Is Natural Capital a “Neoliberal Road to Ruin”?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Is Natural Capital a “Neoliberal Road to Ruin”?

  1. Thank you and to others who have challenged Monbiot’s unhelpful language which does nothing but further a divide in land management (although the subsequent debate could be classed as helpful). For me, as a forester and speaking on behalf of other land management practitioners, ecosystem services provide a complimentary tool to a large range of existing valuation tools, which are exceedingly useful including, but not exhaustive; Site specifics, amenity valuation, terroir principles (although rare in the UK certainly increasing) etc.,. We need more values in honesty, as it is so useful in terms of engaging with clients and other stakeholders. And we lack a comprehensive set of values at present – simply because in many circumstances we just don’t know yet all the multiple benefits landscape features attain, (it is shocking how little research has been done on the range of traditional landscape features, particularly dry stone walls, hedgerows, non woodland trees etc.,).

    When practitioners started to voice serious concern in regards biodiversity offsetting, which would undermine so many other values in the landscape (as well as land itself!), we were largely ignored, the extremists took over. Indeed I went to conference about biodiversity offsetting in Brussels where the majority of the others were Monbiot disciples who were frankly hostile to this side of the debate, indeed in the main just misanthropic.

    If, as is clearly needed, there is to be at the very least an attempt to bridge chasms between those involved, (something ecosystem services can help greatly with), between the doers and thinkers principally, then we have to hghlight that commentary such as Monbiot’s only creates a divide that Government on behalf of their favourite lobbyists can conquer easily. It is now a badge of honour for many in agriculture and estate management to be as belligerent as possible against any attempt to introduce a sustainable and biodiversity friendly agenda, which is increasingly difficult to change with every attack by Monbiot – who at the end of the day only wants to sell more books, I and many other land management practitioners want a future for our children.

    • Thanks to Europeantrees for this thoughtful contribution. I must admit to having concerns myself around George’s suggestion that by framing our arguments in an attempt to `bridge chasms`, we may end up colluding with those who seek to ignore the warnings around environmental degradation. But their values are their values, and we can only seek to influence and to reach consensus using the best tools we have. I happen to believe that an ecosystem approach is one of those tools (although I remain hugely doubtful about biodiversity offsetting).

      A useful web site if you want to read more about research and practical projects exploring the valuing of ecosystem services is http://www.valuing-nature.net/, and an introduction to the National Ecosystem Approach Toolkit – here http://neat.ecosystemsknowledge.net/

  2. Part of the problem here is there seems to be no consensus in the field of cognitive linguistics (someone correct me if I’m wrong) regarding a lot of George Lakoff’s ideas (on which Monbiot is basing a lot of his arguments). As a linguist, Lakoff is not yet as well known as some others, e.g. Steven Pinker (based on book sales). But Pinker is hardly infallible. He does raise some interesting points here though http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2006_09_30_thenewrepublic.html But also see Lakoff’s Wikipedia page to see his response to Pinker. Also see psychiatrist/neuroscientist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist’s take-down of Pinker here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/can-this-couple-work-it-out/

      • Thank you for the WWF report link. Looks very interesting. I hope the Lakoff-Pinker links were helpful too. Pinker is also very much a supporter of Richard Dawkins as well, even since Dawkins’ inflammatory tweets related to Islamophobia and militant positions on matters of reason and the role religion has played in the world (see Deborah Orr’s Guardian related column here (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/06/richard-dawkins-lack-of-sympathy-for-religion-shame). Lakoff will again say reason is unconscious and emotional. This was recently supported by biologist Frans de Waal, who wrote books like the Age of Empathy and The Bonobo and the Atheist. So it’s not nearly as black and white as scientists like Pinker make it seem. In the end, one can only go by one’s personal experience with how people react to certain ideas within the context of a particular frame. Personally I’ve found Lakoff’s re-framing quite helpful in getting a point across when talking to members of my own very conservative family.

  3. Pingback: Natural capital: is translating nature into the language of economics the only way to make it count? | bookish girl

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