Growth at the cost of life’s diversity? That’s bad economics.


If economic growth is achieved at the expense of the natural capital of a country, that is not development. Photo: UNDP India

Economics has always puzzled me.  When I took environmental economics courses at graduate school, I learned the following.  Air pollution can spur economic growth, as it stimulates the circulation of money in society. Polluted air makes people sick, which makes them spend more on medical bills and inspires the purchase of health insurance. Companies are forced to spend money and employ people and technology to counteract the effects of pollution, so on and so forth.

If economic growth makes people suffer (and consequently be worse off), sanity decrees that it is not development. It is for sure not sustainable, inclusive and equitable development.  

In the same way, if economic growth is achieved at the expense of the natural capital of a country, that is not development either.  It is not raiding the eco-piggy bank, it is smashing it beyond repair just to grab a rapid fistful of cash, and soon the biodiversity and ecosystem account is deeply in the red.  This comes at a cost. Not incurred immediately, perhaps, but at some point.

Growth can be a lovely word. It can imply improvement, vigour, life flexing its muscles and aspiring. But unless you gauge your “economic growth” accurately, growth really becomes a malignant mantra.

The Aichi global biodiversity targets aim to expand the world’s protected area (PA) system to 17% of the terrestrial and inland waters and 10% of coastal and marine areas.  This is because we recognise that PAs are the very essential cornerstones of biodiversity conservation.  Some may see PAs as unproductive land use.  But the reality is that they are extremely productive.  They underpin our life, wellbeing and so called “productive activities” commonly known in economic sectors as agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

“Parks for Development” – a 22-panel exhibit curated by UNDP visualises the productive nature of our national parks and protected areas.   On show this week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, standing in front of the exhibit will transport you to another world; a world where you can see first-hand what parks provide to you, and to your family and friends and to people many miles away, sometimes in distant lands.

Look, for example, at the shoal of fish in a mangrove tangle of roots and corals in South Water Caye Marine Reserve of Belize.  These coral reefs and mangroves protect coastlines from erosion and wave damage, providing an estimated USD 231m to USD 347m worth of services in avoided damages per year. And this reef system is absolutely beautiful.  

China’s 15.23 million hectare Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in the Tibetan Plateau provides water to as many as one third of the world’s population, protecting the source areas for three major rivers – Yangzi, Yellow and Mekong.

Food, science, education, medicine, livelihood, jobs, carbon sequestration, and inspiration and spiritual wellbeing: the services parks provide are uncountable, immeasurably large in monetary terms but too often gains and losses of these values are not counted.

Through our exhibit, we aim to inspire you visually and intellectually, with stunning photos and stories from the field. It inspires a moment of epiphany – when you realise biodiversity is life, our common heritage, and our future.  So are the parks that sustain biodiversity. We really cannot afford to lose them. That is bad economics.  

Visit our Parks for Development Exhibit at the Stream 5 Home Room (Hall 4A1) at the World Parks Congress. And if you’re not in Sydney, you can still browse through the stunning photos with this online exhibit.

Blog post Environment Ecosystems and biodiversity

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