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UN chief warns of ‘suicidal’ war on nature

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. KeywordsFree market - When the government does not interfere with the economy, and the laws of supply and demand dictate trading. 

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