The Economics of Environmental Stewardship: Neil Byron, APRIL Stakeholder Advisory Committee
Neil Byron, a member of APRIL’s SAC, believes that economics plays a vital role in securing an environmentally and socially balanced future
In 1973, German born British economist E.F. Schumacher published what The Times Literary Supplement later cited as ‘one of the 100 most influential books since World War II’. It was called ‘Small is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered’. Schumacher broke the mould of economics, shifting the conversation from ‘big is better’ and countering the assumption that economics was simply an adjunct of commerce. He founded the ‘Appropriate Technology’ movement.
To the young Neil Byron this was an eye-opener, and it contributed substantially to the formation of his world view. As he puts it: “I am an anthropocentric economist; I see economics as being about the wise use of resources in the interests of society. This means managing and investing in human and natural capital, not simply the efficient deployment of financial and material assets”.
Byron describes his childhood in rural Queensland as “idyllic” – running through the bush with his brothers. This immersion in landscape, to some extent, informed his subsequent career. He hadn’t even realised there was a career called ‘Forestry’ until he was offered a scholarship to study it at university. After completing his B. Sc. in forestry at the Australian National University, he spent two years working with the Queensland Forest Service.
But a budding interest in economics and policy – stimulated by Schumacher’s inspiring vision – led to a radical change, and so he moved 7,500 miles to Vancouver to take a Masters and then a PhD in resource and environmental economics at the University of British Columbia.
“Some people think of me as a tropical forester, but the truth is, I’ve not been that for decades,” he says. “I have long considered myself to be an economist, although one focused on social and natural capital. I returned to Australia and taught at my alma mater, then spent three years running the Australian government’s forestry economics research unit. This reflected an emerging general understanding that economics was applicable to nature and people”.
“The late sixties and early seventies had seen a major change in resource development in Australia. This was the time of the emergence of a global environmental consciousness, and we began to ask ourselves why were we digging huge holes to extract minerals, why were we involved in large scale logging. At one point, there was an appalling suggestion that we should mine the Great Barrier Reef for limestone. When I told people in 1977 that I had a PhD in environmental economics, without exception, they replied there was no such thing – yet now there are respected university programs in this around the world.’
In 1982, Byron went to Bangladesh working for the UNDP where he spent four years helping to develop community livelihoods based on natural resources ‘from duck husbandry to community forestry’, as he puts it. His growing interest in the social aspects of economics led him to start a degree in anthropology, and while he didn’t complete this, these studies informed his subsequent values and his work on rural development all over Asia and the south Pacific, including five years as Assistant Director General at CIFOR, based in Indonesia.
It’s clear that Byron’s career rode the zeitgeist of environmental awakening, through the lens of economics. “Economic insights can be applied to all natural resources and issues – atmosphere, watersheds, livelihoods and poverty, land degradation, minerals, oil, and of course forests. I see environmental economics as the art of getting as much human benefit as possible out of what you’ve got without wrecking ecosystems which are our most basic resource. Natural capital is as important as human and financial capital. It’s about using resources wisely”.
Byron places himself at the nexus of natural resources, policy and environmentalism. Byron spent 12 years as the Commissioner responsible for environment, agriculture and natural resources at Australian Productivity Commission. He presided over 26 public enquiries and oversaw the Commission’s environmental economics programme. In 2011, he returned to academia and became an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Canberra’s Institute of Applied Ecology. He was asked to chair an independent review of biodiversity legislation in New South Wales, which led to the repeal of an accumulation of ineffective legislation, and the drafting of a new Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Asked if there is a defining theme around his work, he says “Managing the environment as if people and ecosystems really matter. Some environmentalists come from a conservation science point of view, and see society and the economy as irrelevant or ‘the enemy’. I contrast, I see things from a social economic position but recognise that a healthy robust environment is crucial to human well-being (and vice versa). The trick is getting the balance right. Successful environmental management is multi-faceted. I don’t think it is feasible to ‘preserve’ free of all human touch, unless local people really want that. I think we should tread lightly and treat wisely”.
Byron also has a view of the role of big business in treating the planet wisely. “I have seen absolutely awful destruction wrought by artisanal miners, doing more damage than big multinationals. This is true in south east Asia, west Africa, the Amazon. When poverty – desperation – is endemic, then the natural landscape is, understandably, seen as a resource to be exploited. And in these cases, pillaged. In Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, the environment’s strongest allies now could be business and productive employment. I have seen it work. I recall a debate at CIFOR about illegal logging and the fact that if a road was built, in short order the adjacent forest would be cleared. A Malaysian colleague thought this was nonsense, and he had never seen it. I pointed out that Malaysia had far higher levels of urban employment than Indonesia and other southeast Asian countries, where unemployment – and underemployment – can run to 35 percent or more.’
“During the 2008 financial crisis, 8 million people moved out of Manila and started clearing forest to grow food, or over-fishing the coastline. They had no choice. Difficult, illegal, dangerous, poorly paid work in the forests was the only way to support a household when the formal economy could not offer a decent livelihood”.
Byron’s view since childhood is that everybody, regardless of race, religion, or wealth, has both an opportunity and an obligation to do whatever they can to make their part of the world a better place – not the whole world, but starting at the neighbourhood, family, community and working up and out. So Byron’s view of the future is optimistic, provided we continue to get smarter about the relationship between society, business and natural resources. “Not all big businesses do good, but many, increasingly, do because they are under continuous scrutiny. More of that, and sound public policy that encourages economic improvement of people’s lives, and strong policing of environmental protection measures, will enable us more and more to manage the environment as though both it and local people really matter”.