What We’ll Talk About in 2014

Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.

These are my predictions for the hot sustainability topics of 2014.

The first, Ecosystem Services, helps you account for all the ways that the natural world benefits people. (A tree gives shade, timber, fuel, etc.)

The second, Natural Capital, puts a value on those things. (How much is that tree worth to you? What’s the one-time value of it as timber, fuel and materials? What’s the ongoing value to you while it stands for how it holds carbon, cleans the air, stores water, gives shade, offers habitat?)

And, keep an eye out for how conversations with these terms increasingly focus on two things:

1. A narrower focus on our choices impact humans, specifically. (And less about the bigger picture of protecting the environment and non-human species as well.)

2. How our choices about using natural resources have a measurable monetary cost.

Here are two new articles bearing these twinned themes out.

The first an op-ed is from former NJ governor and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.

Via NJSpotlight.com:

Assessing the Long-Term Costs of Ignoring the Environment

Pundits and politicians tend to present economic development and environmental regulation as opponents in a zero-sum game. Such a view is shortsighted and foolish; we need to take a longer-term view of the affects that our actions toward our surroundings have on our health and our safety –- two resources that once lost cannot simply be repurchased.

Thankfully, we now have research and measurement tools we did not have at our disposal decades ago, and it behooves us to utilize those tools to view environmental protection through the lens of our future and our children’s future. In our benevolent mission to grow the economy, we should not be in too great a rush to ignore environmental testing and results. The price we pay at the end is much greater than we can afford, both in terms of dollars and human lives. [emphases added]

Note how Whitman focuses on humans’ well-being and the costs of our actions.

The second is an excellent long read by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.

Via OZY.com:

Ian Khama and Placing a Value on Nature

Assigning a real economic value to nature is thus a vital piece of building a sustainable global economy. But the real leadership on the issue is not coming from the G-20, the nonprofit world or anywhere you might expect. It’s coming from Africa.

And valuing natural capital is not just about accounting for costs; it’s also about using the price mechanism to set an acceptable level of natural degradation and to prevent an intolerable level—the point at which the price should become essentially unaffordable or priceless, because we have reached a level of pollution or degradation that we are unwilling to cross as a society. As those wearing face masks in Beijing can attest, you don’t realize just how priceless clean air, water and food are until you lose them.

Whitman and Jobs agree on the value of being able to value nature more rigorously. But what I love about Jobs’ article is that she explicitly goes further. I believe that Whitman is good intentioned, but her words make me think she hasn’t come very far at all from a status quo, incremental changes mindset.

I see this in her words that some things, once lost, “cannot simply be repurchased.”

Once lost, human health and safety can’t be repurchased at all.

Because they never should have been sold to begin with.

Jobs hits the mark that Whitman misses: once we know the true cost of some actions, the right action might be not to do them at all.

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