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Our Deteriorating Natural Capital

Thanks to the industrial revolution, the modern economy has afforded unprecedented material gains for humankind.

We live in a wealthy world.

But whilst our ability to buy fancy cars and the latest gadgets may temporarily satisfy our egos, the price we now pay is far greater than the crunch on our credit cards.


Image source: www.greenbiz.com

Since the time of Adam Smith (forefather of the industrial revolution), more of the natural world has been destroyed than throughout all previous human history.

As Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L.Hunter Lovins highlight in their book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution (2000):

“While industrial systems have reached pinnacles of success, able to muster and accumulate human-made capital on vast levels, natural capital, on which civilisation depends to create economic prosperity, is rapidly declining, and the rate of loss is increasingly disproportionate to gains in material well-being” (p.2).

Associating the natural environment with the term “capital” may seem to undermine the intrinsic values of the nonhuman world. It may also, however, provide a bridge (through language) that may help resolve the “economics Vs environment” argument. For too long that dichotomy has inhibited meaningful debate about alternatives to the modern industrial economy.

A central component of the Green Economy, natural capital includes all the familiar resources used by humankind: from water to minerals and oil, from trees to fish and soil and air. As Hawken et al (2000) explain, “it also encompasses living systems, which include grasslands, savannas, wetlands, estuaries, oceans, coral reefs, riparian corridors, tundras, and rainforests. These are deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented rate. Within these ecological communities are the fungi, ponds, mammals, humus, amphibians, bacteria, trees, flagellates, insects, songbirds, ferns, starfish, and flowers that make life possible and worth living on this planet” (p.2).

Increasingly, people and business and governments exert profound pressures on the Earth’s living systems. Our ability to cope with the impacts of these pressures is increasingly determined by the state of our natural capital, rather than technological solutions or industrial prowess.

“It is not the supplies of oil or copper that are beginning to limit our development but life itself. Today, our continuing progress is restricted not by the number of fishing boats but by the decreasing numbers of fish; not by the power of pumps but by the depletion of aquifers; not by the number of chainsaws but by the disappearance of primary forests” (Hawken et al, 2000, p.3).

In moving toward a Green Economy, we need to recognise that the “value” of the natural world is not constrained to the resources – the wood, fish, food etc – that it provides us. Importantly, we need to recognise (with utmost urgency), that the services of our natural capital are far more critical to human health and prosperity than the non-renewable resources we seem hell-bent on wasting.

“A forest provides not only the resource of wood but also the services of water storage and flood management. A healthy environment automatically supplies not only clean air and water, rainfall, ocean productivity, fertile soil, and watershed resilience but also such less-appreciated functions as waste processing (both natural and industrial), buffering against the extremes of weather, and regeneration of the atmosphere” (Hawken et al, 2000, p.3).

What is truly amazing is that humankind has inherited a 3.8 billion-year store of natural capital (Ibid, 2000).

But if we perpetuate the waste and general devaluing of the natural world, nature’s storehouse will be plundered to such an extent that little will be left for future generations. Besides the aesthetic and moral arguments for wise stewardship of the environment, this raises serious practical concerns for people all over the world.

The Green Economy recognises the vital life-giving services that flow from natural capital. It also acknowledges the critical interdependency between the production and use of human-made capital and the maintenance and supply of both the resources and services we otherwise take for granted from the natural world.

Natural Capital

Image source: www.fao.org

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