
  • massive economic inequality
  • increasing “brittleness” in systems’ ability to be resilient to a variety of assaults
  • emerging civil and economic tensions and crises (historically followed by civil unrest)
  • the rise of oligarchic and authoritarian figures in the political landscape

The UN IPBES report is an attempt to call humanity’s, and pointedly, global leaders’, attention to these matters, and to advocate for the integration of valuations of Nature into decision making. The authors began with a deep dive on valuations of Nature. The Summary for Policymakers identifies four “values-based leverage points” — undertaking valuation, embedding values in decision making, policy reform, and shifting societal goals — that co-authors say may catalyze a transformation to a sustainable and just future.

The more-academic work on the valuations of nature that informed the IPBES report (available in the “Contrasting Approaches to Values and Valuation” document) asserts that the current discursive paradigm tends to emphasize the split between anthropocentric (instrumental) and non-anthropocentric (intrinsic) aspects of Nature. Largely, people cleave to one or the other of those frameworks in their thinking. The authors write, “[M]uch of the policy discourse on the need for valuation of nature’s contributions to people heavily relies on either a one-dimensional value lens (value-monism) that derives from a utilitarian economic perspective or on an environmental ethics stance of nature-human relationships, furthering the instrumental vs. intrinsic dichotomy.”

Instead, they argue, what’s needed in human thinking, and in policymaking, is “value pluralism” — a more dynamic and relational understanding of Nature’s values, i.e., one that emphasizes the value of the interactions between people and nature, and those among individuals in society. IPBES co-chair Mike Christie explains the focus on values assessment by saying that “‘valuation is an explicit and intentional process” that hinges on “how, why and by whom” the valuation is “designed and applied.’” Co-chair Brigitte Baptiste added that “recognizing and respecting the worldviews, values, and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities allows policies to be more inclusive, which also translates into better outcomes for people and nature.”

The press release proffers that “‘Living from, with, in, and as nature’ means providing resources that sustain people’s livelihoods, needs and wants, including food and material goods. . . . It also focuses on non-human life, such as the intrinsic rights of fish in a river to ‘thrive independently of human needs,’ and sees the natural world as a ‘physical, mental and spiritual part of oneself.’”

Beyond Pesticides has written about the value of Nature’s ecosystem services and threats to them, including the fragility of ecosystems to chemical assaults. We have covered the biodiversity and climate crises, and the outsize corporate and industry influence on policy at EPA and other federal agencies. We have written about a precautionary approach that would go far in addressing the environmental crises that seriously threaten not only human health, but all life on Earth. And we have researched, written about, and advocated endlessly for the huge role that the transition to organic regenerative agriculture would play in resolution of multiple of the threats humanity faces.

What every one of those arenas has in common is what this IPBES report identifies: governmental, corporate, and institutional prioritizing of short-term economic gains over the well-being and integrity of Nature and its elegant, complex, and life-sustaining systems. Drawing again from the article by Dr. Kirschenmann in his 2015 article in Pesticides and You, we offer other thoughts of his.

“This is what we have to do now. It’s not enough any longer for us simply to care about our fellow humans. We have to care for all of the life in the biotic community of which, as Aldo Leopold said, we are simply plain members and citizens. [Beyond Pesticides adds that this means all of Nature, including non-biotic elements.) We are not the dominators. We are not the culture. We are not the conquerors. . . . So, we have to find our place in [Nature], because if it is not all healthy and if it doesn’t all have the capacity for self-renewal, then none of it will include us.

“This is the new consciousness that we have to develop. Leopold recognized . . . . that was a huge challenge. . . . He understood there wasn’t much that he could do as an individual to make this happen. He finally concluded that this had to become part of a social evolution.”

This UN report is testament to the need for, and a call to enact, such evolution with all speed. Yet, this is a huge lift, and Beyond Pesticides is but one actor in a huge landscape of people and organizations clamoring for changes in “business as usual,” which are at the root of our multiple crises. Please — please — become engaged with Beyond Pesticides or with any other environmental, health, civic, and/or justice organization that recognizes the dangerous follies of our current approaches to policy making. Bringing to policy an ethic of “value pluralism” that integrates the importance of Nature and its integrity is not only critical, but also, one path forward to a functional, equitable, livable future.



All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.