Opinion: Measures of poverty and well-being still ignore the environment – this must change

March 17, 2017 by Judith Schleicher And Bhaskar Vira, The Conversation
Credit: saiko3p / shutterstock

Without nature, humans could be neither healthy nor happy. And yet the natural world can be completely ransacked without causing even a tiny blip on our usual measures of economic progress or poverty.

A major UN environmental meeting recently looked at launching an assessment of the different values that attribute to nature, and what nature contributes to human societies. However, these high level discussions will be futile unless our measures of societal progress expand to explicitly include what nature does for human well-being and prosperity, especially for poor people.

Nature matters to people's well-being in many different ways. It obviously provides us with basic needs such as food, clean air and water, as well as protection from environmental hazards. There is also a clear relationship with both physical and mental well-being, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have access to green spaces.

Beyond these instrumental roles, there is also evidence from around the world that nature is a more fundamental contributor to people's sense of self. It is an integral part of what constitutes well-being, captured for some in the awe-inspiring moments when standing on top of a mountain, the breath-taking view of a beautiful river, or in the feeling of freedom associated with traversing a wide open landscape.

The problem with economic indicators

Despite the value we get from nature, our measures of progress and well-being remain much narrower, focused on what is visible and measurable. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the most prominent approach since the end of World War II, with GDP seen as a useful snapshot of the state of the economy and people's well-being. What these figures often hide are those things, like the role of nature, that are not measured in the monetary economy, but are an important part of daily life and can be crucial for sustaining future prosperity.

There are alternatives. One that has gained some momentum is the Inclusive Wealth Index, which takes into account broader measures of human and well-being – its most recent assessment suggested that conventional GDP figures had greatly exaggerated growth over the period 1992-2010. In international development, the UN's Human Development Index and the "multidimensional poverty index" both recognise a larger set of issues, combining material standards with measures of health and education. But they still do not adequately incorporate the role of nature.

Ignoring nature creates some perverse paradoxes. Measured GDP might actually increase as a consequence of a major environmental disaster, because of the economic activity created by the clean up and repair. Meanwhile, the environmental losses themselves don't show up in economic measures. A country could get rich by cutting down all its primary forests (and many have), but the associated loss of habitat and wild species would not feature in national accounts.

Governments continue to make decisions based on a key set of headline figures. These include GDP and per capita income, which reflect economic prosperity, and, in poorer countries, the extent and incidence of poverty. But we can do better: our ongoing research focuses on developing environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty, based on the insight that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

Our research suggests that failing to consider these missing environmental aspects can result in an incomplete assessment of the multiple dimensions and underlying drivers of poverty. Consequently, the identification of the poor, as well as an understanding of what makes them poor, risks being partial, thereby posing a challenge to addressing poverty adequately.

The current status quo fails people, especially the poor, and also threatens future prosperity by undervaluing nature. Those who benefit from the current approaches are typically global elites who profit from environmental destruction (which goes unrecognised).

The losers are those most dependent on nature for their livelihoods and those especially vulnerable to environmental change. Even if nature is valued, it is typically converted into money equivalents, which favours those who are able and willing to parcel out nature into small commoditised bundles, which can then be sold to the highest bidder. This fails to take into account the views of those who believe that nature matters in other ways or in its own right, who care about the beauty of nature and the sheer joy that it provides to many.

The consequences of neglecting people's varied views and aspirations have become apparent from recent political events in Europe and the US. Nature matters to our well-being, and people see their relationship with nature in many different ways. Recognising this is a crucial step towards building a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable society.

Explore further: Report reveals challenges of UN's new sustainable development goals

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2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2017
Having worked in corporate America, I know for sure that spreadsheets don't show the population of humans going to zero before the end of this century.

However, that is what is going to happen. NO large mammals left on planet earth by 2100.

The economic disruptions of human caused climate chaos is already destabilizing swaths of the planet, more of us arrive daily, and, we outweigh all our wild prey (by many times).

Humans can't survive without a healthy environment, yet, we do NOTHING sustainably.

vhemt.org no one should have children, anywhere anymore.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
NO large mammals left on planet earth by 2100
Well that may be a stretch, but I agree the environments will certainly be in a mess by then. Many local ecologies will be devastated as will many populations in those areas. The worst part is we know the cause, it's us! We are the cause of the greenhouse gas crisis and the rise of global temperatures. The very latest measures of atmospheric CO2 are 406ppm (A value so high that I thought I would never see it in my lifetime). See: https://www.co2.earth/

Your concerns are certainly worthy of the seriousness of the worlds plight. That is for sure.

2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 19, 2017

Have their been dairy, wheat and barley cultivation on Greenland for the past 400 years? No. Too Cold. The past decade? No, still too cold.

Call me when it's been warm enough to cultivate wheat on Greenland for the prior 400 years.
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 19, 2017
Okay tree huggers, back to reality. The wealthiest countries by GDP per capital almost without exception are also the countries that do the best job of protecting their environment. It is poor countries where the greatest environmental damage is being done. As countries become wealthy they can afford to, and almost always do, spend more protecting their environment. The obvious solution is to promote freedom and free trade so countries can become wealthy faster.

As for "no large mammals" by 2100, really? The U.S., for example, has more bears, mountain lions, wolves and bison than 50 years ago because they are protected and managed. Same with forests. You'll find the same thing in many wealthy countries. The solution, once again, is to encourage and facilitate freedom and the development of wealth in poor countries so they transition from environment-damaging subsistence living to a more sustainable one.

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