Nature Based Human Development

By Andrew Crabtree

The 2020 Human Development Report is entitled The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene. Whilst previous reports have related to sustainability, the 2020 Report moves beyond this and places human development within Earth Systems science. Thus, it goes beyond the common assertion that humans and the environment are “interconnected” or “interlinked” as Earth Systems science explains and provides ample scientific evidence on how humans are part of the non-human environment. It is not without significance that the director of the report, Pedro Conceiçao, first earned a degree in physics before going on to study economics. It is refreshing to see the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences supplementing one another.


The Report is ambitious. Part I examines human development in the Anthropocene, Part II considers how changes can be made and includes an investigation of social norms, structures and power. Part III explores new metrics and introduces a planetary pressures-adjusted Human Development Index. In this short blog, I will concentrate on two aspects, namely the introduction of a new concept - that of nature-based human development - and the new Index.


Nature-based human development examines the relationship between humans and the planet at all scales from the local to the global and over different time scales. On the one hand the Report emphasizes the importance of regulation and taxation policies, and on the other it explores the advantages of nature-based solutions: from constructed wetlands, to regenerative agriculture, to marine protection areas and the importance of sea grass. In this connection, it also stresses more traditional human development-related concerns such as indigenous peoples, local communities and their rights, while recognizing potential clashes. These ideas are very close to those being propounded by the United Nations Environmental Program and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as well as the UN’s decade of Ecosystem Restoration.


Equally interesting is the introduction of the planetary pressures-adjusted Human Development Index. The Human Development Index has been the flagship of the Human Development Reports. In academic terms, no-one has been particularly fond of it including its inventor Amartya Sen. For one thing, as it is a composite indicator made up of three indexes covering Gross National Income, life expectancy and education, the HDI implicitly places a price on people’s lives. However, the index did have the desired political effect as attention was moved away from growth.


The human development approach has not been anti-growth, rather it has seen growth as instrumental to achieving other ends. The new index changes this by introducing the material footprint index which measures the extraction of biomass, fossil fuels and ores. Doing this goes some way to measuring the impact of GNI growth (the measure is also used as an indicator for SDG 12 – responsible production and consumption). Production based carbon emissions are also taken into the overall equation. The consequence of this is that there are only nine countries that are classified as “very high human development”. Norway drops to 16th and is replaced by Ireland at the top (Denmark is 4th). Although the new measurer has received attention in the international press, its deeper impact remains to be seen.

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