Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Understand The Economy – much to like but seriously flawed

Review of Understand: The Economy series 1, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds.

Understand: The Economy is a BBC Radio 4 programme first broadcast in 2022/23. Episodes 1-10 were presented by Tim Harford and 11-15 by Felicity Hannah. I enjoyed the series and thought all episodes to be well presented, informative and engaging – there was much to like about it – but it was also very seriously flawed.

Although the series was billed as “everything you need to know about the economy and what it means for you”, there was next to nothing in it concerning environmental degradation resulting from the exponentially growing material and energy inputs on which the economy fundamentally depends. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the safe operating space for our planet is being exceeded on multiple fronts, notably climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Our growth-based economy plays a central role in driving us through all these boundaries, resulting in an existential threat to humanity (and millions of other species).

In this fifteen part – three and three-quarter hour – series on the economy, neither climate change nor biodiversity loss was mentioned once.

In this fifteen part – three and three-quarter hour – series on the economy, neither climate change, pollution nor biodiversity loss was mentioned once. There was the briefest of nods to the environment in episode 3 (Economic Growth and GDP) when the danger of “depleting and running down the environment” was fleetingly mentioned. Why did the series skirt around one of the key things that everyone should know about the economy? Given the billing of the programme – everything you need to know – the logical conclusion is that the programme’s creators do not believe that we need to know about, or be concerned by, the relationship between the economy and the environment. It’s a shocking and sad reflection on a dangerous blind spot that is endemic amongst mainstream economists and economics commentators.

The so called Environmental Kuznets Curve (Office of National Statistics) which lacks convincing empirical support.

But what is the reason for this blindness? In her book Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth recounts the resistance of the economics education establishment, e.g. Harvard and the London School of Economics (LSE), to adapt economic models and teaching to the realities of the interaction between economies and the environment in the 21st century. Since the 1950s economies have been modelled and taught as a systems that are independent of the environment: ecological costs are regarded as ‘externalities’ that are not the domain of economics. They brush away the concerns of environmental scientists who point to the strong relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation by referencing the Environmental Kuznets Curve which theorises that after an initial period of parallel growth, environmental degradation will eventually decouple from economic growth. But there is scant evidence to suggest that this can happen and, even if it turns out that it can, many environmental scientists believe that there is no chance of it happening before the earth’s ecology is disastrously altered.

The veracity of the Environmental Kuznets Curve and the likelihood of decoupling are fiercely contested by mainstream and progressive economists. Given this increasing urgent debate, there is no excuse for completely ignoring the environmental dimension of the economy in this series. One excellent feature of the format was the way different economists discussed various economic concepts with the presenters. At the very least the series should have included interviews with ecological economist such as Jason Hickel, Tim Jackson and Kate Raworth. In these times of multiplying and deepening environmental crises, there is every reason to present a balanced picture of our economy that doesn’t shy away from a debate around its ecological costs and what they mean for every child, woman and man in our country and the rest of the world.