Is Anthropocentrism Good Science? Why Sir Partha Got It Wrong

In these days, the ‘Dasgupta Review’ receives much attention in policy circles and news reports. The Review pursues the laudable goal to include environmental concerns into economics and to show economic strategies for putting biodiversity at the centre of our efforts to cope with the challenge of climate change. The Review submits many important suggestions, such as substituting GDP for a measure of the growth of inclusive wealth which covers all forms of capital, most importantly, nature capital. The diagnosis is bleak: Our recent economic growth has been fueled by the ruthless exploitation and destruction of nature capital. The Review suggest a wide range of measures that are necessary to stop and even reverse this development. Indeed, with its massive size it is a handbook of the economics of biodiversity and climate change.

Yet, I think that the approach is fundamentally flawed since its central normative assumption is anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism is explicitly defended as the most reasonable position in doing economics as a science (pp. 36, 49), and it permeates the entire report. The Review starts out from treating nature as an ‘asset’ which provides benefits to us humans. The central problem in climate change is improper pricing of these assets, so the Review suggests a sophisticated method to calculate ‘accounting prices’ for nature, which ties up with established approaches in valuing ecosystem services (pp. 357ff). Sir Partha eloquently recognizes that there are other sources of value, such as the intrinsic value of living beings (p. 299, 307), and he even considers the question whether ecosystems may have the status of personhood (pp. 308ff). He also demands cultural changes, even spiritual transformations, perhaps guided by reforms of our educational systems (pp. 6, 495f). But in the end of the day, ‘getting prices right’ remains the message of a laborious exercise in advanced neoclassical welfare economics.

How is anthropocentrism defended? Anthropocentrism is defended as the ’worst case’, to put it in my own blunt words (e.g,. p. 354). That means, if we can show that a radical turn in our global economy is necessary even when only considering human interests, then the case is even stronger if we also take other criteria into consideration. There could be a more sophisticated argument, but I could not detect that: This is that we can only change our behaviour by ourselves, so we need incentives appealing to our interests. Economics would show how we can pull ourselves out of the morass. But exactly this move is missing in the Review and reveals a serious flaw, the neglect of the political economy of climate change.

If it is our own interests that prevent us from doing the necessary steps, how can we put the recommendations of the Review into practice? The Review is lacking a comprehensive and rigorous treatment of the political economy of ecological transformation. We learn a lot about ecology and distribution, or about ecology and development, but there is no systemic perspective: What are the drivers of our actions, and who can change US? This is the problem of agency, individual and collective. Sir Partha refers to the social evaluator and the concerned citizen as the ones who can achieve that (pp. 4, 251). That’s bad political economy. For example, there is no discussion of how the financial system drives our reckless growth, and how we can transform its operations (see chapter 20, plus p. 494). The Review takes the financial system of capitalism for granted, even endorses it when considering financial instruments of ecological risk management (chapter 17), and only considers new ‘green’ financial instruments (while observing that they do not really take off, pp. 476, 480) and regulatory interventions. But there is no deeper reflection of systemic issues, even in the narrower economic context. There are astonishing omissions: For example, the Review does not discuss the conflicts that arise from growing climate change-induced migration, certainly one of pressing issues already today. That results in a really disappointing, surprisingly short and superficial final chapter, ‘The Road Ahead’, which just lists various desirable measures, including also fundamental attitudinal changes, but does not present a comprehensive view on systemic transformation. Reform, not revolution.

One symptom of this lack of a systemic perspective is that the long report never uses the concept of ‘rebound’. Rebound effects manifest systemic interdependencies which may not be immediately obvious when only considering single measures. As I wrote in my previous post, nature-based solutions in an urban context, also praised in the Review (p. 488), may result in even further propelling urban growth with externalities, restoring wilderness may induce excessive eco-tourism, or pushing green finance may just create another financial cycle of pursuing excessive profits, and so on. The fundamental question must always be: What are the systemic feedbacks of single measures, and to which extent can intended goals of these measures only be realized if there are systemic changes?

This is one consequence of anthropocentrism: If we take our interests as normative benchmark, we overlook the system which defines these interests, and that system must be understood in non-anthropocentric terms (that is what Horkheimer called ‘critical theory’). This perspective was most clearly developed by Marx for the first time. The picture of the technosphere unfolding on this blog is another approach in kindred spirit. However, the political economy reasoning is only one argument against anthropocentrism. The other is that it is bad science.

We cannot fully integrate economic and ecological analysis if we do not adopt a geocentric view on the economy. That is well recognized in climate research. Take, for example, the famous ‘planetary boundaries’ concept ground in the Earth sciences, which the Review also employs (p. 107). This is a non-anthropocentric view. Human interests do not matter at all, researchers ask what kind of criteria we must apply to judge whether the Earth system operates in a sustainable way. The Review recognizes the crucial significance of non-linearities in biosphere dynamics, and therefore even recommends quantitative restrictions (and not prices) as mode of intervention (pp. 346, 434). But is does not draw the conclusion that what hence matters is the systemic view, here extending from the economy to the Earth system. With reference to the economy, we then ask: What is the role of the economy in regulating Earth system processes? What are the conclusions for designing our economy if we want to safeguard Earth system functioning that maintains the integrity of the biosphere? There are no human interests at all in this reasoning, apart from the general point that humans cannot survive in a malfunctioning biosphere. Science is non-anthropocentric. Hence, economics is not science, as long as it keeps anthropocentrism as a frame, but just a form of rhetoric.

Regrettably, when Sir Partha discusses valuation, he only mentions non-anthropocentric views in the context of normative and even spiritual beliefs, but not in reference to basic Earth system science (pp. 68, 299ff). He treats non-anthropocentrism just as another normative stance. That is like arguing that the Copernican move was only a change of beliefs, and not science. This is the fundamental conundrum of economics: Despite employing a vast and powerful tool-box of maths and measures, also salient in the Review, economics is not science, but a belief system. A genuinely scientific economics must eschew anthropocentrism.

One Reply to “Is Anthropocentrism Good Science? Why Sir Partha Got It Wrong”

  1. As illuminating as ever Carsten. Dasgupta’s review is generating a lot of discussion. Some (not much) is about it’s central anthropocentrism. Here, I briefly wanted to comment on your statement about the Planetary Boundaries framework. I think I disagree, because the framework is decidedly anthropocentric. Boundaries are set in the context of how much disruption can humans produce on the earth system before the earth system responds in such ways that will prove to be bad for humans. Seeking to remain within the Holocene is a normative stance.

    Liked by 1 person

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