Renowned economist strives to calculate the value of nature


“Economic forecasts consist of investment in factories, employment rates, [gross domestic product] growth. They never mention what’s happening to the ecosystems,” said Dasgupta, who is this year’s United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation. “It really is urgent that we think about it now,” he said.

The report was the culmination of four decades of work in which Dasgupta has sought to push the boundaries of traditional economics and lay bare the connection between the health of the planet and the stability of economies.

The Economics of Biodiversity is the foundation of a growing field of what is known as natural capital accounting, in which researchers attempt to assess the value of nature. Those numbers can help governments better understand the long-term economic costs of logging, mining and other potentially destructive industries, ultimately bolstering the case for protecting the natural world.

“Sir Partha Dasgupta’s ground-breaking contributions to economics over the decades have awakened the world to the value of nature and the need to protect ecosystems which enrich our economies, our well-being and our lives,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

Economics as part of a ‘tapestry’

Dasgupta was born in 1942 in what is now the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. (At the time, the city was part of India.) His father, the noted economist Amiya Kumar Dasgupta, had a huge influence on him and his path towards academia. After completing a bachelor’s degree in physics in Delhi, Dasgupta moved to the United Kingdom where he studied mathematics and later gained a doctorate in economics.

Through his many major contributions to economics for which he was knighted in 2002, Dasgupta has helped to shape the global debate on sustainable development and use of natural resources.

“Nature is a wondrous factory, producing a bewildering variety of goods and services at different speeds and of varying spatial coverage. Think of, for example, all the beautiful processes that shape wetlands – the birds and insects that pollinate, the water voles that dig round for food, the way tiny organisms decompose material and filter water,” said Dasgupta.

“It is a bewildering tapestry of things that are happening, many of which are unobservable. And yet they are creating the atmosphere in which humans and all living organisms can survive. The way we measure economic success or failure, the whole grammar of economics, needs to be built with this tapestry in mind.”

Affection for nature

Dasgupta traces his interest in the idea of living sustainably in a world of limited natural resources to his now classic 1969 paper On the Concept of Optimum Population. In the 1970s, Swedish economist Karl-Göran Mäler encouraged him to develop his ideas on the links between rural poverty and the state of the environment and natural resources in the world’s poorest countries, a subject that was notably absent from mainstream development economics at the time.

This led to further explorations of the relationships between population, natural resources, poverty and the environment, for which Dasgupta has become acclaimed.

“I’ve had a ball working in this field,” he said. “One reason it’s been fun is that I had no competition. Nobody else was working on it.”

A man standing in a library
For four decades, Dasgupta has sought to push the boundaries of traditional economics and lay bare the connection between the health of the planet and the stability of economies. Photo: UNEP/Diego Rotmistrovksy 

Grasslands, forests and freshwater lakes are some of Dasgupta’s favourite ecosystems. He believes children should be taught nature studies from an early age and that the subject should be as compulsory as reading, writing and arithmetic. “That’s one way to generate some affection for nature. If you have affection for nature, then she is less likely to be trashed,” he said.

Inclusive wealth

Dasgupta is passionate about the need to replace gross domestic product as a measure of the economic health of countries because it tells just part of the story. He argues instead for “inclusive wealth”, which not only captures financial and produced capital but also the skills in the workforce (human capital), the cohesion in society (social capital) and the value of the environment (natural capital).

This idea is embedded in the United Nations-supported System of Environmental Economic Accounting which allows countries to track environmental assets, their use in the economy, and return flows of waste and emissions.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed the Inclusive Wealth Index. Now calculated for about 163 countries, the index indicates that inclusive wealth expanded by an average of 1.8 per cent from 1992-2019, far below the rate of GDP, largely because of declines in natural capital.

Nature as a capital asset

Echoing the urgency of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation, Dasgupta’s Economics of Biodiversity warns that critical ecosystems, from coral reefs to rainforests, are nearing dangerous tipping points, with catastrophic consequences for economies and people’s well-being.

The 600-page report calls for a fundamental rethink of humanity’s relationship with nature and how it is valued, arguing that the failure to include “ecosystem services” on national balance sheets has only served to intensify exploitation of the natural world.

“[It is] about introducing nature as a capital asset into economic thinking and showing how economic possibilities are entirely dependent on this finite entity,” said Dasgupta.


About the UNEP Champions of the Earth

The UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth honours individuals, groups, and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. The annual Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour. It recognizes outstanding leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector

About the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.



THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Incoming geese inspire a photo challenge | Lifestyles


It is no secret that I’m addicted to nature photography, which I practice on an almost daily basis regardless of weather conditions. In fact bad conditions sometime produce some neat images. I love “shooting” sunrises; they usually are the thing that gets me going in the morning. With sunrises, or sunsets, the secret to getting good ones is to be out there before they occur. Sometimes the best sky color is before the sun rises or after it sets, and you need to be in a good position before that happens. After sunrise, I head to a likely wildlife scene.

Lately I have been sitting along the Feeder Road off Route 77 near a marsh where geese and ducks come to rest in the morning. No hunting is allowed on this marsh, so many of the waterfowl naturally pick it for a safe haven. This was my favorite spot last week as I aimed to get good flight shots of geese coming in. Lighting and wind need to be from the right angle, and the birds are fast, so you have to be on the ball. It is very satisfying to catch that goose image, tack sharp, as he cups and drops into the marsh.

I used to do a lot of waterfowl hunting and the incoming geese always seemed to be the most exciting to watch. That’s still true today as I hunt them with my camera. Their distance calling tunes me in to their arrival and even when they are about to take off. I take way too many pictures of them in flight, but that’s necessary to catch the birds’ most flattering positions, which involves how the light is hitting them, their wing positions and their angle to the camera.

One shot I’m always trying to capture is their flying upside-down (yes, you read that right!). Sometimes when a flock is coming in to land they come in from a high altitude and are in a hurry to get to their chosen landing spot. To do this they “slip” sideways as they drop from the sky, and even flip over on their backs, which cuts wind resistance and helps them drop more quickly. Now, this maneuver takes only a split second, and they do it individually, not as a group. Thus it can be very difficult to catch this move. The best way is to just click away as you see birds in the flock doing this and hope you catch one upside-down.

When the birds are ready to leave the marsh, their body positioning and type of call usually prompt me to get ready. I try to catch them both flying and running on the water as they get airborne. Again, it is a matter of taking a lot of shots to catch it just right.

A lot of other things went on as I waited for various groups of geese to arrive. One morning a pair of trumpeter swans flew over me from a side that I don’t eyeball that much, and by the time I saw them I could only get angling-away images, not very flattering to the swans. A few mornings later, now peeking at the southeast side of my position more often, I caught the pair coming towards me. Getting ready, I kept focusing on them as they approached, and hit the “trigger” a number of times as they passed low and right in front of me. Each time I did, the thought “got it” clicked in my mind, and the end result was about six great, tack-sharp, well-exposed and flattering shots. As they continued on their way I took a deep breath — I often hold my breath as I shoot, probably a habit from my long range woodchuck hunting days that gave me a more accurate shot. A quick review of the shots proved I hit the nail right on the head, and my day was made even if the geese and ducks didn’t cooperate.

Other creatures often show themselves while I’m waiting out a particular set up like this. A mink will scramble in front of me, never giving a good shot because it is so quick in its sudden appearance and disappearance. Then there’s the great blue heron that has not flown south yet, offering some close “fishing” poses to me. Although not as plentiful as the incoming geese in this marsh, some mallards, pintails, teal and an occasional wood duck come in, elevating the excitement for me.

When the geese do start arriving there seems to be numerous groups coming in, one after another, which keeps me on the ball and breathless as I concentrate on various groups, trying to pick ones with good background, or doing quick maneuvers and coming in at the right angles.

Nature’s creatures are not the only things that keep me entertained while I’m in this area. The seasonal road is traveled by both vehicles and hikers looking to see nature or photograph it, and sometimes it’s pretty funny watching the wildlife outmaneuver these people. I can often predict what’s going to happen. Someone stops quickly and jumps out of their vehicle, camera in hand for a picture, only to find the creature has disappeared. Or, they walk or drive by never seeing the wildlife right off the road, because they don’t know how to look for it.

Nature photography can be addictive but that is OK because it makes you more appreciative of what’s out there.

I have a list of folks to whom I send my nature images. If you’re interested in seeing what I see, send me your email address and a request and I’ll add you to the list.

Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at 585-798-4022 or [email protected].


The Recorder – Speaking of Nature: Examining the rules of nature photography


The world of wildlife photography is an interesting one. First, there are the difficulties associated with actually taking the photographs. In the days when I first got started (back at the end of the 20th century) the difficulties were almost beyond imagination. Imagine a scenario in which there was no such thing as a digital camera. Imagine a scenario in which you may wait for hours until a species or an event finally happens, you take a photo of this species or event, but you don’t know if you “got it” for several days. Such was the case back in the days of film cameras.

Today, with digital cameras, you can take a photo and know almost instantly if you “got it,” or not. Regardless of the wait time (seconds or days) there is still the spirit-crushing anguish associated with the knowledge that the event you attempted to capture on film may not occur again for another year, or even worse, never. Missing a photo can be devastating.

There is also this notion of “authenticity.” What are the rules that govern a photo’s acceptability in different publications? What are the taboos that should be avoided in the world of wildlife photography? Well, the first one (the big one) is pretty reasonable: No photos of wildlife in captivity. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the animal is, nor how “natural” the setting may appear, you just don’t do it. This suggests that the notion of “wildness” has to be respected and maintained by the people trying to represent it. Seems very reasonable, right?

Then there is the notion of background. Unless the content of the story with which a particular photo is associated specifically mentions the specifics of a particular photo’s qualities, it is usually desirable to avoid including certain manmade objects in the background. Again, there seems to be a certain chauvinism against humanity that is associated with the notion of wildness; the idea that somehow, if any trace of humanity is included in a photograph, then it is somehow tainted. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. A bird nest inside an old rusty mailbox might be more desirable than the bird nest by itself, if you know what I mean.

So this brings us to an examination of the photos that I provide with my columns. What sort of photos are acceptable and what sort are not? Are the rules different for me, compared to the rules that might be imposed on a photographer for National Geographic magazine? The inescapable reality to this question is a resounding yes. I can get away with things in this column that I could not get away with in most magazines and it all comes down to context.

The focus of my column has always been the nature that you can experience in your own neighborhood and your own back yard. Over the years this has included the theme of backyard birdfeeders and this is especially true when winter rolls around and the bustle around birdfeeders increases. I am allowed to take photos of birds at feeders because I am specifically trying to show you how to identify the birds that may come for food. And let’s face it, you could wander around in the woods for hours, days and weeks without seeing the sort of activity that you can observe at a backyard birdfeeder in an hour or two.

As a result, I can use photos that have obvious artifacts of human civilization in the background. The railing of my deck has been featured in my photos more times than I care to count. The different feeders that I use have also appeared so predictably that I have no idea of the actual numbers. But even I still endeavor to capture an image of a backyard bird that is taken in a more “natural” setting whenever possible. This week’s photo is a perfect example.

I was sitting in my Thinking Chair on that unusually warm weekend at the beginning of November and I was taking photos of all the birds that were gathering around me. The only reason that they were congregating in my vicinity was because I had put out food. In fact, I do this so regularly that the birds are often waiting for me before I even arrive. Once the food is out, the level of activity grows as the word spreads and it is always interesting to see how a group of chickadees can attract the attention of other birds.

So it was that a dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) happened to appear on the fringes of the day’s crowd. Curious about all of the commotion, the bird quickly saw that there was food available and though it was understandably shy at first, it eventually joined in and got some breakfast. I happened to snap this photo of the bird as it sat and assessed the safety of the situation and in so doing I captured a wild bird in its wild habitat; perhaps the finest photo of a junco that I’ve taken in many years.

But here’s the thing … later in the winter this same bird may visit my deck to look for food. In fact, every day this same wild bird may spend hours of its life around the feeders on my deck as it tries to survive the winter. So doesn’t that make my deck the “natural” habitat of this wild bird living its wild life? Clearly the answer is yes, but there still remains a certain authenticity associated with a photo with a “natural” background. Fortunately, I think we all just want to see the birds wherever and whenever we can.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.