You might have heard the term “natural capital” or “ecosystem services” or even “green economy” banded about in the last couple of years. So what exactly is it and is it a positive way of thinking?
Natural capital is defined by the World Forum on Natural Capital as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things. In short, it’s a way of putting an economic value on the natural world. And the concept is divisive.
It’s not necessarily a new concept though, the idea of mans dominion over the natural world is biblical after all. I recently re-read the 1949 published A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by the wonderful Aldo Leopold, who on the second to last page, muses:
“It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for the land. It always has and it always will.”
The UK government has natural capital front and centre of its current environmental policy, with a Natural Capital Committee set up in 2012 to begin accounting for the natural world. Since then the committee has released a number of publications and is now in its second term, providing advice on the sustainable use of natural capital to the government.
Journalist George Monbiot published an article back in May, stating that putting a price on nature will destroy it:
“The natural capital agenda is the definitive expression of our disengagement from the living world. First we lose our wildlife and natural wonders. Then we lose our connections with what remains of life on Earth. Then we lose the words that described what we once knew. Then we call it capital and give it a price. This approach is morally wrong, intellectually vacuous, emotionally alienating and self-defeating.”
Never one to mince his words, Monbiot makes a series of excellent points, but is it as clear-cut as that? While I agree with much of what he says, I can’t help but think we have to be realistic.
Sadly, not everyone cares about nature because of its intrinsic value (as misguided as that might be) but in putting it in economic terms, and accounting for it, we suddenly give it value, meaning and thus hopefully increased protection. And as someone who has spent ten years trying to convince business to give a damn about the environment, trust me when I say… money talks.
A few weeks ago the subject was brought up at an event I attended that was full of professional environmentalists (that actually had nothing to do with the natural capital agenda) and the response was extremely mixed to say the least.
While natural capital might make financial, and political sense in today’s climate, we need to remember it’s not a catch-all and it’s certainly not as simple as quantifying every aspect of the natural world. We can liken ecosystem collapse to bankruptcy all we like, but it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to come back from ecosystem collapse.
So how to we strike a balance between the intrinsic and the economic?
Do you think putting an economic value on the natural world can ever be a good thing?