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Do we Need Nature: A Modest Answer

An entry for an irresistible essay competition

New Statesman, 9th June 2003

Who would say no to $20,000? Not me. So I was recently thrilled to come across an advertisement inviting me to submit an entry for this year's Shell-Economist essay prize. All I need to do is write 2,000 words addressing the subject chosen by the magazine and, if I win, the money's mine. So here goes.

This year's question is simple: "Do we need nature?" Yes, at last someone has had the balls to ask what many of us have been thinking for so long, but have been prevented by the PC police from saying out loud. It's a vital and complex question, but the answer can nevertheless, I think, be summed up thus: "mostly, no."

To explain this, let's look ahead to the challenges that await us as we move into the 21st century. The key task, as ever, is growth. Growth is good. Growth works. Growth is what happens when we do what economists call creating value - turning things that are worth nothing into things that are worth lots. We can then trade the things that are worth lots, and all grow rich together.

This helps us all, especially poor people. True, many of the things that are worth nothing are "owned" by poor people, whereas the task of creating value from them is done by rich corporations. But that's just a matter of using the correct expertise; utilising what economists call comparative advantage. Poor people are usually ill-equipped to exploit their resources fully, so it's only sensible that those who are more able do it for them. True, some poor people occasionally disagree with our economists' definitions of "value", saying unhelpful things like "but that's my land you've just stolen for your gold mine", and "just because we haven't patented and commodified the things that grow on our common land doesn't mean they're worthless". But I would simply say to such people: look at the statistics.

In 1960, gross world product was US$10tr. By 2000, it was US$43tr - all thanks to a great expansion of growth through trade. Back in 1960 the 20 per cent of the world's population living in the rich industrialised countries had 30 times the income of the world's poorest 20 per cent; today, we have 74 times as much. This is because we are better at growing. Why do 2.8 million people in the world live on less than $2 a day? Why, according to the World Bank, is that figure 10 per cent higher than it was in the late 1980s? The answer, surely, comes down to one thing: these people have too much nature, and not enough growth. Our job is to help them understand this, and to help them change.

In our quest to continue growing, we need to continue finding worthless things to turn into money. And when you look around you, wherever you are in the world, what do you see? That's right, a whole load of worthless, green, messy, wet, dirty stuff - nature - just crying out to be turned into value and added to the GDP. Perhaps, then, my earlier answer needs some clarification: we do need nature, but not in its current form. We need it dug up, cut down and turned into money. And in an increasingly competitive global economy, all of us, all over the world, need to make sure that it's us who does the digging up and cutting down, before someone else does.

At the risk of sounding like I'm trying to influence the judges unduly, I'd like to say how appropriate it is that this competition is organised by Shell and the Economist. These are two of the institutions in our society which best understand this crucial point - and have done an enormous amount to put it into practice. Take the Economist, a principled and unflinching champion of capitalist globalisation. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that a hotchpotch of unfashionable ideas developed by a little-known economist named Milton Friedman and a few of his chums in a couple of smoky rooms in Chicago would
become an all-pervasive global ideology? Yet today, Friedman's idea - neoliberalism - is all-consuming. This is in no small way thanks to the Economist's influential cheerleading.

Friedman and the Economist have been proved right: neoliberalism is the best and most efficient way of getting rid of worthless nature and replacing it with valuable money. Again, the statistics bear this out. As restrictions on trade and financial flows have been removed in recent decades, untold amounts of worthless natural things have become, as if by magic, valuable. Here in the richest countries, it takes 300 kilograms of natural resources to generate $100 of income. In the US - an example which the Economist urges us all to follow - just 5 per cent of the world's people turn a heartening 30 per cent of all the natural resources consumed in the world each year into profitable consumer goods. By the time a baby born in the US in the 1990s reaches the age of 75, he or she will have consumed 43 million gallons of water, produced 52 tons of waste and used 3,375 barrels of oil. Just think of the profits! And revel in the good news that, as we all follow the same development path, we will all be able to play our part in the transforming of nature into money that has for so long been a part of the American dream.

It's not just in the US that this heartening process is going on. All over the world, energy use has increased by nearly 70 per cent since 1971, all due to oil drilling, coal mining and gas exploration, turning worthless black muck into valuable greenhouse gas-creating fuel. Deforestation continues apace (though we can surely do better than a global rate of just 2.4 per cent since 1990), as unproductive trees are converted into productive dollars. Nitrogen fertilisers and other agricultural chemicals continue to replace worthless soil, insects and micro-organisms with vital cash crops for our supermarkets. In the past century, we have replaced half the world's wetlands with more profitable habitats, and driven 12 per cent of the world's least productive birds and a quarter of its most useless mammals to the edge of extinction. Thirty-four percent of the world's fish species are about to go under (excuse the pun) - a sure sign that they are being converted into value at a stunning rate. The news is good wherever you look.

Look to the future and it keeps getting better. According to the UN, over 70 per cent of the Earth's land surface could be affected by the impact of roads, mining, cities and other developments in the next 30 years, as wasted green spaces become economic powerhouses. Climate change will provide us with golden economic opportunities for profit-making techno-fixes, developed by the same companies that gave us the climate-changing fossil fuels in the first place. All these trends will be locked into place by a global economic system which has its priorities exactly right. The World Trade Organisation has already forced the US to modify its growth-restricting Clean Air Act. It has instructed Japan to raise the legal level of pesticide residues in imported foods and declared illegal an obstructive EU ban on hormone-injected beef. We can expect more of the same in future, for the WTO dares to say what all of us secretly know: in the battle between trade and nature, we cannot afford to take prisoners.

Then there's the shining record of Shell, whose contribution has been, in many ways, even more valuable. For while the Economist has provided the intellectual framework for the campaign to replace nature with growth, Shell's unflagging efforts have put theory into practice, and come up trumps every time. In 2001, Shell's global sales were $150bn. In February it announced profits of $2.78bn - up almost 50 per cent on the previous year. None of this could have happened without Shell's expertise at transforming nature into something much more useful.

In the Niger River Delta, for example, Shell continues sterling work, despite ill-informed opposition from local people. Shell Nigeria is producing about 900,000 barrels of oil a day, and this doesn't include the plentiful oil and gas it donates to local people in the form of leaks, spillages, pollution and burst pipes, all of which provide fisherfolk and farmers with valuable oil rather than considerably less profitable clean air, water and land. In Argentina, Shell still struggles to convince backward-looking people in the town of Magdalena to make the most of the economic benefits it provided them with in 1999, when one of its tankers thoughtfully donated 5,300 cubic metres of crude to their local Unesco biosphere reserve. Sadly, the company is currently under orders from a judge to clean up the mess or spend some of its valuable profits paying fines.

But Shell is unbowed. It understands that replacing nature with money is not always an easy task. It knows that people will try and slow progress - people like those in Durban (South Africa), Port Arthur (Texas) and Xinjiang province (China) who continue to call on Shell to remove the oil lakes and spills it has only recently provided for them, to remove itself from their land or "clean up" the air it has filled with toxic chemicals.

But there will always be doubters. Some people persist in arguing that the separation of "humanity" from "nature" is half the problem in the first place, and won't stop going on about how this "mechanistic, industrial, post-Enlightenment view" was not shared by any of the world's traditional cultures. Others say things like "but what about the majesty and wonder of the natural world?" But when we have the complete works of David Attenborough on DVD, what need is there for the real thing? Sure, we all like elephants, but are they productive? Yes, trees "grow" in one sense, but statistically, it means nothing. Let's get real.

Sadly, some people still don't get it. Somebody said to me just the other day, for example, that perhaps the real question I should be answering was "does nature need Shell or the Economist?" or "do we need neoliberals?" But I am not going to waste my time answering stupid questions.