The nature crunch will be worse

When humanity touches its ecological limits, the current financial crisis will pale in comparison. It’s time to rethink our catastrophic environmental trajectory, writes George Monbiot.

This is nothing. Well, nothing by comparison to what’s coming. The financial crisis for which we must now pay so heavily prefigures the real collapse, when humanity bumps against its ecological limits. As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by.

On October 10, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between US$2 trillion and US$5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. The losses incurred by the financial sector (by mid-October) amounted to between US$1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services — such as locking up carbon and providing fresh water — that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.

The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases, we denied the likely consequences. I used to believe that collective denial was peculiar to climate change. Now I know that it’s the first response to every impending dislocation.

Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, for instance, was as much in denial about financial realities as any toxic-debt trader. In June 2007, he boasted that 40% of the world’s foreign equities were traded in London. The financial sector’s success had come about, he said, partly because the government had taken “a risk-based regulatory approach”. In the same hall three years before, as chancellor of the exchequer, he pledged that “in budget after budget, I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers”. Can anyone, surveying this mess, now doubt the value of the precautionary principle?

Ecology and economy are both derived from the Greek word oikos — a house or dwelling. Our survival depends on the rational management of this home: the space in which life can be sustained. The rules are the same in both cases. If you extract resources at a rate beyond the level of replenishment, your stock will collapse. That’s another noun that reminds us of the connection. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 69 definitions of “stock”. When it means a fund or store, the word evokes the trunk — or stock — of a tree, “from which the gains are an outgrowth”. Collapse occurs when you prune the tree so heavily that it dies. Ecology is the stock from which all wealth grows.

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