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Interview: Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor of Economics

18 June 2021

‘I continue to be surprised that ecological economics remains on the fringes of mainstream economics’

I studied applied mathematics at Cambridge as an undergraduate, from 1962 to 1965. The Vietnam War was under way, and I drew close to fellow students in economics, who seemed to know better how to think of societal conflicts. That probably influenced me to move to the economics faculty, to pursue a Ph.D.

Economics is an inherently quantitative discipline.
For example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to know how much the Government can raise if he was to raise the tax rate on income by so much. For that, his economists need to estimate the structure of demand for goods. And so on. All this involves mathematical reasoning and careful data collection.

Even experts can get things wrong;
but, then, non-mathematical reasoning can also get things wrong. Moreover, good mathematical modelling allows one to estimate error bars, which is a lot better than waving one’s hands. Intuition is all important in mathematical modelling, to locate what may be important and what may not be. Ultimately though, evidence — and the astute reading of it — is what counts.

The then Chancellor, Philip Hammond, now Lord Hammond, commissioned my review,
The Economics of Biodiversity, in spring 2019. It was meant to instruct the Government. That a country’s Finance Ministry should commission such a work to evaluate the economic importance of biodiversity is wholly remarkable.

What I now realise is that I have been working up to preparing the review for over 40 years now.
I didn’t, of course, know that consciously, but some 75 per cent of my writings since the mid-1970s have been in one way or another on natural capital, and things like the essentially invisible and dynamic processes of nature and weather.

Economics is the natural language for understanding biodiversity,
because we are dealing with assets that are subject to a bewitching variety of dynamical processes.

I had not one moment’s doubt about accepting the commission.
As I said before, I knew I was meant to write the piece. I had been preparing for it without knowing that, of course.

Invisible, silent processes test the limits of institutions,
because the consequences for nature can’t be traced to the agency that is responsible for them — which is why the review makes a plea for reforms to our education system by including nature studies in the curriculum. Ultimately, we need to train ourselves to be our own judge and jury.

I think ecology is what I call “Sunday thinking” for most people,
not just economists. It is hard to accept the idea that the many of us who are rich need to curb our desires for material goods if we are to reduce our demands on nature.

It is evident that there has been a continual detachment from nature in the Western world for several centuries.
“Taming nature” is a frequent metaphor in use — and it is infecting policy-making pretty much everywhere.

The Government has received the review with extraordinary enthusiasm.
The Treasury has been enormously supportive. They have put their money where their enthusiasm is, and have retained several on my team for the rest of this calendar year, to arrange the review’s dissemination among business leaders, journalists, parliamentarians, bankers, NGOs, and international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF.

I have, to date, taken part in more than 130 events:
lectures, interviews, panel discussions, and question-and-answer sessions. The Treasury will issue a formal response to the review in the next month or so.

I continue to be surprised that ecological economics remains on the fringes of mainstream economics.
It is not only a profoundly important field of inquiry: it is also as beautiful as any field of inquiry I can think of.

My father was by profession an economics teacher,
but he rose far above that. He was a thinker of real originality. If reasoning combined with empirics led him to unusual truths, he would subscribe to them. I agree with the critic who described the quality of his work and thinking as “astute compassion” — very much so.

I don’t believe I would have had to explain my review to my parents.
I know my father would have read it, word for word, and told me that he had always hoped I would write such a treatise one day. And he would spend hours explaining the book to my mother, who was not an economist.

My family — that is, my parents, my sister, and I, then aged three
— moved from Dacca, now Dhaka, to Delhi in 1946, the year before India’s Partition. We then moved to Cuttack for a few months, and eventually, in 1947, we settled in Banares, which is now Varanasi, because my father was appointed Professor of Economics at the Banares Hindu University. We then spent three years, 1951 to ’54, in Washington, DC, where my father worked at the new International Monetary Fund.

Once we returned to Benares,
I went to a boarding school in Lucknow. The peripatetic childhood I experienced did not at all affect me adversely. I always felt wholly grounded: my parents and my sister showered so much affection on me that, on reflection, I was at risk of being spoiled silly.

I don’t know that I have ever experienced the divine,
nor do I recall ever hearing a voice. What I have experienced on a number of occasions are transcendent moments — some in presence of astonishing natural beauty; for example, in the wetlands of Kakadu National Park. There have been other such experiences when I’ve been listening to music of supreme beauty, and still others when I’ve comprehended a socio-ecological truth.

My understanding of spiritual values is woefully inadequate,
but nature would seem to me to be the seat of our transcendental experiences. The idea of paradise being an enclosed green space is an aristocratic invention. The landscape and the oceans that appear to extend beyond the horizon invite us to wonder what lies in that beyond.

Some of the most sublime songs of the poet Rabindranath Tagore speak to that.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked why he had no adornments on the walls of his home, and he replied that he didn’t like the confines of walls, so didn’t want to draw attention to them.

I have lived the life of a pure academic for 50 years;
so I intend to continue doing that.

The stupidity that too much education and a comfortable life can elicit among people
is what makes me angry. I have in mind a feigned cosmopolitanism that dismisses life-affirming communitarian allegiances.

I feel happiest when I am being instructed by my wife and my children.
They have guided me for many years — my wife for 53 years and my children since their teenage days.

The value to me of the past year’s restrictions
was that I had the energy to summarise my work of 40 years in the form of my review for the UK Government. I devoted all my time to it from March to December 2020, with not a day of rest. It enabled me to complete the review in the manner in which I would have ideally wanted.

I rather doubt the seclusion will be the new normal.
My wife and I have a busy social life, which is gradually being revived.

What I love to hear is the sound of my grandchildren’s laughter.

As to hope, I am not given to either pessimistic or optimistic moods.
As a social scientist, my job is to understand and report my findings, not to make predictions. I don’t find writings on current affairs a deep enough exercise.

I don’t pray,
as I don’t have anyone to pray to.

If I found myself locked in a place of worship,
and could choose any companion, I would like to have my parents with me, because there is much I would like to tell them of what has happened in my life since they died, and ask them questions I didn’t have time to ask.

Sir Partha Sarathi Dasgupta was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His review can be found online here.

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