Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics. Issue Two (April to June), Volume ii, VII, 7th April, 2011.

Capitalism's call for ecosystem stock taking and valuation

By Helen Gavaghan

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
in National and International Policy Making.
Editor Patrick ten Brink.
Published by Earthscan, 2011.

"Ecosystems and their biodiversity underpin the global economy and human well-being, and need to be valued and protected. ... The figures speak for themselves: over a billion people in developing countries rely on fish as a major source of food, around 1.1 billion people are dependent on forests for their livelihoods and over half of all commercial medicines derive from natural substances, mostly sourced in rainforests."

p9 The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
in National and International Policy Making.

"The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) in National and International Policy Making" does not play games. There is no need to reach for meaning, and ecology and biodiversity are situated firmly within the capitalist system of economics, and within a trans-global commercial context.

Local concerns are acknowledged, but made explicit only because local ecological goods - for that is what bees are in this context - and services, such as a local watershed and its irrigation or pollution potential, feed national aggregates like gross domestic product. Such economic indicators are relevant to national capitalization and potential for capitalization.

Well, this is an economic text, so the approach makes sense.

Natural capital is one of the four capitals identified in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment exercise of 2003. The others are manufactured capital, human capital and social capital.

Throughout, the book addresses ecology and biodiversity as commodities to be evaluated in terms of the services they provide, the goods they make, their job creation potential and the value they have for human well being. Concern for the biosphere centres on the manner in which human activity diminishes natural capital. This is a profoundly human-centred look at the world.

Nevertheless, or ought I to write, therefore, the book belongs on the reference shelves of science departments, of politicians, their aides, and in University libraries around the World and across cultures. Even more so in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, an event which is likely to ricochet through the worlds of meteorology, oceanography and ecology.

TEEB - to shorten the book's title, guides the reader through the ecology and biodiversity information in the public domain, and through the existing international regulatory and legal structures relevant for assessing their value as part of natural capital.

Such capital needs to be integrated into national and international economic thinking and accounting systems, argue the authors, if it is to be fully realized. They identify the shortcomings in the information needed for a useful valuation of eco goods and services. Price, value, willingness to pay the price, true cost - all the concepts which customs officers today apply mainly to manufactured goods - make their appearance in the text.

From time to time the authors dip for illustrative purposes into a national setting to demonstrate the concepts in practice. For example in 2006, the authors report, the Indian Supreme Court assigned compensation for forested land converted to non-forest use. The valuation study which the Court drew on assigned value for six different forest uses. These being timber, fuel wood, non-timber forest products and ecotourism, bioprospecting, ecological services for forests, and non-use values for the conservation of charismatic species, such as the Royal Bengal Tiger and Asian Lion. The payment of 10 billion rupees was placed in a fund for annual disbursement to pay for reforestation, wildlife conservation and rural job creation.

Other specific information needed for valuation of natural capital intersperses the text. It would be unfair to draw attention to one need compared with another, because this abstract is not a review. In fact I doubt there are many people in the world qualified to review this text.

But if you want a research grant you could do worse than comb this book in search of the type of known unknowns identified by the authors as needs for a workable eco economy and for legal management of biodiversity. And if you are a voter you might want to do the same, and to consider what you want to say to your political representatives, or have them tell you.

The book has four parts: The Need for Action; Measuring What We Manage: Information Tools for Decision Makers; Available Solutions: Instruments for Better Stewardship of Natural Capital; The Road Ahead.

Protected areas are discussed as a means of stewardship, but lack of clear property rights is identified as the cause of both economic uncertainty, and as a barrier to sustainable development in many parts of the world.

Reconstituting ecological systems is also noted as an option, though as second best choice to preventing the ecosystem being destroyed in the first place.

Via the book's four parts the reader reaches the porous interface of trans-generational equity assessment, and encounters the perilous task facing politicians of assessing which natural resource to protect against future need, and what resources can safely be consumed in the present without destroying our future.

Knowingly or not the authors have also created an unarguable case for academic historical research within the world's research university history departments. Never forgetting, of course, that the core mission of the Academy is teaching!

Though the book is about economics and accounting methods now and in future, within both national and international settings of capital appreciation, in chapter after chapter the authors demonstrate they have a need for a history of law, a history of evolving knowledge sets, a history of resources accessible at the time, a history of responsibility and of the use to which resource allocation was put.

Only through understanding the past can issues of current equity be evaluated and war, stalemate and exchanges of attrition be avoided in the present as politicians lead informed international negotiations to the sustainable global future hoped for.

The book is clear. It does all the heavy lifting for the reader by link building among chunks of information and by isolating the information from misdirecting syntactic context. Thus it undercuts many of the cues that lead to blinkered thinking.

We are not being invited to alter our perception of economic and biodiversity information, nor to find another way to solve a particular problem. Rather the book is telling us what is already known and not known and where significant gaps in our knowledge have been identified.

The extensive bibliographies look to my untutored eye in this field to be substantial, competent and of high quality. But, as I write, this is not a review.

That acknowledged I think the book needs to be on certain book shelves, and is worth its price. Not, perhaps, alongside work by Edward de Bono, because this is not seeking to shift perception. Rather it supplies factual capacity for those creating and wishing to influence the international political and legal structures within which ecosystems and biodiversity can be managed, protected and developed. Even if you are on a tight budget if this is your field this is one to buy and keep.

The dateline for this article, which was published as written, and without an editor, should read volume iii of Volume II, not volume ii. URL visited by editor on 28th October 2015. Minor corrections made.


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