I try and avoid philosophy, my education was very science based and I am much more comfortable relying on an evidence based approach to life. However, there are times when a more philosophical approach is needed.
The current Government and in fact all the major political parties, are searching for economic growth where success or failure is measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product). GDP is being used as an indicator of the overall health of the economy, is reported on quarterly and is compared across the world.
As conservationists we are constantly being asked what impact our activities will have on the “growth” agenda, witness the discussions surrounding HS2 where 21 ancient woods will be lost but there will be a £1.5billion pa boost to the West Midlands economy. The problem is that the numbers are so big and at such a large scale it is difficult to see how the comparison can be effectively undertaken, apart from which few people understand how the calculations were done.
Economists talk about people seeking to optimise their own “welfare”, a complex series of personal goods which, if a full definition was followed, could only truly be characterised by the individual. Unfortunately too often money is used as a synonym for welfare and thus at both policy and personal level the theory is that we all seek to increase the amount of money we have. The belief appears to be that increased growth in the economy will lead to increased money in our pockets which will automatically lead to increased happiness, but in a mature democracy is this really true and can the search for growth be counterproductive?
The sound of bird song in my garden in the morning makes me feel happy. I will never travel to see a polar bear (far too cold!) but the knowledge that there are still bears wandering across the ice makes me think the world is still a good place to be. But how do you put a monetary valuation on any of this? The National Ecosystems Assessment looked at valuing our ecosystems and the Ecosystems Market Task Force has sought to find mechanisms to make money out of nature. Later this year the Natural Capital Committee will produce its first State of Natural Capital Committee report to assess where our natural capital committee is being used unsustainably.
But it does make you wonder if, philosophically, we are just looking at this issue from the wrong end and that perhaps it would be easier and more readily understandable if we just followed the example of Bhutan and ditched GDP and instead measured Gross National Happiness.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer