factory in Anfeh, Lebanon.
Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
The economy is no stranger to creating its own fantasy world with little or no relation to the real one. We witnessed the damage that can cause when the banks thought they had stumbled on financial alchemy and could transform bad debt into good – economic base metal into gold.
Now it's possible that a much bigger error is coming to light. The rise and rise of global corporations lifted on a wave of apparent productivity gains may have been little more than a mask for the reckless liquidation of natural capital. It's as if we've been so distracted by our impressive speed of economic travel that we forgot to look at the fuel gauge or the cloud of smog left in our wake.
The huge advantage of the UN work is that it attempts to improve the feedback system between the economy and its ultimate parent company, the biosphere. Better risk assessment and value measurement is essential to help prevent what happened to banks happening to the planet.
The concept of a balanced budget, so loved by conservatives in relation to finance and spending, seems to be an alien concept when the consumption of natural resources and the production of waste is concerned. Yet it is far more important to achieve a balanced environmental budget than an economic one. You can always print more money, but you can't print more planet. As John Ruskin put it, "There is no wealth but life."