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Any EAs familiar with Partha Dasgupta's work?

by capybaralet1 min read31st Mar 202111 comments

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He argues that nature provides massive economic value, which is not well accounted for.
A few starting points:
https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/dasguptareview
https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstb.2009.0231

I have the impression that the EA community is not very sympathetic towards such arguments, but I also haven't seen any signs that anyone has seriously engaged with them.

 

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Short answer: Yes. FWIW, Partha is the Chair of CSER (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) which has, or has had, quite a few EA-sympathetic people in it. I have no idea how widely he is known across EA more broadly.

I was under the impression CSER was pretty "core EA"! Certainly I'd expect most highly engaged EAs to have heard of them, and there aren't that many people working on x-risk anywhere.

(Disclaimer: am co-director of CSER): EA is a strong influence at CSER, but one of a number. At a guess, I'd say maybe a third to a half of people actively engage with EA/EA-led projects (some ambiguity based on how you define), but a lot are coming from other academic backgrounds relevant to GCR and working in broader GCR contexts, and there's no expectation or requirement to be invoved with EA. We aim to be a broad church in this regard.

Among our senior advisers/board, folks like Martin Rees and Jaan Tallinn engage more actively with EA.  There's been little Partha/EA engagement to my knowledge. (At least some of the conversations that would ultimately lead to there being a CSER predated EA's existence). I think I'd agree with comments elsewhere that Partha's work on biodiversity loss might be considered a lower priority through an EA lens than through some other lenses (e.g. ones that place 'intrinsic value of biological diversity/ecosystem preservation' more highly, or ones that place higher weight on sub-existential catastrophes or systemic vulnerabilities) although I'm glad to see it considered through an EA lens and will be interested to see EA perspectives on it.

6MichaelPlant6moI'm not sure how to assess what counts as 'core EA'! But I don't think the org bills itself as EA, or that the overwhelming majority of its staff self-identify as EAs (cf. the way the staff at, um, CEA probably do...)
2alexrjl6moInteresting, thanks!

Very light, initial impression:
The EA community is at least somewhat intellectually diverse, and on this particular topic I think there are probably some people in the EA community who may be quite sympathetic to the idea. I'll add the important caveat, though, that I merely skimmed the abstracts/introductions for those links, so I don't know exactly what all he argues for. If he is simply saying "nature is an important factor in health, economic inputs/resources, leisure, etc." then that does not sound so model-shattering. Still, I am a bit skeptical of any kind of "Here's this one thing [especially something associated with lots of sentiment/political buzz, like "nature"] that economists have inexplicably left out of their models, and it changes everything"--e.g., skeptical of its significance in general, skeptical that economists have truly left it out of their models if it is significant, skeptical that there isn't a valid reason to leave it out of their models if they have been doing that and it is significant, and so on.

It hardly seems "inexplicable"... this stuff is harder to quantify, especially in terms of the long-term value.  I think there's an interesting contrast with your comment and jackmalde's below: "It's also hardly news that GDP isn't a perfect measure."

So I don't really see why there should be a high level of skepticism of a claim that "economists haven't done a good job of modelling X[=value of nature]".  I'd guess most economists would emphatically agree with this sort of critique.

Or perhaps there's an underlying disagreement about what to do whe... (read more)

3Harrison D6moI think there may be a bit of a disconnect between what I meant and how it was received, perhaps magnified by the fact that I was only giving my skim-derived impressions. First, I fully agree with jackmalde's point that GDP isn't a perfect measure, but partially reflecting a comment from your second paragraph, I presume that a lot of economists recognize that measures like GDP are not perfect (in fact, at least 2 if not all 3 of the econ professors I've had have explicitly said something along those lines). Second, based on the first paragraph of the Cambridge [https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/dasguptareview] article ("Nature is a “blind spot” in economics") it seemed like the implication was that 1) economists have massively ignored this, and 2) adding consideration of "nature" would be model-shattering. When the claim is simply "nature is a factor" (among multiple others), I think that's probably reasonable. Third, I should clarify what I mean about my skepticism: I am not the slightest bit skeptical that economic models could be improved in general. However, by default I am skeptical towards any specific claim of widespread blindness among economists, because I think that most of these claims will be wrong -- i.e., I have a low outside view/base rate for each specific claim, especially with regards to the questions I mentioned in my original answer/comment. Building on that, I don't want to over-articulate my thought process since it was largely just my initial, informal thoughts, but: There may be good evidence to back up Partha's claim, it just seems like something that falls within a category of "Things that, if true, would be much more widely recognized [by economists] / would not have to be presented as some major 'blind spot.'" I don't claim that this heuristic is good for someone whose work/research relates to this (i.e., those kinds of people should do more research than initial impressions), but as someone who is not in economics I think it's more effective
1capybaralet6moI view economists are more like physicists working with spherical cows, and often happy to continue to do so. So that means we should expect lots of specific blind spots, and for them to be easy to identify, and for them to be readily acknowledged by many economists. Under this model, economists are also not particularly concerned with the practical implications of the simplifications they make. Hence they would readily acknowledge many specific limitations of their models. Another way of putting it: this is more of a blind spot for economics, not economists. I'll also get back to this point about measurement... there's a huge space between "nature has intrinsic value" and "we can measure the extrinsic value of nature". I think the most reasonable position is: - Nature has some intrinsic value, because there are conscious beings in it (with a bonus because we don't understand consciousness well enough to be confident that we aren't under-counting). - Nature has hard to quantify, long-term extrinsic value (in expectation), and we shouldn't imagine that we'll be able to quantify it appropriately any time soon. - We should still try to quantify it sometimes, in order to use quantitative decision-making / decision-support tools. But we should maintain awareness of the limitations of these efforts.

I haven't actually read the Dasgupta review, only that first link you shared. Overall I think EAs probably don't disagree that much with what Dasgupta is saying but probably focus on other things due to neglectedness. Even if economics doesn't account for nature enough, there are still loads of people shouting about the the negative effect we have on nature, and this review was actually commissioned by the UK Government so they are clearly aware of the problem. It's also hardly news that GDP isn't a perfect measure. Compare this to things like biorisk and risk from unaligned AI which important people generally don't think about.

Otherwise a few things jumped out to me from that first link:

Biological diversity is, in fact, declining faster now than at any time in our history. Since 1970, there has been on average almost a 70% drop in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Around one million animal and plant species – almost a quarter of the global total – are believed to be threatened with extinction.

Beyond its intrinsic – and incalculable – worth, biodiversity provides fundamental natural “dividends” that nourish and protect us: from basic sustenance through fish stocks or insects that pollinate crops, to soil regeneration, and water and flooding regulation. Not to mention the cultural and spiritual values that enrich our lives.

Dasgupta doesn't appear to have factored in animal welfare. Fish "sustaining" us probably isn't a great thing (unless perhaps some people literally don't have any other options) and reduction in wild animal populations could actually be good if they live net negative lives (which is quite possible).

The review also refers to 'intrinsic' value of biodiversity. I'd imagine EAs mostly reject this thinking biodiversity only has instrumental value.

Thank you for raising this though, I'm hoping to read the report (or maybe a good summary!) and it's possible that the EA community should too. If natural capital is indeed important in sustaining economic development then it is an important consideration from a long-term perspective.

Dasgupta's work is very valuable and the approach in his paper that you linked is potentially powerful because they might give policy makers a way to create new adequate policies and allocate budgets and manpower. I believe his core point to be spot on, namely that nature provides very valuable services which are not properly factored in by modern economics. However, as a first issue, it runs against certain other beliefs which are strong and widespread among self-identified EAs like a general support of "growth" (often without distinction which kind of growth would be beneficial or desirable). Second, the fact that there are no proper models for this yet means that quantification of these services isn't readily available and cannot be quickly performed. This makes prioritization of interventions and resource allocation difficult because output effectiveness cannot be measured.

This "modelling gap" could be a good candidate for some research efforts that several EA-aligned organizations and people might have the necessary skills for. Good research questions could be, for example, how to properly model the value of "nature", ecosystems, ecosystem services, biodiversity (which ensures ecosystem resilience) and anything these provide to humanity. Another good idea would be, instead of coming up with a good methodology or model, to attempt to do this for certain kinds of resources or ecosystem services as an example. For example, the Amazon powers the South American water cycle - how much is that worth to South America or the planet as a whole? Which "relative value" do certain species that are important for forest health and recovery play? What value does biodiversity have as a whole in ensuring these systems' health and where are "tipping points" that damage the whole system, thus degrading services (and quantifying the level of degradation)? There are many questions one could think of that would warrant inquiry.

I personally think that assigning more priority to biodiversity and ecosystems is very important. As Dasgupta states, ecosystems provide crucial services to humanity (and the planet) as a whole and we are not factoring these in in a suitable way and thus not assigning the required resources for protecting these crucial services. Biodiversity reduction decreases ecosystems' resilience and at the same time leads to other risks such as zoonoses. There are also inherent dangers in extinctions because extinct species are currently almost possible to be brought back to life. Fully destroyed ecosystems are much more expensive to restore than "just" maintaining existing ones. The topic is generally a bit neglected in EA unfortunately and, in my personal opinion, deserves much more attention.

Edit: A term for an economics that does take current and future externalities into account is "Full-cost economics/accounting" or "True-cost economics/accounting".