Ehrlich & Tobias Exclusive: The Biological Bottom Line

June 16, 2014 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Family Planning, Protection of Species, Reproductive Health, Daily Email Recap

“Why Impact Investors Must Come To Terms With the Biological Bottom Line”

 © By Paul R. Ehrlich and M. C. Tobias

When Nicholas Stern released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (October 30, 2006) for the British government, it was already clear that global warming, resultant weather anomalies and the overall consequences of unheeded business-as-usual greenhouse gas emission syndromes represented a huge challenge for portfolio management that had unambiguously put governments on notice. Despite continuing havoc amongst the participating nations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it had become clear that they should prepare for accelerating depletion of every major life-support system, and the corresponding societal chaos and economic loss which would result from escalating global temperatures and their impacts on climatic patterns and thus on biodiversity. Climate disruption presented new, but sobering opportunities; epiphanies regarding the true capacity of taxation to collectively cap the shadow now cast upon every financial market worldwide (*1) and on the future of civilization itself. (*2)

More recently, in her essay for the e-journal,, “Building a Sustainable Global Economy,” Mindy Lubber, President of CERES, wrote, “This should alarm every investor looking for long-term value creation, because climate regulatory risks alone could cost investment funds $8 trillion by 2030, according to the international consultancy Mercer.” (*3)

While the SEC and several European investor groups have now awakened to the extent of mandating environmental audits at some level of stringency, requiring a degree of transparency that should shed light on the risks to investors of new weather patterns generated by new concentrations of GHGs (greenhouse gases).  Meanwhile, biodiversity itself remains enmeshed in a seemingly impossible double-bind: there is simply no way as yet to accurately reflect true economic value of an individual, let along an entire species, or mosaic of interacting populations. All we know is that society is completely dependent on the mosaic of other organisms for its very existence.

In our book Hope on Earth: A Conversation (University of Chicago Press, May, 2014) we engaged in a discussion hinging upon the various ethical and pragmatic components of the one versus the many and of the future prospects of humanity. And we do it in a context not just of climate disruption, the loss of biodiversity, toxification of Earth, threats to health, poverty, racism, sexism, inequity and other factors the blight the human future.  Do human responses to individual plights reflect in any way an approach to realistic valuations of those individuals to this generation and future generations? Is the proclivity for heavily discounting the future and turning a blind-eye to likely ecological catastrophe built-in to a narcissism that would subject future generations to every manner of havoc as long as people are able to consume to their heart’s content now.  Is it in any way ethical for those of us in rich nations to disregard the consequences to others today, to say nothing of our own descendants?

This is but one crucial dilemma. Another is the notion that continual growth is necessary to a thriving economy. Yet, arithmetic, science and common sense alerts us to the perils of hypertrophy. The human population at current trends will most assuredly hit 9.5 billion, and quite possibly in excess of that U.N. median projection, unless catastrophe intervenes. Already, however, billions of humans live below the poverty line, more than 800 million are hungry, and as many as 2 billion more are micronutrient malnourished; whilst the human collective continues to not only discount but fully annihilate one species after another; many thousands of populations of sentient beings every day. There are no precise cost estimates for that degradation, though there have certainly been numerous attempts to value natural capital across a multiple of sectors. One assessment suggested global values of nature’s services at “2.1 to 4.8 trillion US dollars” annually. (*4)

That number was calculated in 2008. A very different analysis, in 1997, estimated the sum total of nature’s free services as being worth some $US 33 trillion each year. (*5) But these are very blurred estimates, lacking the ethical substrata with which we attempt to grapple in Hope on Earth.

For example, what is the value of a single critically endangered California condor, or Florida panther? We know from judicial guidance that the value of a person varies in courts of law from country to country, from hundreds of dollars to millions of dollars. The effort to save a few hundred California condors from extinction costs approximately $1.6 million per bird. In the case of the Florida panther, $4.9 million per cat. (*6)

How we attribute costs and benefits to life forms is no science, however. Rather, the effort to accord life forms true value hinges upon society’s willingness to pay, a quotient that tends to function in direct relation to wealth accumulation and whether an organism is perceived as “charismatic.” Given that wealth accumulations are in vast disarray, with inequality gaps posing greater challenges than ever before as the human species continues to explode, what can we reasonably expect any political party, community leader, or individual to do in service to his/her country, or the species in our backyards? Does kin altruism collapse in a global commons, or are there common standards that play out in biological as well as economic terms wherein a consistency can be divined?
Never in our history has this been the case, and we have little reason to believe that the getting of common sense will, in any realistic timeframe provide us sufficient leverage against the unprecedented ecological catastrophes we are now inflicting on ourselves and on the planet. To even start to solve the population problem humanely we’d need to greatly increase the status and opportunities for women, and to make modern contraception and back-up abortion available to all sexually active people.  And while such measures would start to bend the trajectory of population growth in the right direction, it would be a century or more before population size could be reduced to a long-term sustainable level.



Necessary reduction in overconsumption by the already rich could be accomplished much more rapidly, as we know from history, but that also would require political will and common sense that is nowhere apparent.
And such will is certainly not evident if we turn boldly to an ethical assessment of humanity’s relationship to other species. We at once recognize that virtually every other animal (with the exception of the proverbially pampered poodle, or that engine of biodiversity destruction, the house cat) approaches us at their peril; that the photosynthetic commons is one we have massively appropriated for ourselves (between an estimated 50% and 60%); that more than 100 billion vertebrates (cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, etc.) are slaughtered under Holocaust like conditions each year for our singular pleasures; a number that does not account for the vastly larger quantum of aquatic individuals, and entire fisheries increasingly undermined each year by humanity’s rapacious quest for protein (some 16% of which is thus far obtained from the oceans where we see a shocking absence of international treaties with traction, or of anything remotely approaching consistently wise-use conservation amongst the huge number of Exclusive Economic Zones).
The biological bottom-line, therefore, inflicts on any economic system a daunting challenge: how do we measure our species’ impact as a function of dollars, knowing that it is precisely the monetizing of nature and the translation of those dollar figures into taxable quanta that might help a money-oriented society restore ecosystems while there is still time to do so?
How can the value of not having an additional child, of not eating a steak, be developed?
Could moral suasion be enough to excite the level of multi-species altruism necessary to re-shape existing political and economic systems so that they mimic nature, work with nature, invest in nature, and above all assign appropriate value to nature? Or are these possibilities already too far gone, the very premise of human fairness, goodness, and self-preserving intelligence obsolete? Are we doomed to continue to plunge into an abyss?
This conundrum threatens humanity’s ability to save itself, whilst providing the rudiments for healing its life-support systems. At this point, as we approach COP21 – the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (*7) in Paris in late 2015, these yearnings may represent nothing more than an impossible dream, a very real possibility, as discussed at the heart of our book, Hope on Earth: A Conversation. (*8)
2 Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B
6 See Tobias, M., and Jane Gray Morrison, God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, A Dancing Star Foundation Book, Los Angeles, 2011, p.173
Paul R. Ehrlich Bing Professor of Population Studies President, Center for Conservation Biology Department of Biology,
Michael Charles Tobias is President of the Dancing Star Foundation,; And on LinkedIn, Facebook & Twitter

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