Time To Make Conservation Profitable Says Stanford Ecologist

"It’s time to begin figuring out how to assign economic value to ecosystems and the services they provide, and incorporate those values into public policy," says Gretchen C. Daily.

Published: 19-Feb-2002

To the casual observer, corporations and conservationists seem to be in a constant state of war. One day Greenpeace is seizing an oil platform in the North Sea, the next day Pacific Lumber is suing an environmental group in a dispute over logging redwoods in Northern California.

But if big business and the conservation movement continue down the path of confrontation, all of humanity will be put in peril as our ever-shrinking natural resources vanish from the Earth, argues Gretchen C. Daily, the Bing Interdisciplinary Research Scientist at Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.

"We’ve got to change our economic system and begin to make peace with the planet," Daily says. "It’s time to begin figuring out how to assign economic value to ecosystems and the services they provide, and incorporate those values into public policy."

Daily will outline her vision of an ecosystem-based economy when she delivers the Topical Lecture, "New Frontiers in Conservation," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston on Feb. 17. Her remarks will include insights distilled from her soon-to-be-released book, The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable (Island Press/Shearwater Books), coauthored with journalist Katherine Ellison.

Nature’s price tag
In her AAAS lecture, Daily will argue that ecosystems are capital assets that are being liquidated at humanity’s peril – just as demand for the stream of societal benefits they provide is peaking. She will advocate making a systematic assessment of ecosystem capital, as is done routinely for other types of capital, and will describe practical ways of incorporating the value of ecosystems into policy.

"Trees, for example, could be worth something more than timber, acquiring financial value for the gifts they give while standing and [being] part of a healthy, functioning forest," she explains.

Likewise, land could have financial value not only for its mining and real estate potential but for the ecosystem services it provides: cleansing our air and water; protecting us from floods and mudslides; and providing us a place for recreation and retreat to nourish our spirits.

Why do diamonds command a much higher price than water, Daily asks, when water is obviously essential for survival? Why shouldn’t people who deplete our natural assets have to pay and those who protect them earn a profit?

"We still think of conservation basically as something to do for moral or aesthetic reasons – not for survival and certainly not for profit," Daily says. She points out that now is the time to re-think traditional approaches to conservation by placing monetary values on nature – paying landowners cash subsidies to protect coastal wetlands, giving "carbon credits" to oil companies that plant new forests to soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide or creating publicly traded corporations dedicated to making wildlife restoration profitable.

"Some members of the conservation community object to this profit-driven approach on moral grounds," Daily concedes, "but the idea of protecting the environment with charity alone has gotten us almost nowhere.

When it comes to saving tropical forests, preventing climate change and other global environmental battlefronts, we’re losing dramatically."

Charismatic leadership
At AAAS, Daily will present a series of "inspiring cases" in which financial incentives have been aligned with the protection of ecosystems to great benefit. According to Daily, there are a growing number of charismatic leaders in government, business and science who have begun to adopt an ecosystem-value approach.

For example, John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, in a 1997 speech at Stanford was the first oil company executive to express concern about global warming. Calling for "a rethinking of corporate responsibility," Browne announced a $1 billion company investment in solar energy and promised a dramatic reduction of BP’s own greenhouse gas emissions. Soon other big corporations announced their own greenhouse reductions, setting the stage for the U.N.-debated "carbon credit" forest initiative three years later.

"A lot of people in private industry are concerned about the fate of the planet," Daily maintains. "It’s inspiring to me how many people are struggling in the belly of the beast to turn things around."

She also points out that a growing number of environmental groups – including Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the Pew Charitable Trusts – are forming corporate alliances that simultaneously protect ecosystems and enhance the company’s bottom line.

"We could pretend that there is no globalization, that worldwide economic forces aren’t really there, but that isn’t going to help," Daily concludes. "A great unanswered question is whether the drive for profits, which has done so much harm to the planet, can possibly be harnessed to save it."

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