The Garden of Eden in Decay

We need to change our predatory relationship with nature by shifting the incentives in our economies that are allowing choices that trash the environment to persist.

Managing our Growing Environmental Deficit

Throughout history, humans have inflicted persistent environmental deficits on the planet - nations and institutions, businesses and individuals - have taken more from the environment than is sustainable.

Whether for fresh drinking water; nutrients to grow plants and crops; grasses and land to raise livestock or the fresh air that we breathe, natural capital has been used without much consideration for planetary boundaries. We have evolved to use the resources we have at hand, however we need to, to survive and thrive. 

This is our human nature. Mother Nature gives. We gratefully receive. 

The same applies to, and perhaps the genesis of this relationship might be found in, our trade system and the economic actors in it. By way of example, the under-18s have a trade deficit with the rest of society, as have the over-65s. And Buckingham Palace has a trade deficit with the rest of Britain.

In all of these cases what matters is how the deficit is financed, and whether the terms of its financing create coherent expectations for the future. There is a social consensus that keeps these deficits going. And enough money to sustain the borrowing.

So 'the under-18 deficit is financed because the beneficiaries will not stay under 18 forever.’ The expectation is that when they become economically active, they will contribute to society and ‘pay back’ the debt. The over-65 deficit is financed because of this group’s previous contribution to society. The Buckingham Palace deficit is financed because of the British people's attachment to a hereditary, and sentimental, aspect of their government. It works well enough as long as the consensus holds and economies generate the resources needed to finance these deficits.

But this time, we may have pushed the planet too far – beyond the limits Mother Earth can sustain. “Too many forests cut down. Too many fish pulled from the sea. Too many species gone extinct” – the result, unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases, ocean acidification and chemical pollution. As Johan Rockstrom and colleagues argue, our actions are now threatening to trigger tipping points that could knock the planet out of its stable state.  And put our existence at greater risk.

As with other forms of trade, environmental deficits can persist so long as the social consensus that allows them to be incurred persists; and while Mother Nature has the capacity to give. But as the growing body of scientific evidence reminds us, the environment is no longer able to regenerate at the necessary pace to keep up with demand for ‘deficit financing.’ We have entered the “anthropocene” age, in which human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.

A once sacrosanct relationship is weakening. And a benevolent, generations-old social consensus is breaking down. With that, come the potential for more environmentally based conflicts and an exceedingly challenging future existence for us humans.

Yet this is not an inevitable pathway for future generations. For far too long, we have enjoyed a predatory relationship with Mother Nature. We now need to change it by shifting the incentives in our economy that are allowing choices that deplete the environment to persist; by changing the signals that privilege trashing of the environment- through mining, agriculture and settlement at the expense of clean air, fresh water, pristine places and productive ecosystems - to incentives that reward sustainable green choices; by changing the motivations that reward polluters and punish responsible stewardship; by using our big brains and innovative nature to create a new paradigm where the secret to human well being and happiness lies in  harmony with nature.

There is a growing number of countries, companies and institutions where this is already the modus operandi. There is nothing we can’t do when we set out minds to the task.  The UN Environment Inquiry into Conservation aims to do just this…we invite you to join us!

Maxwell Gomera