What's of Value....?

As Vice Chair of the Herefordshire Local Nature Partnership (LNP) I’ve been involved in helping to set up the Marches Nature Partnership, which brings together both Herefordshire and the Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin LNPs. The idea is that this umbrella group will be in a better position to talk to the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) which acts as the conduit for government funding directed at industry. Environment is often the poor relation of government policy, particularly in times of austerity when policy drivers are almost solely directed at economic growth. What is increasingly being recognised, however, is that economic growth depends on the quality of the environment within which that growth takes place.

The phrase “Natural Capital” is credited to the German statistician and economist E F Schumacher (1911-77) in his book “Small is Beautiful”. It is analogous to the financial capital used by business, but it means “the world’s stock of natural assets including its geology, soil, air, water and all living things” (see https://naturalcapitalforum.com/about/). From this natural capital humanity derives a wide range of services which make life possible. Increasingly these services have been given the label “ecosystem services”, reflecting the wide range of benefits which humanity derives from the natural environment and properly functioning ecosystems. These include clean water, the decomposition of waste products, pollinators of crops etc. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (https://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.html) popularised the concept and grouped ecosystem services into four categories:

  • Provisioning – e.g. the production of food and water
  • Regulating – e.g. the control of climate and disease
  • Supporting – e.g. nutrient cycles and pollination
  • Cultural – e.g. spiritual and recreational benefit derived from nature

This has also led to tools by which ecosystem services can be assigned economic values and monetised. It recognises that natural capital is not static, but is capable of being enhanced or degraded by human activity. Monetising it means that the value of that enhancement or degradation can also be measured in terms that business understands. The methodology is still under development, but an international report published in 2013 by TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: http://www.teebweb.org/areas-of-work/teeb-for-business/) assessed the value of the global natural capital to be twice as much as the global aggregate Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The idea has gained credibility with policy makers and the UK government established the UK Natural Capital Committee in 2012 (NCC: https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/natural-capital-committee) to advise it on the sustainable use of natural capital. Its major task is to support the development of a 25-year Environment Plan due to be published by government in early 2018. Business has a critical role to play in implementing the plan, hence the alignment of the LNP’s (environmental strategic partnerships) with the LEP (economic strategic partnerships) within the Marches mentioned earlier in order to foster greater dialogue.

An ecosystem assessment of the Marches published in 2016 estimated the value of environmental assets Iocally to be worth £14.7bn at 2015 values (https://shropshire.gov.uk/media/2737/marches-ecosystem-assessment-2016.pdf). This is actually an underestimate as not all of the land area was included in the assessment. Amongst the headlines were:

  • £1.6bn in relation to flood mitigation capitalised over 25 years.
  • £3bn of physical health benefits over 25 years from just recreational walking and cycling (£146.9m annually).
  • £7.2bn of value in relation to peat stored carbon in ecosystems across The Marches.
  • £1bn annually in relation to tourism (80% of visitors come with the natural environment as a primary driver) accounting for approximately 12-15% of the workforce.
  • £190m within annual agricultural production or 3.2 % Gross Value Added for the sector.

It is hoped that by being able to quantify the value of the natural environment in this way, business leaders will understand its value to economic growth and will therefore take steps to protect and enhance it.

I want the natural environment to be protected and enhanced, but I feel very uneasy as we discuss these concepts. Many theologians and philosophers see the root of today’s ecological crises, including climate change, in the distorted relationships that grew to exist between humanity and nature (especially in the West). See for example, https://thinkinglikeahuman.com/. In a seminal work published in 1967 called “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (Science, 155) Lynn Townsend White Jr suggested that the dualism that had developed between man and nature within western philosophy and theology was a major contributor to the idea that nature was there to be exploited - with apparent indifference. White, who was theologically trained as well as being a Professor of Medieval History (at Princeton, Stanford, Oakland and the University of California, Los Angeles), was not seeking to divorce science from religion but argued that both were required to solve the crisis, and that both needed to be transformed to find a different paradigm governing our relationship with nature. “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”

So, as we sit and discuss Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services I simply ask the question: Is this the new paradigm or is it more of the same: re-casting nature’s value in terms of human need, and human need alone. Or to put it another way, does nature only have a “value” if it is of value to me? (for me, read “humanity”). Personally, I think not, nature’s intrinsic value exists because it exists, and its existence was not dependent upon me (or humanity), though its continuing existence most probably is as we change the planet beyond all recognition.

As I say, I want to protect and enhance the natural environment, it’s just that valuing nature exclusively through the contribution it makes to human well-being is an approach that I feel profoundly uncomfortable with. 

Nick Read, OBE.

Director of the Brightspace Foundation