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The Government’s ‘25 Year Plan for the Environment’ mentions the term “natural capital” ninety times! What does this signify?

July 2018

It’s an odd way of talking about nature. It implies seeing nature as a collection of pieces of capital, each with a monetary value. There are two very basic problems about that. One is that there aren’t “pieces”: the whole essence of ecology is that everything is interdependent and therefore it makes no sense to value pieces separately. The other is that the natural world largely consists of places with specific qualities: they can’t just be exchanged with each other or exchanged for money without something important being lost.

The use of the term “natural capital” makes one very valid point: economies depend on the existence of the natural world and its resources and capacities. That understanding shifts us away from the notion of “the environment” as something that just looks nice (important though that also is). It calls out to businesses to pay attention to the fact that they depend on a water supply, a reasonably stable climate, perhaps good soil quality, perhaps the genes of plants or animals.

Another valid point it makes is that from the “stock” of “natural capital” comes a “flow” of benefits, in a rough parallel to the way in which a machine might over time manufacture a long sequence of goods.

All that is fine, but I think there is a need to worry if we go beyond that. For example, if we think that decisions about the environment can be made by weighing up in terms of money the different possible options. The methods for making the calculations generate such a wide range of different figures for the “value” of “pieces” of “natural capital” that this is not a reliable method for decision-making, and we should simply ban some categories of environmental destruction, through for example legal safeguards for particular pieces of land.

Perhaps worse, if we think that the environment can be saved by “natural capital” calculations, we misunderstand the situation at a very basic level. Money actually changing hands can make a difference. Simply calculating theoretical valuations makes very little difference. It’s a sort of economists’ “technical fix” that cannot possibly substitute for effective campaigning, good law-making, wise judgements in specific cases, and an underlying sense of connection with the natural world on the part of most members of the public (maybe even everyone to some degree). We can give a money value to the Indonesian rainforest, but if they don’t receive the money, government and business in Indonesia will carry on responding to the incentives which exist for mining and palm oil plantations, because that is where the real money is.

The Debating Nature’s Value network was formed to discuss these issues and engage with people concerned about them. You can find further details here:

And look out for the book I am editing, also to be called ‘Debating Nature’s Value, in which different authors explore different perspectives on the question of “natural capital”.

Guest blog from Victor Anderson, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University

Follow @vicanderso & @GSI_ARU

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.