Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 3, 2019

The environment trumps everything

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 4:26 am

I don’t post often on politics, because the conventional options either bore me or scare me and are always unequal to the problems we face, and not even framed in a way that is relevant (in my opinion….). Sometimes I’m confident of my ground. This is one issue: the backlash against Greta Thunberg’s plea for urgent action to protect the environment reveals a quite extraordinary misunderstanding of economics by a lot of old opinionated people.

There is this long-standing belief in conventional economics that people and the environment are just sub-categories of something called ‘the economy’. Hence we have the term ‘human resources’, a wildly inaccurate metaphor that has failed in theory and in practice. What Greta’s pointing out is that conventional economics is wrong; the economy is no more than a by-product of decisions that humans make about each other and the environment.

Consider the following operating assumptions of the dismal science:

  • Ecological destruction is good for economic efficiency,
  • The onus of proof when presenting scientific evidence should lie on people who oppose pollution, not those who produce it,
  • If we plunder and poison the planet irreparably, another one will come along to provide us with what we need.

None of these are valid, or even nearly true or sane, yet they have been the fiercely held beliefs of professors of economics and the business schools for decades. Fortunately, Greta has some surprisingly powerful allies (disappointingly few, but extremely powerful). They include the heads of central banks, the former CEO of Unilever, the board and executive management of the petrochemical giant Shell, who have decided to plant millions of trees across Europe to counter climate change.

In the meantime, could people with zero intellectual curiosity about what ‘the economy’ actually consists of – I was going to say ‘shut up’, but as someone who believes in free speech, I won’t recommend that – instead, please: ‘Start to learn’. Greta doesn’t get everything right, but she gets this: the economy is a sub-category of the environment, not the other way around.

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