How much is a rainforest worth? Not much, apparently. In late 2017, I spent a couple of months of my sabbatical in Malaysian Borneo. The journey there involved flying over thousands of square kilometres of clear-cut land, abundant and mysterious forest burnt and replaced by an endless monoculture of palm oil plantations. This, despite decades of fervent advocacy to preserve the rainforest, and scientific consensus that the tropical ecosystem is a vital carbon sink. Why? Because the economics, apparently, don’t stack up. There’s no money in preserving the forest; only in destroying it and using the land for short term cash-crop exploitation. Which, in turn, provides an immediate and measurable increase in Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and an increase in governmental tax take. The wellbeing of the indigenous tribes deep in the forest is sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the rich world’s insatiable demand for shower gel.
To lay all of this destruction at the door of one economists’ measure of national financial weight would be to lay too heavy a burden on the notion of Gross Domestic Product. But, argues Ehsan Masood, in The Great Invention, the crudeness and bluntness of GDP as a measure of national financial health has had profound and baleful consequences for global wellbeing and environmental health. I have a clear memory of il sorpasso – the moment in 1987 when Italy’s GDP overtook the UK’s. There were disquieted articles in the broadsheets about the spiralling decline of Britain’s economic strengths, followed ten years later by relieved comment marking the moment when Britain overtook Italy again.