Story | 22 Nov, 2023

“It’s backbreaking work, but it has to be done”

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta tells Tom Ireland how mainstream economics failed the environment – and how his new model puts it right

For the past four decades, Cambridge economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta has been working to ensure the value and importance of nature is considered in economic models of growth, resource-use and development.

In 2019, he was commissioned by the UK government to write an independent, global review of the economics of biodiversity, which was published in 2021 as The Dasgupta Review. Considered Dasgupta’s magnum opus, the 600-page review called for changes in how we think, act and measure economic success, to protect and enhance the natural world and our own prosperity.

It was widely welcomed by conservation organisations around the world, including IUCN, for setting out a more sustainable model of development that helps us understand the costs of degrading natural resources, ecosystems or biodiversity. The New York Times went as far as calling his report “the answer to everything”.

Unite for Nature spoke to Sir Partha to discuss his work and the impact his ideas are having around the world.

I wanted to rewrite economics to introduce nature in a seamless way

It’s been almost three years since The Dasgupta Review was published. What was your aim, and what impact has it had so far?

What I wanted to do was to rewrite economics in a manner that has the human economy woven seamlessly into nature – to recognise that the human economy is embedded within nature, it is not something external to us. It is not enough to simply add some isolated bits on nature’s workings to existing economic models, like we have with carbon and climate change, and say, “There, now we are aiming for net zero, we can carry on growing indefinitely.”

In terms of reception, it’s been well received – there have been no serious criticisms from any sector. There were sceptical writings before the review was published, from those who think that to introduce nature into economics is to sully nature in some way. That’s based on a misunderstanding of what we mean by putting a value on nature’s goods and services.

The UK Treasury was very supportive of the review and, importantly, retained several of my team for an additional nine months after the launch, for the purposes of dissemination. I’ve been engaged in over 200 interviews, discussions, panels, lectures and so forth ever since. It has had a far wider engagement than anything I’ve experienced before.

Are you starting to see your recommendations being implemented by nations?

I was careful not to wag my finger and say “do this” or “do that” or “this is right and that is wrong”. But my team and the UK Treasury did produce a summary of policy ideas. The one that many people had already started to take on is around making valuations of various kinds of natural capital, and including them in measures of wealth, as opposed to just using GDP (gross domestic product). In the UK, for example, the Office for National Statistics is now introducing natural capital accounts. Many countries are now also doing this.

The second class of recommendations was about institution-level changes. So, for example, I proposed the establishment of a new international organisation that would impose a charge for the use of the oceans – for fishing, mining, transport and so forth. This could help reduce the burden on the ocean, and the international community could use that money, among other things, to compensate other countries for not destroying their ecosystems. But the international community, particularly government officials in various countries, have said the time is not right for such an organisation.

I have a great deal of debt to pay IUCN. Right up until the 1970s, there was very little ecological writing that was digestible for economists.

Then there’s a third type of issue that I raised, which people don’t want to discuss because they see it as too culturally sensitive – and that is demography, or population. I’ve always been very sceptical of people writing about environmental matters and ignoring a factor that is contributing to our overreach on the natural world: human numbers.

Our total demand on nature is a product of that number and what we all consume. Yes, the rich do consume too much, but I have shown with some simple calculations that even if you were to halve the income of OECD countries, the demand on nature still exceeds nature’s capacity to sustainably supply it.

There is a common view, particularly among the wealthy nations, that to even discuss population is to disparage the Global South, or the places that have high fertility rates. But the regions where population is rising fastest are going to have the greatest pressure on their ecosystems. If you really want to help their development, you must empower people through not just education but improved reproductive health and birth control facilities. About 150 million women in Africa don’t have access to modern birth control. This conspiracy of silence on the issue among world leaders is actually very undemocratic, because you are not giving a voice to those people, especially women.

We are not putting a value on Nature- that is meaningless because without Nature we won’t be here to transact with it.

Can you explain why economics has always had this blind spot for nature, where it is never considered as something that might be exhausted or depleted by growth?

The founders of modern economics, in the 18th century, often did have ‘land’ in their models. They classified land of different qualities, but they thought of it is as essentially indestructible. Global trade had increased, and there was a lot of land in America and Australia, so perhaps it felt almost infinite to them.

Now that we have data on it, we can see that globally, the economy back then was still small relative to the productivity of the entire biosphere. However, economists should have been smarter on a local level. They should have recognised that when things were going awry in various places, it was often related to ecological disruption; that certain communities were very reliant on their local natural wealth. Paleo-historians have found examples where societies that went under did so because of mismanagement or because of ecological overreach through population increase.

From the 1950s onwards, people started to identify links between poverty and inequality and bad governance in the world’s poorest areas, but they did not explore an underlying factor driving them, namely, the state of the local environment. Even now, when we read about a region in conflict, we think about bad governance or warring tribes. But we don’t look to see if it was triggered by stresses on local natural capital.


Like other sciences, economics develops by people studying and building on work that has been done before them. And that work creates a language that feeds into politics and business. The language that today’s politicians picked up as students [did not include nature]. And the more those people use that language, the more economists are driven to work in that way. Very few people attempt to break the whole thing down into small pieces and rework them all in the hope of solving a bigger puzzle, which is what I have tried to do.

Can you talk about the most common misconceptions about your work that you mentioned earlier?

There were some articles published in the newspapers that argued that nature is invaluable, and to put a monetary value on it is therefore commodifying it, putting it up for sale. Firstly, we are not putting a value on all of nature – that is meaningless, because without nature we won’t be here to transact with it. What we want to do is to look at changes that are happening to aspects of nature, whether it is, for example, an ecosystem or a wetland deteriorating or improving, and then assess the consequences.

When an economist talks about the price of something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an exchange value. It’s a way of assessing the social value of, say, a mangrove: the value of services it is offering the community, like clean water, food, flood defences, timber and so on. Maintaining that value might require you to have regulations to protect it, or even not touch it at all.

How good are we at valuing natural assets now? Is it accurate?

There are lots of case studies that have been done in Asia, and one network in particular named SANDEE (the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics) is about 25 years old and has published huge numbers of very important local studies, estimating the quality or the productivity of specific local ecosystems.

There are modes of life that have evolved over centuries in which people do not deploy ‘prices’ to guide their behaviour, but they do involve valuing their local environment. For example, many small self-sustaining communities have developed norms to restrain conduct in some directions, and to encourage conduct in other directions – such as not fishing in a certain part of the coast during spawning season. They are doing these things precisely because the ecosystems are valuable. The people in these communities are asset managers; they are controlling their assets in an intelligent way.

What happens to communities that mismanage their natural assets, or don’t understand their value?

Well, look at the fates of the Mayan, Easter Island and Greenland populations. If you don’t value the resources you rely on, or you mismanage them, you’re sunk. And it is worth noting that there are countless examples of communities going under because outside people have entered and overturned their norms and behaviours. The literature on forestry is replete with examples.

They have been pioneering quantitative studies of the benefits that things like mangroves provide to villages and towns, and they have been very good estimates. Are they accurate? It’s hard to know, but it’s a damn sight better than saying they are worth zero or that they will last forever.

I think rather than asking whether the valuations are accurate, we should be asking: are the exercises being done in a consistent way? Valuing even local ecosystems is laborious work. And they are site-specific: the value of a hectare of wetland in the tropics is not going to give me much information about the value of a hectare in temperate wetlands. It’s backbreaking work, but it must be done.

Do you have a favourite example of a country or location that is putting your work into action?

I think Costa Rica is a very impressive country. Not because they have read my review – they have been advocates of biodiversity conservation for a long time. But their implicit understanding of these matters seems to jive with how I read it.

One final question: are you optimistic about the future? Can society break this habit of ignoring the depletion of natural wealth, or will we go the way of the Easter Islanders?

I just don’t allow myself to think about it. I’m quite a cheerful person and I do the work I do because it is important and I find it enormously interesting. I don’t know how the future is going to pan out, but the best thing to do is to get on with the work that needs doing.

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta is the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus at the University of Cambridge

Professor partha dasgupta on how IUCN has influenced his work…

“I have a great deal of debt to pay IUCN. Right up until the 1970s, there was very little ecological writing that was digestible for economists. I was writing a book on poverty in which I wanted to explore the interface of consumption and environment, rather than just focusing on consumption. At the time I may not have even known the word ‘ecosystem’. IUCN published a book by Robert Allen, which was wonderful for me as an economist. It introduced me to all these environmental and ecological concepts, which I made use of in my book.”

As the world’s largest environmental network, many other parts of IUCN also work on the intersection between economics and conservation. Among these are:
•  IUCN Centre for Economy and Finance
•  IUCN Commission on Environmental,
    Economic and Social Policy