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Simon M Lamb, author of a new book called Junglenomics, argues that human survival will depend on putting ecology into economics
We hear a great deal about ethical markets, in fact it’s easy to get the impression that some kind of world revolution is going on – an ethical cavalry riding to the rescue of a declining and disappearing natural world. For example, I was talking to a partner in an upmarket fashion business the other day and she was waxing lyrical about the new ethical turn her company was taking. I was full of admiration. But I asked her “Will this put up the cost of your clothes?” “Yes,” she replied brightly, “but only about £25 on average.”
I didn’t want to pop her balloon, so I left it that and changed the subject. But it left me thinking that night about what she had really told me that she didn’t mean to. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disparaging her company’s efforts to be greener or more socially responsible. I love that they are trying to do so. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
I am an unapologetic capitalist. I believe that market capitalism has brought innumerable good things to the world, and its antithesis nothing but misery and poverty. I also unashamedly want to make honest profits in my business life to be able to enjoy them and share them with my family and friends. What truthful person says otherwise?
It’s utterly crazy, and fundamentally rotten economics, that doing the right thing – the green, ethical thing – is mostly the more expensive thing
I am also an ethical capitalist. But that doesn’t mean I’m a saint who is happy to reduce business profits or pay £25 extra for a new sweater in the cause of doing the right thing. Why should I have to?
And what about the vast majority of the world living in poverty to whom every penny counts: do we expect them to pay extra to be green? It’s utterly crazy, and fundamentally rotten economics, that doing the right thing – the green, ethical thing – is mostly the more expensive thing. Businesses all over the world struggle to survive in highly competitive marketplaces. That is the nature of free markets. But markets are also free to pollute, degrade and destroy; licensed to kill the natural world. Sometimes even free to kill and enslave people. That’s the very strange, absurd economic world we live in. It has to change. It’s killing the planet.
Many people seem to believe that a grassroots ethical business revolution will sweep around the world, magic stardust sprinkled over the destructive cohorts of the economic domain. So, is the lion about to lie down with the lamb? Like heck it is. It’s not only not the way of the human world, it’s not the way of nature. We humans share 98% of our genes with chimps. People like to focus on that 2% as what makes us special, and capable of ethical behaviour. But I say it makes us capable of ethical thinking, not ethical behaviour in the round.
The vast bulk of genes that drive our behaviour have been around millions of years, and one particular subset – those that drive us to colonise new resources – possibly even billions of years, ever since our microscopic ancestors first grew little flagellum tails to move about with. These genes caused our ancestors to colonise, adapt and evolve, and today in our new economic ecosystem these genes drive us from within to colonise resources, even more than ever, given the advanced tools at our disposal.
Bear in mind that Jair Bolsanaro hasn’t ordered people to cut and burn the Brazilian rainforests, but merely loosened the restraints on ever-eager, gene-driven market forces.
But while we cannot escape this resource-colonising imperative, we can use our uniquely ethics-capable brains to work out clever ways to use markets to protect and enhance nature rather than destroy it.
For example, all kinds of levies on high-carbon goods, ring-fenced into subsidies, can help fast-track new green tech on a huge scale. And where poor countries have no choice but to destructively exploit their precious wilderness, imaginative international investment instruments can be forged to lock them into permanently protected zones in return for investment in education, hospitals and green infrastructure.
There are ways to make forests more valuable standing than felled, clean air more profitable than dirty, oceans more profitable full of fish than raped of them. Nature shows us how to do this: it’s been balancing its ecosystems for an unimaginably long time, after all.
Every single one of our direct ancestors had one thing in common: they could adapt and evolve. Let’s not let them down now
It’s time to stop flailing about firefighting every new (or not so new) environmental problem as the spotlight of public outcry illuminates it, and dress all the bleeding wounds of the economics/nature interface together, holistically.
This can be achieved, and it could begin tomorrow, but only if our governments learn to see the big picture and put ecology into economics. And that begins with seeing past both our hubristic arrogance and our fairy-tale naivety, and getting to know the species within – the 98% chimp genes we carry, and the ancient colonising imperative that has been our making, and is fast becoming our unmaking.
The economic ecosystem is locked into a resource feeding frenzy. Yet we humans are supreme survivors. Every single one of our direct ancestors had one thing in common: they could adapt and evolve. Let’s not let them down now.
Ethical business is superb, but it can never save the world on its own – there’s anyway far too much to do in too little time. Only ethical macro-economic policy can. That means we have to insist governments make green and ethical business behaviour more profitable than its opposite, so that everyone wants a piece of it without having to wrestle with the ancient resource-hungry genes within. It’s called “ecosystem economics”, and it could yet be the saving of us.
Simon Lamb is the author of "Junglenomics: Nature’s Solutions to the world environment crisis: a new paradigm for the 21st century and beyond"