Written by Kate Dillon Levin
A recent editorial by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, condemns the UK government’s new environmental plan. I can’t speak to the merits and shortfalls of the UK plan, but in the piece Monbiot asserts that “defining Earth’s resources as ‘natural capital’ is morally wrong, intellectually vacuous, and most of all counter-productive.” We at Ecosphere+ are big fans of Mr Monbiot, and generally love people with strong opinions, but whilst the article raises many good points, there are a few key misconceptions in his article that need to be dispelled.
Outright, Monbiot objects to the “natural capital” movement that attempts to quantify and value the services that nature provides. For example, forests store carbon, regulate climate, protect watersheds, regulate micro-climates, ensure biodiversity; today, those forests are worth more cut down for cheap palm oil that’s in everythingfrom personal care products to the food we eat. They’re worth more cut down for cattle ranching, soy production, even for making chocolate. Because no one has to pay for the degradation of these environmental services, the direct cost is invisible and not accounted for.
Monbiot insists capital is defined as human-generated wealth and therefore completely at odds with the intrinsic value of Nature. He explains, “we cannot grow crops on a bed of derivatives.” That sounds very clever, but it is disingenuous. I have yet to find a source for his definition of capital, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization or available for a purpose such as starting a company or investing…A valuable resource of a particular kind.”
Monbiot also makes the assumption that pricing something means you are ‘lining it up for sale.’ Says who? Pricing something merely means you’re accounting for it. And he fails to address the fact that there is already a price tag on nature. We destroy nature for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we consume, and the raw materials used to build our homes, furniture and other consumer goods. The cost of that destruction is not accounted for in our current economic regime, but the price tag is there, and its reflected in climate change, disproportionate damage from natural disasters because ecosystems are degraded, and poverty – all these things cost money (and lots of it). We’re willing to put a price on nature’s destruction. So why wouldn’t we put a price on its protection?
Monbiot makes a fair point that we are deluded if we think “we can defend the living world through the mindset that’s destroying it.” Fair enough, but the crisis facing our biosphere brings unprecedented urgency for action to address it. An overhaul of the global financial system, and means of production and distribution might be intellectually attractive but it’s not feasible in the timeframe of this challenge. Redirecting capitalism so that it values the systems that underpin it just might be.
When I studied graduate-level economics at Harvard, and I did so not because I thought economics could solve all our environmental problems, but because I knew economics (and finance) were the languages of policy-makers and big business. I knew that if I wanted to see positive change, I needed to ‘go into the belly of the beast’, and speak the language. I don’t believe Monbiot thinks that there is one way to talk about something to every person or sector. Would you insist on speaking your truth in English to a person who speaks Japanese?
Getting things done is like conducting an orchestra. Different instruments play different parts, and while I wholeheartedly believe there is a role for activists and revolutionaries, there is also a role for communicators and translators. Those who can create a bridge between ideologies and fuse paradigms through shared values. Look at how the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure has created pressure on financial institutions to report on their climate risk exposure and to disclose scenario analyses explaining how their financial health stands up to a less than 2 degrees world. It’s hard to do nothing about what you have to disclose, and that pressure just may change the world – thank you very much Marc Carney and Michael Bloomberg. By using the language of finance – pricing risk – the financial sector is marching toward balance. And that’s exciting.
Monbiot insists that using markets crowds out the development of altruism and civic spirit. Well, we’ve got about 5 years to set a path to a less than 2 degrees world, and I’d challenge anyone to transform our culture in the space of that time. I’ve met a lot of people who want to be environmentally conscious, but then hand me a plastic bottle of water or celebrate great ‘deals’ on discounted clothing. Our lack of understanding of what really goes into making all the stuff we consume is staggering. You should see my carbon footprint from all my travel! And I would love to believe, as Monbiot declares is necessary, that we can all suddenly adopt a cultural ethos that respects nature (and other humans for that matter), but I wouldn’t bet on that. There’s too much to do, and our system is too entrenched to change so radically in so little time.
Lastly, Monbiot cites a study that gauged the responsiveness of potential WWF donors to appeals focused on natural capital versus nature’s intrinsic value. The study was about how best to induce individual people to make charitable donations to WWF, but it’s irrelevant in the context of Monbiot’s article. (I also taught statistics in graduate school and know how important a ‘representative sample’ is.) The ‘natural capital agenda’ is not about donating to a charity. It is about transforming our global economy to be more in balance with nature. Using the language of finance and economics is intended to help policy-makers and businesses understand how to do their business better. We don’t need those people to make donations to WWF. Rather, we need them to fundamentally shift the paradigm of their business models from one that is inherently destructive and consumptive to one that is restorative, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. And to that end I’ll talk financial risk management and ROI. No problem.
Kate contributed to the Role of Private Capital in Conservation webinar run by Global Landscape Forum at the GLF Investment Case in Washington DC on 30th May. To watch it again, follow this link.