Why saying “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why… Natural Capital is coming to town!” isn’t quite good enough…

NatCap13 Happy Christmas!

Last month, around 500 business leaders, policymakers, academics, and environmentalists convened in Edinburgh for two days to discuss the ‘natural capital’ approach to achieving economic and ecological sustainability. The core messages at the World Forum on Natural Capital revolved around a number of central themes. The first was the need to move beyond the ‘soft appeal’ of the ‘sexy’ concept of natural capital, to the ‘hard task’ of getting down to the business of mainstreaming it into the economy. The concept may have gained traction, with this Forum proving the proposition, but we now must move from conceptualisation to action. Nothing new there, you might rightfully argue. The second theme was about the need for more engaging narratives and stories, not only about successful application of the natural capital approach itself but also of genuine and sustained collaboration and dialogue that have resulted in that success. Perhaps, again, nothing really that new there either. Collaboration and dialogue are the linchpin of system-level sustainable transformation; the latter cannot occur without the former. True we need more of this, and we need to hear more about this, and there is merit to repeating this many times until this way of working is mainstreamed. However, perhaps not such a revelatory comment.

Where themes picked up pace were with regards to levels of confidence that this was the future; the world was going to be swept along by this new wave of radical thinking, like it or not. You were either in – or far out. Jochen Zeitz, the man behind PUMA’s Profit & Loss Accounting, argued that we may not have found the right tools and metrics just yet, but they will materialise, and all business will be using these by 2020. David Steuerman, Business and Biodiversity Programme Officer at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, pointed out that going back 30 years and asking people then if they wanted the digital technology revolution, and all the upheaval and radical change accompanying it, to take place, more than likely it would have been utterly rejected. Accounting for ‘natural capital’ is the same – but it will happen. Likewise, Alan McGill, Partner, Sustainability & Climate Change at PwC, echoed these sentiments, saying that natural capital is the first signposted industrial revolution we have ever had. It will happen because if business wants to survive, it better start accounting for its true and full costs – or risk being completely left behind. What everyone needs, however, is to understand this shift better so that we can all prepare, and buckle up for the bumpy ride.

A spoof ‘Great Nature Sale’ protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum on Natural Capital

Perhaps those who might be most frightened about the prospect of inevitability and an ‘it’s-happening-with-you-or-without-you mindset’ are the protesters who set up camp down the road from the Forum at an alternative gathering ‘World Forum on Natural Commons’.  I had sympathy with their perspective on the Forum as a closed-off, elite group of ‘the great and good’ as Jo Confino described it (although perhaps ‘greatly bad’ from the protesters’ point of view), seeing as it was held in a closed venue, with exclusive prices, exclusive (delicious..sorry..) catering, and exclusive VIP attendees. Their argument that ‘nature’s not for sale’ is not stupid. It is not naïve either. There are real concerns as to what the full implications of the ‘natural capital’ approach could mean – biodiversity offsetting is the beginning – and it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to consider commodification and increased privatisation of our natural assets as an unintended outcome. In a recent Guardian live-chat on natural capital, the question ‘How is it possible to prevent a surge of privatization / dispossession once the “true economic value” of nature is revealed?’ was asked. Not all panelists answered, (this silence is itself interesting..) but Gerard Bos, Head of Global Business and Biodiversity at IUCN, stated that ‘this will be difficult to prevent and true economic value could drive the wrong behaviour’. Marije Schaafsma Senior Research Associate from the University of East Anglia emphasised the need for collective action to counter this, citing the public uproar in response to government attempts to sell off our forests last year as a key example. Indeed these risks point to the need for government regulation, sound policy, and civil society accountability. Thus, I was heartened to see at least a couple of people address the voices of the protesters, and acknowledge their value, to some extent. Richard Spencer, Head of ICAEW Sustainability, urged the Forum not to dismiss messages such as ‘nature is not for sale’ too readily and arrogantly. While we need more collaboration, this does not mean a ‘cosy party’ but constructive disagreement – real dissonance and debate should be welcomed. We also need to address the clear loss of trust, or loss of social capital, in the financial system that this wholehearted rejection of the natural capital approach represents (more on this in my next blog…)

However, it is the seemingly blanket ideological and wholehearted rejection that worries me – and much of it seems to be based on misunderstandings or misinterpretation. For example, ‘valuing’ the true worth of nature is not the same as ‘putting a price’ on nature. As TEEB’s Pavan Sukhdev explains, ‘value’ is the worth or benefit you receive, while ‘price’ is what you pay, or are willing to pay, in a market. No-one is trying to put nature up for sale. But let’s make damn sure that that doesn’t happen by engaging the public in shaping the discussion and the necessary policy frameworks. The motivation behind the natural capital approach is a good one; to go from a system which treats nature as worthless and destructible, to one where what is ‘priceless’ is truly accounted for and made visible. Protesters need to recognise and believe that most of the people at the World Forum, if not all, have that good intention in mind. Believe it or not, we share a common purpose – to protect our planet. The concepts of ‘natural capital’ and ‘natural commons’ may have more in ‘common’ than defendants think – so how about a ‘conceptual commons’ discussion?  What we need to discuss are the merits of the solutions on the shared table – like the turkey on our Christmas spread, natural capital accounting needs to take central place here as its promises are highly succulent and juicy, even as it may also proffer very real but manageable risk of salmonella if not properly cooked…  (Forgive my bird-brained Christmas puns here….;) oh dear…)

Likewise, those at the World Forum need to be aware that continuing to leave the public and wider NGO community (who have been relatively silent on this issue… bar Friends of the Earth with their bees campaign, which they interestingly semi-blush behind in this blog I came across which nevertheless echoes my thoughts I think) out of these discussions will only serve to polarise debate, rather than bring it into constructive friction. As one of the conclusions of the Forum described – collaboration requires trust, shared vision, and open and honest dialogue. Tony Juniper argues in a recent Guardian article, we need to start building meaningful dialogue now with sceptics, critics, proponents, and evangelists alike, or else, I argue, face 1000+ protesters and business who won’t want to touch natural capital with no_ordinary_capital (1)a ski-pole at the next World Forum in 2015, which will make for a far slower, bumpier, and altogether uncomfortable ride in the sleigh to NatCapland… and perhaps the disappearance of that which we value most on planet earth in the meantime.. I believe we are both on the same side, we just haven’t sat down and had enough mince pies and mulled wine together.

PS – Has Santa accounted for his natural capital yet? Well, as a start, he was appointed 2013 ‘Ambassador for European Forests’..

*NB: When I wrote this I was working as the Development Officer for the Natural Capital Initiative. All views expressed here were my own. Since writing this and leaving the NCI I have changed my views on the above, becoming increasingly sceptical of the natural capital valuation approach… More on this later.