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Will love or money conserve Earth’s life support systems?

natural capital nature conservation

In light of recent ‘industry’ discussions regarding the subject of nature conservation and Natural Capital, Katie Critchlow (Naturemetrics) responds with her thoughts…

Last week’s article by George Monbiot in the Guardian (The UK government wants to put a price on nature – but that will destroy it, 15th May 2018) ignited a healthy debate about whether valuing nature in monetary terms will ‘kill or cure’ our current addiction to destroying Earth’s life support systems. At the Royal Wedding on Saturday Reverend Curry joined Monbiot in offering ‘Love’ as an uplifting, alternative antidote to money: “Imagine our world when love is the way. The earth would be as a sanctuary in such a world as that.” So is it Love or Money or something else that will lead us to safeguard the natural world on which we rely?

Lets take a look at other things we place a value on. Policy makers regularly use economic techniques to value human life. It’s how they weigh up different mechanisms to extend or reduce human life expectancy. The uninitiated may have the same reaction as Monbiot to the valuation of nature – distasteful or just plain wrong; “I’m worth more than £1m!?” But to those making decisions on a daily basis, it’s a necessary tool to ensure that money is best spent on the things that will, on average, help the most people to extend their life by the longest. It’s difficult to argue that that is a bad thing in theory.

So why not apply these same concepts to all life on earth?

I’ve totally got over any knee jerk ‘distaste’ at the Natural Capital argument. During my time with WWF in Borneo I experienced a very different perspective. There, the argument that those making a living from destruction of the forest should sacrifice income for the ‘love’ of nature was itself viewed as distasteful to many and hampered efforts to even begin dialogue about nature conservation. The concept of creating cash flows from the protection of our life support systems, rather than from their destruction, generated new interest and dialogue about conservation. Far from ‘crowding out’ love for nature as Monbiot argues, we were able to identify win-wins where people could see a pathway to making a living from keeping the forests standing AND enjoy better Life Support from nature in the form of better air, better mental health, better flood protection. Whether those mechanisms are coming to fruition fast enough and whether enough cash can be generated to displace destruction as the status quo, is for another blog – it’s mainly a problem of implementation.

To return to the theory, there will always be choices for businesses and governments to make about where to invest to get the most bang for buck and it seems right to promote nature to ‘the big leagues’ of policy making, by enabling us to make that ‘value case’ where our understanding of the value and valuation tools are fit for purpose. But there lies the biggest rub for me and where I think the root of our angst about Natural Capital really lies:

Our understanding of our natural life support systems and our valuation tools are currently inadequate for the task. This paves the way for misuse and ignorance. If we are happy for nature to be protected using economic arguments, don’t we also have to accept that the same yardsticks can be used to justify its destruction?

Returning to the analogy of valuing the statistical human life (VSL), we tend to be able to make a good assessment of the impact of policy decisions on extending or reducing a statistical human life. Human’s physiological life support systems have been well studied and described. The biggest problem we face in valuing nature is that we’ve woefully underinvested in understanding it. We have a poor understanding of how Earth’s life support systems function, or where we are on the ‘supply curve’ for the services nature provides.

To put this in laymans terms, economists would argue that when nature is plentiful, the services it offers will be plentiful and therefore ‘supplying’ (destroying) nature should be cheap. As supply of nature’s life support services becomes scarce this price should rise sharply or tend to infinity for those irreplaceable services. The problem we face is not knowing where we are in the game of jenga we are playing with nature or the consequences of the ‘last block’ being removed from the game. Hence valuing ‘marginal cost of destruction’ is foolhardy.

The VSL technique for decision making for human life is premised on being able to judge to the month or even days, on average how long a policy, for example enforced wearing of seatbelts or new cancer drugs, will extend lives in the UK. In contrast, we don’t even know the name of 90% of the species on our planet, let alone their function or how they are intimately linked with the survival of our own species. And that’s before we count bacteria – the ‘microbiome’, which has only recently become knowable through new molecular techniques and which we are beginning to understand is essential to the most basic human processes such as digestion. It’s impossible to accurately determine the value of the loss of things we don’t yet understand. I believe that in part our ‘instrinsic’ desire to save nature is driven by our intuition that human life cannot exist without it.

Knowing nature, describing it, understanding how it functions and how it keeps the earth our sanctuary, will not make it any less wonderful, any less loveable, but it will improve our ability to value it and that in turn will improve our ability to advocate for it.

So whilst I totally buy into the good Reverend’s vision for a world which embraces love of nature, I do not consider it inconsistent or distasteful to use economic arguments to help individuals, governments and business leaders to better understand the value of nature to them and to create cash flows which incentivise protection over destruction. I offer three suggestions for how we get better at using money to argue for nature:

1. Embrace money as an argument for nature where we already understand the value of protection and restoration to outweigh the value of destruction. Focus hard on implementation to ensure that theoretical value translates into cashflows that change the status quo.

2. Vigorously defend against economic instruments being used in ignorance to make the case for ‘marginal’ destruction. Remind ourselves that we don’t know where we are in the game of jenga we are playing with nature or the consequences of the last block being removed from the game.

3. Exponentially improve our understanding of the life support systems nature provides and how it provides them, in order that we may accurately value provision of Earth’s life support systems.

Molecular monitoring techniques, drones, earth observation have all massively decreased the cost of biodiversity monitoring and exponentially increased the amount of knowledge and data we could gather to understand our life support systems better. At NatureMetrics we are leading the revolution in molecular monitoring of nature because we believe, that which is measured, improves. We’re thinking big about how our techniques can support a better understanding of Earth’s life support systems. This will not only increase our understanding of the economic value of nature but will also increase our love for the true wonders that nature provides.

About the Author: Katie Critchlow, COO of NatureMetrics, spent two years living and working in Jakarta, Indonesia, working on developing a Green Economy plan for Heart of Borneo alongside the three Bornean governments at local and national level. Katie’s role was to engage the private sector, mining, logging, palm oil, tourism and finance and to develop innovative mechanisms for funding conservation and sustainable land use. On returning from Indonesia, Katie studied Environmental Economics at the London School of Economics and is keenly interested in linking large biodiversity datasets from eDNA monitoring to data on economic activity to better understand the links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and natural capital and to inform management techniques which strengthen both business and biodiversity.