Creating natural capital: restored forest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image credit: J. Pfeiffer
By: Jeanine Pfeiffer, Earthwatch Institute
What if we gave our environment the same wallop of attention we're giving our economy? What if we valued natural capital as highly as financial capital?
The US Congress has passed a $790 billion economic stimulus package. Last November, the Chinese government approved a four trillion yuan (US $586 billion) financial stimulus plan.
The Chinese plan included 350 billion yuan (US$51 billion) for ecological and environmental projects. These projects, according to the Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection, Zhou Shengxian, will emphasize treating pollution and supporting rural environmental efforts and green industries.
In the US, President Obama's administration is proposing a ten-year $150 billion plan to create clean energy industries, green jobs, and change consumption habits. The plan aims to reduce greenhouse emissions, but also includes intriguing bullet points like clean coal technology and constructing the Alaska natural gas pipeline.
Where's the environment - left on the "outside"?
Absent from any of these plans, debates, and discussions on economic stimuli and environmental plans (several million hits on the internet, last time I checked), is a clear focus on our ecology, our natural capital.
Thinking environmentally is not the same as thinking ecologically. In common speak, the word "environment" refers to our surroundings --the "out there" part of our world. An environment can just as easily include tons of concrete buildings, asphalt highways, and diverted waterways as it can include rain forests, furry critters, and mountain streams.
Ecology is a different matter. Ecology implies life and cyclical interactions among natural living things. Ecologists study how organisms relate to each other, how our biological communities are structured, and how our ecosystems function. What makes our biosphere tick. Why our natural world behaves like it does.
When we say the word ecology, we refer to our lands, our waters, our air. Our biodiversity, our natural resources, and the terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric cycles that provide Earth‚s 6.9 billion inhabitants with life. This natural capital drives our financial capital. Without it, we go n-o-w-h-e-r-e.
Ecologists in the 21st century are pretty depressed, in one way or another. We've known that our natural capital has been taking one nasty hit after another ever since the Industrial Revolution. We hear about ecological disasters well before anyone else does, and then we suffer through the "say-it-isn't-so" denial phase while the rest of the world catches up. Climate change, invasive species, killer viruses, oceanic dead zones, we heard it all in conference and seminar rooms years before the media headlines.
So here we are, in the midst of a global financial crisis. A time when too many households, city councils, and governments begin planning sessions with the phrase "we can't afford to (fill in the blank)". It is time, Earthlings, to turn that thinking on its head.
We need to be investing, much more seriously, in our natural capital. Green energy sources, green jobs, and greener consumption habits are a terrific start towards positive environmental change. Interventions and actions that reduce environmental stresses are good for our ecosystems.
But we are not yet thinking like ecologists. We need to be thinking more holistically, and paying attention not only to lessening stressors, or re-channeling energy technologies. We need to be creating an ecological stimulus package, one that proactively and expansively improves life and living on our planet.
We need to be thinking not just about conservation, but about restoration and revitalization. Now, in a time of urgent threats to our global financial AND our natural capital, we need to use our best and brightest efforts to simultaneously invest in both.
At Earthwatch, we're in the final stages of defining our high level goals, our measures of success. We've always been clear on our ultimate mission: a more sustainable environment. But now, in these seemingly bleaker times, we're aiming to go above and beyond everything we've done before.
In addition to our ten-year goal of engaging 50,000 people in scientific research and fieldwork, we're challenging ourselves to measurably enhance natural and socio-cultural capital throughout the globe. We want to see positive, on-the-ground changes in threatened species, cultures, habitats, and ecosystem services.
Earthwatch is investing in our global future by thinking ecologically. You can too. And while you're at it, ask your government to join you.
More on Natural Capital from our archives.
Planet’s Retirement Account Loses $2-5 Trillion Every Year ...
Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins ...
TreeHugger Radio: An Interview with Paul Hawken
Planet Facing an ‘Ecological Credit Crunch’, WWF Says