I am in two minds whether to buy Tony Juniper’s new book, What nature does for Britain. On the one hand I think it will be well written and entertaining with lots of good examples of positive action for nature. On the other I will struggle to get past the fundamentals, that we need to place an economic value on nature, in order to “save” it.
The development of Natural Capitalism is making me feel increasingly uncomfortable, the more so when I hear so many stating that we have no choice, we must adopt the language of economists (especially free-market economists) in order to be able to persuade those economists, or Treasury civil servants, or politicians, or whoever, that nature is important.
I am still struggling to put a rationale together to justify (post hoc) what is a visceral feeling. But here are couple of things I have come across, which I wanted to share. The first is from Classical Economics: Gresham’s Law. Gresham Law states that bad money will push good money out of circulation. It’s similar to the “race to the bottom”, whereby without regulation, cheap unsafe products will drive out more expensive, better products that are safe and have been produced under better conditions for workers, society and the environment.
Gresham’s Law applies specifically to the amount of precious metal in coinage; without regulation (coins with less eg Silver in them than they should have (bad coins), eventually completely replace the coins with the right amount of Silver in them, because it is more profitable to keep the “good” coins, melt them down and sell the Silver.
Can this law be applied to the notion of natural capital? Well, radical thinker Gregory Bateson sought to apply it to the evolution of ideas, arguing that simplistic ideas would drive out sophisticated ones. I would suggest that the risk with Natural Capital approaches is that delivery of ecosystem services will be achieved by the lowest necessary value ecosystem. While an ancient woodland might be a very good carbon store, a newly planted conifer plantation stores more carbon more quickly, and so will outcompete the ancient woodland for carbon credits, or whatever monetary system is being used. The non-use value of the ancient woodland (its history, its meaning, its beauty) will be undervalued.
The second thing is the Tainted Altruism Effect. This is best examplifed by the story of Daniel Pallotta who was reviled for raising $300M AIDS research. Reviled because he was paid $400,000 a year. Our psychology seems to treat people like Pallotta who appear to be acting altruistically, while actually creating significant benefit for themselves, as immoral, even though he raised massive amounts of money for an altruistic cause.
People support the conservation of nature because they believe nature is essential to our lives, for all sorts of reasons. I believe, generally, people do not value nature from an economic perspective, in their everyday lives. Who hears a Robin sing and thinks either a) that is worth a lot of money or b) it’s important that we place an economic value on that Robin so we can help prevent it from being killed/displaced. No, people value it for a wide variety of reasons, but not economically.
The Tainted Altruism Effect suggests that the introduction of economic value into a system which depends far more on aesthetic, spiritual or cultural values, taints those values and diminishes them. Using arguments about the economic (monetary) value of nature may actually put people off supporting action for nature, because they feel that action is tainted by the idea that someone is going to make a profit from it; and nature is not something that should be considered as just another asset class.
Now of course people make profit from nature all the time – arguably all profit is derived from nature. But the difference between a farmer deriving profit from nature by producing a crop, even if that crop is damaging to nature, and a charity encouraging profit to be derived from nature, in the name of conservation, is the Tainted Altruism Effect.