What’s nature worth? It’s a question many of might object to philosophically, but the British government has recently starting counting. It’s not something that many people are paying much attention to at the moment, but the second Natural Capital report was just presented this month.
In a nutshell, the job of the Natural Capital Committee is to turn Britain’s nature into numbers. Trees and birds and rivers don’t count for anything, quite literally. They are invisible. For them to be accounted for, everything will need a price tag attached.
In my imagination, that involves Professor Dieter Helm and his colleagues running out into the woods to barcode sparrows. In reality, they plan to tot everything up and present their reports to George Osborne and his Economic Affairs Committee.
So far we know that certain things are in serious decline, including fish stocks and fresh water. Big opportunities exist in reforestation as a carbon sink, and tree planting and wetlands restoration to reduce flood risk. Improving air quality would also save us billions every year in healthcare costs.
Putting specific numbers to these things is a work in progress, but eventually they will all be listed on the ‘national natural capital accounts’ that are being developed as we speak.
The motive is admirable, to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”. But it is somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, it insists that “ambitious action is needed to put the economy on a sustainable footing within a generation.” On the other, all things are justified by their contribution to the economy. “A long-term plan is necessary to maintain and improve natural capital, thereby delivering wellbeing and economic growth.” Make no mistake – this is not about valuing nature for itself, but about measuring what it is worth to the economy, and those are two different things.
The report is up-front about the fact that this is all calculated on the basis of human utility, not the inherent worth of nature. It defines natural capital as “the elements of nature that directly or indirectly produce value to people”. The idea that things might have a right to exist in and of themselves is entirely absent.
Another problem is that once we’ve quantified and valued our rivers and forests, we are likely to start managing them on the basis of the numbers rather than the things themselves. But artificial monetary values don’t reflect the way the world actually functions. Overlaying an economic understanding onto a world that doesn’t work that way leads to ecologically dubious policies like biodiversity offsetting. Deciding who to protect from flooding is another, with the government recently confronted with competing value claims to the Somerset Levels that their cost benefit analysis hadn’t revealed.
It’s hard to object to what the government is trying to do with the Natural Capital assessments. If economics is the language we understand, then pricing in nature makes complete sense and is even quite enlightened. But equally, you could argue that if our economists can’t see the natural world that sustains them, then their logic does not extend to the natural world and they should know the limits of their expertise. That doesn’t mean economics is useless, only that it cannot be the only perspective. We have become too dependent on a powerful but narrow way of looking at things.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Economics can be the servant of government and not the master. My post on Ecuador last week profiled a national approach to the environment that is much richer and more mature, with a sense of stewardship and partnership with the natural world.
That matters, because ultimately nature is relational. Ecosystems are the web of relationships between interdependent species. Wisdom in handling nature is about knowing our place, understanding our relationship to the land, air and water, and the other species we share them with. Like any relationship, you can’t break it down into numbers. To attempt to do so is to misunderstand it. The result is as unrepresentative as describing a painting or drawing a piece of music.
But then, George Osborne and his committees have failed to grasp the hierarchy from the start. They mistakenly believe that organising nature is part of their remit. “As the White Paper rightly emphasised,” says the report’s foreword, “the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.”
The arrogance of worrying if ‘growth opportunities’ might be missed if the environment is not integrated into the economy is rather striking. Going for growth is what the green world all around us does best – it’s just that it maximises life, not capital. It recognises no value but life itself, in all its glorious abundance and diversity.
In his recent book, Philip Roscoe wrote that “the greatest error of modern economics has been to forget that it is part of the world.” He is right. The environment is not part of the economy. Nature is bigger than we are, and it was here first. Left to its own devices it would happily integrate itself into the Treasury and the Bank of England, creating growth opportunities between its flagstones.
If the economy can’t see nature, is that nature’s problem or the economists? To put it another way, should we be wrestling nature into an economic paradigm, or shaping our economics to fit the world?
Let’s flip the question around. Instead of asking how the natural world can better serve our economic model, let’s ask how we learn from nature to create an economy that maximises life.