UN chief warns of ‘suicidal’ war on nature

Apocalypse Now: António Guterres beseeched countries to commit to zero carbon emissions.

Do we value markets over morals? As we head towards climate armageddon, a prominent economist claims that we need to radically transform our understanding of value — or face extinction.

The Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, almost seemed to smile as he took to the podium. Then he began to speak. “Let’s face facts,” he intoned with a solemn face, “the state of our planet is broken. Humanity is waging war with nature.”

“Every country, city, financial institution and company,” he continued, “should transition to zero carbon emissions.” He did not mince his words: to fail would be “suicidal”.

Climate change has been a major international concern since the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit. Yet despite the ever-present threat of rendering the planet uninhabitable, humanity continues to pollute the skies and the seas, melt ice caps and bring species to extinction. Despite the efforts of David Attenborough, 91% of plastic goes unrecycled. The amount of plastic waste dumped in oceans is expected to triple by 2040. When it comes to the environment, it seems we are all the mayor from Jaws.

According to former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, our failure to tackle climate change results from a mindset that values economic over moral capital. The free market economics that has dominated Western societies since the 1980s has prioritised short-term profit. In consequence, long-term social weal has been cast aside. "If a good or activity is not on the market,” Carney explains, "it is not valued.”

It is because of this that many countries found themselves ill-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic, despite abundant warnings. Investing in PPE, extra beds and staffing did not bring a high enough return.

Thinkers since Plato have noted a dissonance between price and value. Observe the discrepancy between salaries. Few would deny the moral value of healthcare works dwarfs that of advertisers. Yet the average salary of a nurse in the UK is £33,000 a year, while those who work in advertising make £47,500.

Free market thinking spread like a contagion. “Market values and reasoning,” claims the political philosopher Michael Sandel, “are reaching into spheres of life previously governed by non-market norms”. In the UK, many services once enacted by the state for the benefit of a population — forensic laboratories, dentistry, the management of public space — are now run by private companies for profit.

For defenders of the free market, this profit motive can be friend rather than foe to society. Adam Smith wrote of an “invisible hand” whereby economic growth provides social benefit.

A devoted marketeer could point out numerous instances in history in which this happened. The Industrial Revolution fuelled the growth of cities, mass education and political enfranchisement. The ever-growing global economy has increased prosperity and alleviated poverty. In 1990, 36% of the world lived in extreme poverty; today, only 9.2% do.

And recent events show that the market has not erased people’s sense of moral responsibility. The pandemic has inspired an international outpouring of civic duty. People have sewn masks and delivered food to elderly neighbours. By April, almost a million had volunteered to help the NHS.

Our sense of morality may be an intrinsic part of our psychology. Research suggests that we are most productive when working for a cause we believe in. A study has found that groups of children paid to perform charity work raised less money than those who did it out of a moral duty.

Do we value markets over morals?

Wages of sin

Yes, say some. Belief in the market has shunted morality aside. We know the price of everything but the value of nothing. The free market has infiltrated so many aspects of society that our every move is a transaction. Short-term profit has trumped long-term gains, as evinced by many countries’ botched responses to Covid-19 and our failure to forestall climate change.

No, say others. While it is true that the free market has a powerful influence over our lives, people still harbour a moral sense, as demonstrated by the worldwide solidarity felt through the Covid-19 crisis and the UN’s attempt to reduce emissions. Besides, to disentangle market and moral success is to ignore that the two have often advanced hand-in-hand.

You Decide

  1. If you were paid money to go to school, would you value it more or less?
  2. Would you sacrifice contemporary technology such as computers and smartphones now, if it might prevent climate catastrophe in the future?

Activities

  1. Design a poster for a campaign urging people to care for the environment, including the five most shocking facts you can find about climate change.
  2. In pairs or small groups, write a short scene depicting an act of moral virtue. Perform the scene in front of the class.

Some People Say...

“A person's worth is measured by the worth of what he values.”

Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180AD), Roman emperor and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is broadly agreed that the economic value of an object is dependent on its context. Facing almost certain defeat in battle, Shakespeare’s Richard III declared “my kingdom for a horse!”, temporarily choosing a route of survival over retention of his kingdom, the motivation for fighting in the first place. Water holds more value in a desert than in the rainforest.
What do we not know?
There remains disagreement on whether economic value is objective or subjective. For classical economists like Adam Smith and Karl Marx, value is objective and emerges from the inherent properties of a good or activity and the amount of labour used to produce it. Later thinkers such as those at the Austrian School of economists instead claim that value is subjective, and comes from the importance an individual attaches to it. This second belief informs mainstream free market economics today.

Word Watch

Mayor from Jaws
In the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, the mayor refuses to close a beach despite attacks by a killer shark. Back in 2006, Boris Johnson declared that the mayor in the film was the “true hero” of the story. Earlier this year, many recalled his opinion when the UK was perceived to be slow to lock down.
Free market
An economic stem in which the prices for goods are regulated by supply and demand, free from any control by governments and other groups.
Weal
That which is best for something, derived from an old Germanic word meaning both “wealth” and “well-being.”
Plato
Enormously influential Ancient Greek philosopher. His paradox of value points out the contradiction between the low price of water, which is essential for our survival and hygiene, and the high cost of the far less useful diamonds.
Dissonance
A lack of agreement between people or things, originally used to refer to an absence of harmony in music. It descends from a Latin word meaning “disagreeing sound”.
Profit motive
The motivation of companies to maximise profit, regarded as a cornerstone of free market economics.
Adam Smith
Scottish philosopher, and the founder of modern economics. Although often cited as an influence on free market economics, Smith believed that economic and social capital were intertwined.
Extreme poverty
The most severe type of poverty, defined by the UN as living off $1.90 or less a day.

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