‘Oikos’ is an ancient Greek word for household. It refers to the family, the family's property, and the house they live in. ‘Oikos’ is also the root of the modern word ‘ecology’, which is the study of living organisms, including humans, and their relationship to the physical environment. Ecologists are the scientists investigating how our living world works, including the species and habitats that provide for us in every way.
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Another field of study which also takes its name from the ancient Greek word ‘oikos’ is the word 'economy'. The Greek ‘oikonomia’ combines ‘oikos’ and ‘nemein’, which is best translated as 'management and dispensation’. While ecology is a scientific approach providing us with knowledge and insight about the world we live in, the economy describes a made-up world based on money.
Money is, after all, a human construct, a conceptual rather than a real thing. Yet it is the economy that dictates the decisions we make about how we manage and dispense of the many components of the natural world, the real one. It could be argued that confusion about what is real and what is not is at the root of at least two of the existential crises facing humanity today: climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
A new report released by IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) describes the flaws with our current approach of basing political and economic decisions on a narrow set of market values. It describes how this disregard for the value of nature in our economic system underpins the global biodiversity crisis.
This major assessment has been compiled over four years by an international team of 82 top scientists and experts from every region of the world, including experts in economics, social science, and the humanities. This month, the report detailing the assessment was approved by representatives of 139 countries, including Ireland.
In a key statement from the report, we are told that the dominant global focus on short-term profits and economic growth is now degrading nature faster than at any other point in human history. While this statement in itself is not new knowledge, at least to most readers here, it is a big deal that so many experts and countries can officially agree that this is the case.
Two examples from Ireland of the hierarchy of profit over environmental health are how we have managed peat bogs and the current expansion of the dairy industry here.
Peat bogs are massive stores of carbon, as well as actively sequestering carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Whether we drain or maintain and rewet peat bogs determines whether they are climate foes or allies. Similarly, healthy peat bogs help maintain good water quality in the wider catchment and can help prevent flooding, but when drained and harvested for turf or milled peat, they can exacerbate flooding in the catchment.
Flood attenuation and storing greenhouse gasses are free services, for which they ask nothing in return, so we don’t value them in economic terms nor consider these ‘services’ in decisions about whether to harvest or not. As a result, it has made good economic sense to destroy more than 95% of our peat bogs over the course of only 50 years.
This is a prime example of how a valuable natural asset has been destroyed for short-term economic gains. It’s considered normal to think that we need money, even more than we need nature. And this is what has led to the catastrophic collapse of ecosystems everywhere, both on land and at sea, right across the globe.
The current expansion of the dairy industry in Ireland is another case of how we are sacrificing biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in exchange for short-term profits for a minority of the population. To feed such an enormous population of dairy cows, pigs and poultry, Ireland imports more than 5 million tonnes of animal feed each year.
Much of this is maize and soy from Argentina and Brazil, where rainforests are cleared to grow the feed. To those who decide on policy, there is nothing askew about actively encouraging and subsidising such practices, which are seen as simply meeting market demand and turning a very welcome profit from valuable dairy-based export commodities such as butter, milk and infant formula.
In Ireland too, dramatic levels of biodiversity loss are currently underway because of the intensification of agriculture, especially dairy. Water quality in lakes and rivers is rapidly diminishing and aquatic ecosystems are suffering. We know from State monitoring schemes that nitrate pollution in our waters is on the increase for the first time in decades.
On land, once common farmland birds, including curlew, lapwing, snipe, and redshank are experiencing severe population decline because their farmland habitats have been changing so dramatically in recent years.
Healthy rivers, abundant fish and other wildlife, good water quality, stable populations of wild birds, and a stable climate are all examples of the ‘non-market values’ described in the IPBES Assessment. These very real components of our wider home are clearly not being adequately considered in decision-making. All this has so far been deemed acceptable for most of society as long as good profits are being generated.
The IPBES report states that we need to get better at assessing who benefits from the decisions being made. It challenges decision-makers to question how fairly the benefits and burdens arising from decisions are distributed. Importantly, the authors lay out a suite of approaches to turn this around. The assessment details many different methods for incorporating the ‘non-market values’ of nature in policy decisions.
If such a transformative change in our thinking could catch on, there are grounds for hope for the future of both nature and human society. The assessment report offers “pathways for reconciling a good quality of life with that of life on Earth”. Co-chair of the assessment, Professor Patricia Balvanera, states that this entails “redefining ‘development’ and 'good quality of life’."
With so many experts, drawing on more than 13,000 references, telling us that the narrow economic values that underpin the decision we make are not compatible with healthy ecosystems, is it time to listen up?