Friday 27 August 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 2

In my last blog I pointed out that an international study – “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) is one of the drivers behind the new Natural Environment White Paper. I’ve mentioned this before (see my blogs on 23rd July and 25th May 2010), but I thought I’d now try to talk a little bit more about it.

This will be a difficult task as this study has been done by some of the greatest brains on the planet. I am sure I will not do it justice so the best thing for readers to do will be to go to the original work through this link.

But, in case you do not feel moved to do so, I’ll have a go at presenting my own take on the subject:

TEEB is an independent, global study launched by the European Commission to produce a report on the economics of biodiversity loss. It aimed to bring together expertise from all regions of the world in the fields of science, economics and policy to enable actions to be taken in response to the impact of the loss of biodiversity.

The key point that this study brings out is something that we should all know, that conservationists have been stressing for decades but which everyone, in practice, simply tries to ignore. Our ecosystems, biodiversity and natural resources underpin our economies, societies and our individual well-being. There is no escaping from it – the environment is the system; economies and societies are sub-systems relying totally on the environment. To be sustainable, sub-systems must not damage the systems on which they depend. But at the moment they do. This will change.

The value of our natural environment’s myriad benefits are overlooked and poorly understood. They are rarely taken fully into account in normal economics or in day to day decision making. Loss of forests, soils, wetlands, coral reefs, fisheries, etc etc are all often economically invisible. We are running down our natural capital stock without understanding the value of what we are loosing.

Part of the study showed that the economic loss from degraded forest ecosystems alone (and they probably only measured the easy bits) is far greater than the financial losses the world experienced in the worst part of the recent global credit crunch.

The degradation of soils, air, water and biological resources can negatively impact on public health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities. Furthermore, the rural poor are often most directly reliant on natural resources and are often the hardest hit. (Nature conservation is not just a hobby for the rich).

Our current economic model is letting us down. It is only capable of valuing some things and only in the present, whereas to make sensible decisions we need to consider everything that the environment provides now and in the future.

Maybe if I make up a Mickey Mouse example it may help make the point.

Let’s take the South Downs. Without intervention, the only economic benefit would be intensive agriculture. The only thing we can value is food. Divergence from this might be seen as “artificial interference”, a promotion of “inefficient farming” or just an emotional desire. In practice, however, food is just one of the services that we get from the South Downs, but perhaps the only one that we put a “£” sign against. However, the South Downs also provides clean water for people to drink, it has soils which hold carbon and cycle nutrients, it supports species that help with pollination; good management prevents flooding, controls erosion, maintains soils; the landscape attracts tourists, provides recreation and maintains our sense of place and well-being. And many other things as well. Many of these other services are simply not considered in any valuing exercise. These values, however, are very real. Indeed, when you look at the complexity of what a landscape provides, using it only to provide food in the short term must be considered a very inefficient use of land.

So you get to one of the TEEB conclusions – when you do the sums, the benefits you get from a natural area are worth 10 to 100 times more than the cost of protecting it. And we haven’t even mentioned the higher ethical reasons for conserving nature.

This highlights key messages for the Natural Environment White Paper:

  • Maintaining nature is a basic need.

  • Its economic value is orders of magnitude greater than the short term gains from destroying it.

  • You can’t protect nature by just treating it as a special interest.

  • We need to alter our economic model so nature’s fundamental importance is given primacy.

1 comment:

Mark Fisher said...

As I read of yet another “nature conservation” project where grazing has been re-imposed, often after the landscape has been corseted by barbed wire fencing, I ponder the British value system for nature, and who gets to set that value. Tony, you have mentioned Permaculture in my presence. If Permaculture is the integration of natural ecology with our cultivated ecology, then we have to consider some sort of relationship between our level of resource extraction and the ecological state of Britain, the value that I hope you are talking about. On that basis we are screwed, since over the last 4,000 years we have comprehensively screwed our natural ecology. I like to take people to an area in the Yorkshire Dales where livestock grazing has been excluded for 35 years. A remarkable transformation has occurred in that there are now many species growing there that can feed humans such as fruits, roots, nuts, leaves, fungi etc (and I am sure other wild animals feed there), whereas the grass only of the land outside of this ungrazed area feeds only sheep. It is a vivid and contemporary illustration of how agriculture – of any sort, even the conservation grazing of wildlife trusts – removes the capacity of the land to feed all our native species, rather than just the livestock of our farming. We should ask ourselves just how much right the human species has to limit the capacity of land in this way and remove its ecological value.

Let’s just have a think about what is the capacity for land in a situation where it was able to support all species. A biophysical wilderness existed in Britain in the period after the last glaciation, when the ice that covered most of northern Britain receded, allowing the land to re-vegetate before it could support any returning mammalian life. Hunter-gatherer cultures would have required that an ecologically-rich wilderness composite to have returned before those lands could be occupied by them again.

Jacobi (1978) considered a likely population of Mesolithic lowland Britain based on the food resource available to them. He worked through the density of deer available (one per 40ha), the potential success of hunting (1 in 6) and the nutritional value arising from deer kills; the density of coastal shellfish beds; and the distribution, harvest potential (30%) and calorific value of hazel nuts. His estimate for one southern lowland area of 6,500 square miles was that the landscape would have supported some 396 five-member family groups, a total of 1,980 individuals. Others have estimated the population of Britain around 9000 BC to be 1,100-1,200 people, rising to 2,500-5,000 by 7,000 BC. In 3,200 BC, the early period after farming reached Britain, the estimate of population is between 30,000 – 50,000, and was probably boosted by inward migration as new settlers sought to exploit the resource extraction that agriculture had brought.

It is likely that in the absence of farming, a sustainable population for Britain could be somewhere up to 50,000. Clearly, this is the baseline, the natural ecology where humans were part of that natural value. Add in elements of a cultivated ecology, and then the population will be higher, but as we have seen at the ever increasing expense of wild nature. So here’s my point Tony – you talk about a divergence from intensive agriculture to an inefficient farming presumably as a way of getting natural value – but I note that you still couch it in the socio-economic terms of the anthropocentric rather than in the terms of the needs of wild nature. So why is it on land from which the shackles of agriculture were lifted over the 20th century, that the conservation industry is re-imposing agriculture? Let’s have a real think about what natural value is. I for one don’t want to live in a world where every square inch is used for agriculture, and the natural ecology for our children’s children is watching farm animals.