Anthropocene


Turns out the year 2020 was even more of a turning point than just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A fact arguably almost as significant was reported in an article published last December[1] in Nature, the redoubtable science periodical: “We find that Earth is exactly at the crossover point; in the year 2020 (plus or minus six years) the anthropogenic mass, which has recently doubled roughly every 20 years, will surpass all global living biomass.”

In plainspeak this means that as of last year all the artificial stuff we have churned out and are using, including roads, skyscrapers, malls, churches, public monuments, kitchen appliances, textiles — and, yes, face masks — now weigh more than all living things put together. The authors estimate the overall living biomass (all trees, plants, and animals including humans) weighs 1.1 tera tons (i.e., 1.1 thousand billion tons). That is the milestone number our “stuff” has just surpassed. “On average,” the authors, led by Weizmann Institute’s R. Milo, estimate, “for each person on the globe, anthropogenic mass equal to more than his or her body weight is produced every week.” At this rate, they estimate that human-made artifacts will be three times the living biomass by 2040 and that — as that stuff falls into disuse — the world faces an avalanche of waste in the next two decades. That effect is aside from the destruction of natural habitats from urbanization, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, industrial agriculture, the overexploitation of marine life, the wild animal trade, etc. — which scientists incidentally suspect bite us back in the form of novel diseases like COVID.

These and other findings only bolster the emerging idea that we now live in a qualitatively new geological epoch — the Anthropocene, in which humans have become the dominant force shaping the planet. If the findings in the Nature piece are right, we might half-seriously imagine some distant future when a thick layer of geologic rock will be identifiable not by plant or animal fossils but by an unusual amalgam of crushed concrete aggregates, iron beams, glass, and pure aluminum. Some future geologist, after some digging may find corroborating traces of plastic water bottles and sanitary pads and might then exclaim: “Aha, definitely the Anthropocene!”

The urgent problem of the human impact on the planet is the subject of two significant reports that appeared early this year: the first is the UNDP’s 2021 Human Development Report (HDR) titled Human development and the Anthropocene[2]; the second is The economics of biodiversity, a review led by the eminent Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta and commissioned by no less than the UK Treasury.[3] (We can only dream our own finance department might do something as enlightened — Finance Secretary Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez chairs the climate change commission but he cheerleads for mining.)

Both reports question whether the current manner that humans relate to nature can be sustained. (Short answer: no.) They provide rich detail and scholarship for the argument and constructive approaches to a solution and are a definite must-read. But there is room here only to highlight a common plea by both, which is for a radical rethinking of how we understand and measure our well-being.

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The 2021 HDR demonstrates this by reformulating its own well-known human development index (HDI). To recall: the original HDI is a composite measure of a people’s health and longevity, living standards, and educational or literacy (i.e., the state of being “healthy, wealthy, and wise”). Those achievements, however, come at an inevitable cost to the planet because of the pressure on the environment caused by the production and consumption required to achieve “human development.” If the index is adjusted to account for (a.) the carbon emissions created by a country’s output, and (b.) the material extracted to meet the consumption by its people, the result is the “planetary pressures-adjusted HDI” (PHDI), an HDI that takes into account the human impact on nature. (See the Table.)

The predictable result is that virtually all countries’ HDI must be adjusted downward (e.g., see the third and fourth columns of the table). What is significant, however, is that rich and high-HDI countries are demoted in PHDI rankings while poorer countries tend to rise. The erstwhile top HDI-performer Norway, for example, drops 15 ranks in the PHDI, most likely because its high living standards are based on huge oil and gas exports. The same explains the huge drop for Australia (a drop of 72 ranks), a good part of whose economy is based on mining.

The Philippines actually fares not too badly and actually rises 24 places in PHDI: its economic basis being in services rather than in manufacturing means it has lower carbon emissions; it has fewer extractive industries; and its lower income and consumption also means a lower material footprint. (This is at least one league table where we beat China and Indonesia.) All that notwithstanding, of course, one will still be hard-pressed however to convince present-day Filipinos that they are better off than the average Chinese.

The roughly negative correlation between HDI and PHDI raises the central question whether affluence and human expansion must necessarily be sacrificed to save the planet. Opinions on this diverge widely. But part of the dilemma, according to the Dasgupta Report, is a false one and stems from the wrong-headed way we measure wealth and well-being. The pissing contest among countries today is measured in GDP, but Dasgupta et al. say this is misleading. First, GDP is a flow not a stock, and so says nothing about whether we are living off income in the true (Hicksian) sense and not just running down our assets. (After all, anyone can maintain a high-end lifestyle for a time by slowly pawning off one’s inheritance.)

But second, the assets we value are themselves incomplete. Economists, who secretly know better, have complacently tolerated the shortcomings of GDP conventions inherited from a previous century. National-income accounting to this day includes only physical or produced capital (the artificial “stuff” that ends up in geologic strata) neglecting both human capital and natural capital. One obvious example is how education spending, which forms human capital, is still obtusely classified as consumption instead of investment. More perverse is the wholesale disregard for natural capital and the failure to value the services it contributes to real income (e.g., its provisioning, regulating, and aesthetic-spiritual functions). As a result, the even wanton destruction and degradation of natural assets and their transformation into artificial “stuff” can be justified as unalloyed gains in GDP. In contrast, reforestation, coral reef protection, and similar spending that preserves or expands natural capital are also classified as consumption, not investment. This is because the flow of benefits from natural capital are unpriced, regarded as “free,” and therefore ignored in favor of marketable “stuff.”

While it is technologically possible at any time to turn natural capital into produced capital (e.g., by clear-cutting a forest to build a road, or strip-mining a mountain to extract aluminum for a building), it may not always make true economic sense to do so. A vigorous theoretical debate used to rage regarding how much physical capital (“stuff”) and human capital (“smarts”) might substitute for the loss of the natural environment (“setting”). But given the rapid deterioration in the biosphere in recent times — e.g., the species extinction rate that is 1,000 to 10,000 times what should be expected — that debate has subsided and a consensus now seems to emerge that the point of no return is fast approaching, if it is not already past.

The Dasgupta Report therefore champions the use of “inclusive wealth” to measure welfare. This means valuing and monitoring the level of all capital — produced, human, and most crucially natural capital. By so doing, even when converting natural to produced-capital or to human capital, society is at least forced to measure not only what it gains, but also what is lost. Dasgupta et al. make the point that the proper valuation of nature, far from being a mere sentimental choice, is in fact a hard-nosed economic one.

Adam Smith in his other great book wrote of how humans were inherently capable of empathy (“sympathy” in the original). Empathy is what allows us today to imagine ourselves in the shoes of our descendants, who in some far future might be confronted by a much-diminished natural environment — perhaps viewing a display of a solitary balintong (Palawan pangolin) exhibiting stereotype, pacing back and forth in its enclosure against a projected image of a rainforest visible only through a VR headset. At that point, our descendant removing her goggles may ask, like Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Then we may well wonder whether we made the right economic choices during our time.

[1] E. Elhacham, L. Ben-Uri, J. Grozovski, Y. Bar-On, and R. Milo [2020] “Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass”, Nature, 588: 442-444. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-3010-5

[2] Available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/2020-report.

[3] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/957291/Dasgupta_Review_-_Full_Report.pdf

Emmanuel S. De Dios is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.

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