Governments hold the key to recovery from the current crisis but are we ready for a radical change towards a more sustainable economy? Minna Hartikainen discusses Notes from Lockdown and Economy in the Time of Corona.

Posted on 27 May 2020

London's Victoria Park during coronavirus lockdown
London’s Victoria Park under lockdown

During the past couple of months, I have become more dependent on nature than ever for my mental health and wellbeing. Even when our local park was closed, I managed to find patches of paradise in an overgrown cemetery park. Never before has my wellbeing depended so much on accessible urban greenspace.

The coronavirus crisis has probably changed many people’s relationship with nature – but what about the society as a whole? Conservation organisations and business leaders have called for radical changes to economic policy, green recovery and “building back better” but we need finance ministers and policymakers across government departments to get on board too. We need to see economic policy and recovery measures that account for nature.

Can economies change?

This month a Nature editorial welcomed the HM Treasury’s Dasgupta review on the economics of biodiversity, which could not be better timed. Its interim report concludes that as we emerge from the current health crisis, there will be an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by economic prosperity. Our economies depend on nature, biodiversity and ecosystem services and unless we revisit our measures of success and look beyond GPD, nature and biodiversity will continue to decline.

But what are the chances of a radical change towards a more sustainable economy? Socially embedded preferences can change. We can substitute material consumption with other wellbeing values, bringing in broader environmental and social economics. During lockdown, people have realised how much they depend on green space and communities. Cities have rallied behind a green recovery and businesses and charities have campaigned for wellbeing economies. Nature conservation and restoration have been framed as investment opportunities, even if biodiversity finance is small in comparison with the money that goes into destroying it.

Brave New World or All Quiet on the Economic Front

Now all eyes are on the governments. Governments have the upper hand for the first time in a generation to change economic policy. At the helm of the UN climate talks the UK government has a unique opportunity to lead the world in environmental and economic policy.

Environmental scientists are calling for government to end “business as usual” to protect lives, livelihoods and nature. Many businesses are on board too. At the same time polluting industries around the world are making use of weakened and delayed environmental protections. Airlines are receiving government bailouts without environmental conditions. It remains to be seen how far the UK government is ready to walk the walk.

Biodiversity contributes to achieving most, if not all, sustainable development goals that have been adopted by all the UN member states. The HM Treasury’s Dasgupta review has the opportunity to persuade finance ministers across the world to include the true value of nature when rebuilding economies. However, this leads to difficult conversations about wealth and economic growth. Can there be economic growth without biodiversity loss? Is it time to rethink the way we measure growth and understand economic resilience?

"When we go, we're taking you with us" graffiti with bees
Louis Masai graffiti in East London

Is this the economy, stupid?

Economists say economy is a system of distributing limited resources and economic value is a measure of the benefits from a good or service. It is not difficult to see nature as the ultimate limited resource and biodiversity as essential for keeping nature and its ecosystems producing goods and services. However, capturing the value of biodiversity remains a challenge, not least because there are so many ways to value nature. We need land to farm food but we also need it to recycle nutrients, regulate water and capture carbon. Economies are run not only by exports and imports but also recreation and inspiration. More songs, poems and paintings are made about birdsong than intensively farmed cropland. Yet queuing for fruit in lockdown has made me acutely aware of how much I need both.