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Dear George, We Cannot Take A Monoculture Approach to the Conservation of the Natural World

March 10, 2021 |

This article was originally published on Medium in May 2018.

How disheartening to read George Monbiot’s latest article on natural capital, in which he continues to fundamentally misrepresent the approach, leads a named attack on a leading environmentalist, and offers up largely misleading criticisms and sound bites.

In his articles, he incorrectly frames monetary valuation as the sum of natural capital thinking. More dangerously, he implies that monetary valuation is analogous to ‘pricing’, which he believes opens the door to the further commodification and destruction of the natural world.

A conversation with the growing natural capital community would likely dispel this fear, and reassure him that ultimately we are all working towards the shared goal of the conservation and enhancement of the natural world. At present, his characterisation of natural capital thinking leaves many in this community scratching our heads.

In fact, natural capital proponents share his concern with ‘pricing’. We do not advocate for the ‘pricing of nature’. Our core assertion is that prices have failed to reflect the true value of the natural world, and that the economic systems that we are using are broken.

Take the example of Jōmon Sugi. Jōmon Sugi is a large cryptomeria tree located on Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan. It is the oldest and largest of the old-growth cryptomeria on the island, with many experts placing its age at around the 5,000 year mark.

It would be easy to assign this tree a ‘price’. All we would need to do is to appraise the amount of money that timber of its quality and quantity would command in the current market.

But, as a natural capital approach points out, more often than not this approach grossly miscalculates the true value of nature.

Old-growth trees such as Jōmon Sugi provide a vast array of underpinning ecosystem services (where service is defined as ‘a system supplying a public need’), that are not captured in market prices for timber.

For instance, Jōmon Sugi serves as a habitat for wildlife, a store for carbon and a water filtration system. It produces oxygen, filters air, mitigates flooding, and stabilises soil.

Moreover, its rediscovery in the 1960s gave birth to a movement to conserve local forests, helped bring about the cessation of the logging industry on the island in the 1970s, and gave rise to Yakushima’s ecotourism industry, which now comprises more than fifty percent of the local economy.

Before the rise of ecotourism on Yakushima, the economic mainstays of the local population were forestry and the export of wood products. Now, ecotourism is the main source of income on the island, providing residents with sustainable livelihoods that are deeply connected to the health of the local environment.

It’s important to remember that within the current, business-as-usual economic system of commodification, this tree could be cut down and sold off for peanuts, without ever recognising the value that flows from it while it stands.

A natural capital approach works to illuminate this hidden value, whether it be economic, social, environmental, cultural or spiritual value, and whether this value is expressed in qualitative, quantitative or monetary terms.

Crucially, we are not saying that we should simply pay a little bit more in order to justify the destruction of Jōmon Sugi. We’re saying that it is worth far more standing than it is felled.

The point is that price and value are not interchangeable concepts, and that in this case, a traditional price does not reflect the immense value of this natural wonder.

The muddling of the concepts of price (the quantity of one thing that is exchanged or demanded in barter or sale for another) and value (relative importance or worth), and the misuse of the concept of a ‘price’, cuts to the heart of much of the criticism and vitriol hurled at proponents of a natural capital approach.

Monbiot writes that “unless something is redeemable for money, a pound or dollar sign placed in front of it is senseless…either you are lining it up for sale, in which case the exercise is sinister, or you are not, in which case it is meaningless.”

But this is a non sequitur.

In 2016, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society and the University of California Santa Cruz released a report outlining the ways in which coastal habitats and ecosystems had mitigated the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The study predicts the increase in damages from Sandy if wetlands (which absorb storm surges, ingest flood water and stabilise coastlines) were not present.

In terms of damage to homes and business alone, the study estimates that without intact coastal wetlands, $625 million more in damages would likely have been caused by Sandy.

It is critically important to state for the record that $625 million is not a price that can be paid for ownership, destruction, consumption, or exploitation of these wetland ecosystems. Nor is $625 million an attempt to provide a comprehensive value of what these wetlands ‘are worth’.

Even in purely monetary terms, $625M only illuminates a tiny sliver of the economic value afforded by these coastal habitats. This figure captures only the economic benefit, in relation to a single ecosystem service, and its effect on a single weather event after all.

These wetlands also provide a myriad of additional benefits that can be similarly valued in monetary terms; for instance water purification, carbon sequestration, and recreation and tourism values, among numerous others.

These monetary valuations can be calculated in a number of ways. For instance, the cost of building a water filtration plant can illuminate the value of the natural service of water purification. Again, this monetary value is only a narrow valuation of a single benefit, not the ‘price’ of the wetland.

Wetlands and other ecosystems also provide a multitude of cultural services, defined by the UN as “aesthetic inspiration, cultural identity, sense of home, and spiritual experience related to the natural environment”. These abstract values cannot be captured in monetary values but can be considered in natural capital assessments.

Knowing that these wetlands provide $625 million worth of protection from hurricanes and other extreme weather events, far from being meaningless, opens the door to a legion of new arguments to fight for their protection.

This is not just a nice theory. Lloyds of London, the oldest insurance marketplace and regulator in the world (founded in 1686) released a reportlast year which demonstrated that natural coastal habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands and salt marshes protect communities more effectively against coastal storms than seawalls and other manmade infrastructure, and concludes that insurers should consider the health of intact coastal habitats when developing policies.

Investment to conserve natural habitats, they argue, makes sense for insurers, and is around 30 times cheaper than building seawalls on average.

Natural capital assessments, and the use of valuations, monetary or otherwise, supplies the information necessary to highlight these solutions, and to inform these decisions.

It’s not just businesses that have recognised the benefits of this approach. Ensia reports that “in late 2017, New York State unveiled guidance for living shorelines in the state, encouraging nature-based answers to controlling shoreline erosion in the wake of recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Some coastal states and federal agencies even provide incentives for communities and private landowners to invest in these projects, such as expedited permits, low-interest loans, tax breaks and federal funding.”

These approaches are not confined to use by businesses and governments, but can be applied by communities around the world. Indigenous Amazonian communities for instance are applying natural capital approaches in order to translate their traditional wisdom and knowledge into “a language that would allow us to defend our territory and make decisions.

Rather than hastening our journey down the “neoliberal road to ruin”, illuminating the value provided by these ecosystems is producing material returns in service of their protection, and fostering a renewed understanding and respect for the natural world, our place within it, and our dependence on its health.

Of course, nature is also a multiplier. If you invest in a coastal habitat to mitigate storm surges, a multitude of cost-free co-benefits will also be generated for the environment, biodiversity, communities and local economies.

Intrinsic Value

One of Monbiot’s central criticisms is that a natural capital approach fails to consider the intrinsic value of the natural world. In one sense, this is true. A natural capital approach aims to highlight the ways in which the natural world underpins human heath, wealth, and happiness alone. Intrinsic values are not included in natural capital assessments, or as part of national-level natural capital accounts.

However, there is nothing inherent in the recognition that benefits flow from the natural world to people, that negates the belief in intrinsic value. At the Natural Capital Coalition, we firmly advocate for the protection and restoration of nature for nature’s sake, as well as for the ways in which we fundamentally depend on it for our collective happiness and success.

Those who advocate for a natural capital approach do not argue that only the things that provide benefits to humans are worth protecting. A natural capital approach is not an attempt to reduce the intrinsic value of the natural world to reductive anthropocentric or economic values. To suggest that it is, is only to demonstrate a lack of engagement with the champions of this approach.

No one is saying that nature is only valuable because it benefits people, but that it is also valuable for the way it underpins human life and endeavour. A natural capital approach adds another dimension to the drive to illuminate the value of nature, and should be used to support the moral and ethical arguments for the conservation of nature for its own sake. A natural capital approach is not an attempt to overshadow, distort or replace moral or ethical positions.

There are many organizations whose focus is on an appeal to the intrinsic value of nature, and we were founded by several of them, including Conservation InternationalWWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — IUCN.

Recognising that there are many organizations to champion this message, we take a different, but complimentary, approach to the conservation and restoration of the natural world. This ensures that there are a diversity of approaches working in the service of nature, and engages new audiences in original ways with this critically important work.

Monbiot’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach to conservation is reminiscent of a monoculture crop, so lacking in diversity that a single pest or disease to which the species is vulnerable, or a relatively small change in conditions, can threaten the success of the entire ecosystem.

The more diverse an ecosystem, the more resilient it will be, as it will contain many species with overlapping ecological functions that can be mutually strengthening.

When it comes to problem solving and systems change, it’s clear that diversity in approach can play the same role as biological diversity plays in an ecosystem.

Diversity means many different relationships, and different approaches, working in partnership to solve a common challenge. As we only have one chance to get this right, it’s clear that we should be perusing an integrated, collaborative approach, rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket, pointing fingers, and squabbling amongst ourselves.

There is rarely a silver bullet for any complex issue, and this is perhaps the most complex we face.

The sad truth is that the drive to protect nature for nature’s sake is, at best, not delivering results fast enough. WWF’s shocking Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. IPBES’s recent set of regional assessments, which measure the health of global habitats and biodiversity, paints a similarly bleak picture.

So long as we are working towards the common goal of conserving and enhancing the natural world, we believe that a plurality of approaches is not only something to be celebrated, it is an absolute necessity, and a prerequisite for success.

We welcome constructive criticism and are continually evolving the way that we approach the challenges we face in this space. Natural capital thinking is a dynamic and rapidly evolving approach, and we invite George to join the conversation with us, and to find the commonality in our aims and objectives.

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