In the week WWF’s Living Planet Report disclosed the terrifying rate we’re losing life on Earth – animal and plant – we really could use some hope.
Well, hope might just be at hand in the form of ‘Natural Capital’, ‘Ecosystem Services’, the ‘Economic Capital of Nature’. But what does the jargon mean? And how can it help us save the planet?
What it means is bringing two enemies to the negotiating table. Two enemies who’ve been engaged in outright battle for decades: The Economy and Ecology.
One one side the ruthless aggressor, in the form of mega corporations like Dow, Monsanto, Walmart, Unilever, Nestle, Bayer, Exxon Mobil, for whom Nature exists only as the supplier of resources, “or worse still an economically costly distraction that gets in the way of economic growth”. They despoil the Earth in the pursuit of profit. I imagine them in black and red, the colours of blood and death.
In the defending army, naturally in green, the eco-warriors, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, The Wildlife Alliance, The World Conservation Trust, The Rainforest Alliance, WWF, and so on. Not forgetting the foot soldiers, we who care.
The Greens fight valiantly, but limited resources mean limited success. The Black and Reds wield the immense power afforded them by almost unlimited cash – and the shameful abetment of national governments they seem able to mould to their will. So they continue to gain ground, leaving a wasteland in their wake.
Up against such odds, it’s time for the army in green to change tack. They must move the conflict off the battlefield and into peace talks. The problem is how to talk when the two sides just don’t speak the same language. In the words of environmentalist George Monbiot, the Greens talk ‘values’, and the Black and Reds, only ‘value’. There is only one language the latter understand, and it looks like this $$$$$$$$$$$.
“One source of hope comes from the growing realisation that nature is essential for economic development. That could soon lead to a new era of policy-making. One in which ecology and economics go hand in hand, but only if we have the tools to build bridges between these worlds that are so alien to each other. And that is where the economic valuation of nature can come in.” Tony Jupiter in The Guardian
It may go totally against the grain for the Greens to see “a tropical forest as a collection of ecosystems services for humans to use, rather than to see it as a priceless heritage.” But the truth is Capitalism understands nothing else. Jupiter again, “Making the moral case in the face of such [capitalist] beliefs won’t work. If, on the other hand, such scepticism can be met with economically compelling logic, then we might get a bit further.”
Natural Capital is that ‘economically compelling logic’. It means putting a price on Nature. So yes, it is the ‘commodification’ of Nature. But the potential prize is so great – saving the planet and its treasure trove of life no less – doesn’t the end justify the means? Shouldn’t we grab at this way forward with both hands?
The Green camp is split. Some like George Monbiot see it as the ultimate sell-out: “Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments. If we allow the discussion to shift from values to value – from love to greed – we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it.”
He has a point. It’s a sad world where a price tag has to be put on animals, people even, and Nature itself. But how else to appeal to Earth’s exploiters than by showing them what’s in Natural Capital for them?
Anyway, regarding Nature’s economic value Monbiot may be unduly pessimistic. Massimiliano Morelli in Voices for Biodiversity writes:
“One way to estimate the value of a tropical forest is to calculate the cost to replace what ecosystems do if humans had to perform the services. When ecosystem services are estimated in this manner, such services provide approximately twice the world gross national product. If we lose these natural ecosystem services, we are losing that much of the global economy.
Each time we harm ecosystems, we also harm our global economies. In addition, there are non-use values for nature and biodiversity. Mental health is maintained by a close relationship to nature. The cost to society of nature deficit disorder in children is now very high.
Natural landscapes, national parks, zoological and botanical gardens, and recreational activities (e.g. bird watching, diving, eco-tourism, hiking, fishing, photography, etc), keep people not only mentally healthy, but also physically fit, and represent a significant and growing income for businesses and governments.”
So in truth we need the warring parties to see the light. Urgently. Stop fighting. Work together. Because like it or not the causes you fight for – Ecology and Economy – are inextricably entwined.
Now enter one of the ‘special envoys’ for those peace talks, The Natural Capital Project. The NCP is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and the universities of Stanford and Minnesota, founded specifically for the complex task of quantifying nature’s benefits before we lose them all.
And good things are happening! These are a few of the Natural Capital Project’s success stories to date:
A five-year collaboration with Dow to help identify the true value of fresh water, clean air and other “green infrastructure” to the corporate bottom line – a perfect example of the two ‘armies’ laying down arms and working together for the benefit of all
More than a dozen water funds in South America where the water producers contribute to conservation, and 40 million people get fresh clean drinking water
Establishing scores of marine protected areas in the Caribbean and Pacific to safeguard coral reefs and other ocean life
Working with farmers in the BirdReturns Project, rotating crops with wetlands to improve habitats
Sustainable Rivers Project striking the right balance between using and protecting rivers
Working Woodlands managing forests for high quality ecological and economic values
Restoring oyster reefs, one of most endangered habitats on Earth, which protect coasts from storms, filter pollutants and create habitat for marine life
The NCP is not the only collaborative project implementing the idea of Natural Capital. Take Part cites the Elwha River Project in the USA, a joint venture between the National Park Service and the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe to quantify the economic capital value of restoring the river by removing two hydroelectric dams.
Environmental economics expert John Loomis calculated taking out the dams would generate $3.5 billion in non-economic benefits. “Once we incorporate those, we see that doing agriculture the cheapest way possible, or producing goods in the most profitable way, doesn’t incorporate these environmental costs. We need to shift our production and consumption to account for these costs [and] not squander that natural capital by treating it as having zero value.”
But what about here in the UK? Well, you may not have heard about it, but we have the SEA and the NEA. The first is the EU’s Strategic Environmental Assessment. The second our own National Ecosystem Assessment 2011, the most comprehensive assessment of the UK’s natural environment and resources ever undertaken. Its key finding was “that the benefits we derive from the natural world and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to human well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in economic analysis and decision-making.”
But where does this leave us as individuals who want to do our bit for the planet?
My first post on the Living Planet Report shows how each of us has the power to help the planet simply by cutting down on, or cutting out altogether, the meat and dairy on our plates. Or better still, cutting out animal products in every area of our lives. It’s not hard.
The Nature Capital approach to saving our Earth operates at corporate or even governmental level. So is there any way we can get behind this as individuals to make a difference? Well yes, there is. Here in the UK, we can support the Wildlife Trusts. You can be sure they will do all in their power to keep our government in line with the NEA. You can also join the Ecosystems Knowledge Network. They greatly value individuals’ input.
All of us also have votes. Natural Capital – a positive way to reverse the decline of life on precious Planet Earth. What do our electoral candidates have to say about that? It’s just about the most important question they need to answer. Shall we ask them?
The Economic Value of Nature – Voices for Biodiversity
Ecosystem Services – Science in Action
National Ecosystem Assessment – The Wildlife Trusts