I was asked to contribute to this debate on the Guardian Sustainable Business hub today, following mention of a previous blog of mine by Guardian columnist, George Monbiot (who I know and respect enormously). George is very sceptical of the financial valuation of ecosystem services, and explored his concerns in a recent SPERI lecture at the University of Sheffield. It’s always pleasing to get a mention for Sheffield Hallam in the hallowed halls of the `old University` – even though George disagreed with much of my previous blog.
But the debate continues – and here is the text of my contribution to the Guardian today –
I have much sympathy with George’s argument – I agree that it is impossible to put a financial price on the intrinsic value of nature. I also feel his frustration at the way some groups seek to turn useful tools to their own ends. But there is a danger that in dismissing natural capital as some sort of neoliberal conspiracy, he will throw the baby out with the bath water.
The jargon doesn’t help – ‘natural capital’ is just one phrase associated with the much wider concept of ‘an ecosystem approach’– a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use. Within this approach, natural capital is defined as the elements of nature that produce value or benefits to people.
But we should not be picking out individual benefits that happen to suit the moment, nor reducing them to the absurd (as some of George’s examples clearly do). And “value” may have a financial price attached – or it may reflect the basic, intrinsic value of nature.
The objectives of the management of natural resources are a matter of societal choice. As scientists, we can explain to society what will happen if they ignore the inter-relationships within ecosystems. Those in power will still make their choices – our decision-making systems (neoliberal or otherwise) are created by other means.
I have seen an ecosystems approach work to achieve really positive benefits for nature and for people. I chaired the Moors for the Future project, which seeks to restore upland moorlands in the Peak District and South Pennines. Damage to peat bogs by humans causes peat to release its stored carbon – contributing to climate change – and deposit colour and sediment into our drinking water. It may also contribute to flooding.
These impacts all have a financial cost on private water companies and on the public generally (as demonstrated by the 2007 floods in Sheffield), as well as on biodiversity and the landscape. Through better understanding of the integrated nature of our water catchments, and the identification of these financial costs, both government grants and water company funds are now being targeted at addressing these problems.
An ecosystem approach is an important framework to allow people to make better decisions about the impacts we have (and which we might pay for) on our natural environment and society generally. Those decisions are then down to all of us.
I was asked to write just 200 words for this piece – and it really doesn’t do justice to the subject. George Monbiot made some extremely perceptive comments around the distribution of power within any decision-making process, and the distinction between commensurate and non-commensurate financial valuation. There are clearly weaknesses, both in the techniques themselves and then how these tools are interpreted and applied. I agree with many of his concerns about policies such as biodiversity off-setting and similar approaches which appear to ignore the intrinsic value of nature. But I don’t believe we can blame the tool for the way it is used by others. The powerful have always abused their position, and no doubt will sadly continue to do so. We can only continue to lobby and campaign to try to bring about change where necessary.
I believe an ecosystem approach is still a powerful technique for framing our decisions about the use of natural resources which reflects the integrated nature of our environment and society generally.