Let's stop talking about "natural capital", nature is priceless!

Over the past ten years, an increasingly dense network of actors and organizations has promoted the idea of ​​“natural capital”. This would be the key to sustainable development, in particular by allowing to express conservation issues in terms that economists, politicians and CEOs understand.

Au recent World Conservation Congress, held in September 2016 in Hawaii, natural capital has been ubiquitous, with the launch to great fanfare of the Natural Capital Protocol and the announcement of a new coalition aimed at developing the financialization of conservation.

On the website of Natural capital forum, the concept is described in these simple terms:

“The food we eat, the water we drink, and the materials we use to produce fuel, equipment or medicine. "

The two main arguments are based on a lie

This example is based on the assumption that the concept of “natural capital” can become the foundation of a sustainable economy. But the two main arguments of this program (nature can be seen as capital and provide services, and this capital can become the basis of a sustainable economy) are based on lies; lies that will worsen the negative effects of our globalized growth economy, not counter them.

Illusory "green growth"

Labeling the food we eat and the water we drink “natural capital” only makes sense in the context of our economic growth. In this context, everything must be able to be considered as “capital”.

It is then necessary to clarify the true meaning of this word. In everyday language and according to certain economic theories, capital is sometimes seen as a "Stock" or as a set ofworkers. But it is more correct to see capital as a process, a dynamic. It's about investing money (or value) to earn more money (or value). In short, capital is value in motion.

Capital, in a system of capitalist economy, is therefore never invested for nothing. The goal is always to get more money or more value than what was originally invested. Otherwise, it would not be capital.

There is nothing innocent about the shift from "nature" to "natural capital"

It follows that the shift from the notion of "nature" to that of "natural capital" is not an innocent change of terminology, which would consist in using a new expression to mean the same thing. Rather, it is a reconceptualization, a fundamental reassessment of nature. For the proponents of natural capital, nature works for capitalist growth - which is then called "green growth", according to one sweet understatement.

If the shift from the notion of nature to that of natural capital is problematic, it is also because it presupposes that the different forms of capital - human, financial, natural - are equivalent and interchangeable. In practice - although proponents of natural capital vigorously deny - this means that everything must be able to be expressed by a common and quantitative unit: money. But the natural elements, which are inherently complex, qualitative and heterogeneous, as these same supporters acknowledge, cannot be translated into quantitative and homogeneous monetary units.

In addition, there is a fundamental contradiction between the limitlessness of money (we can always generate more money) and the limits of natural capital (we cannot always change more money capital to natural capital).

The notion of natural capital is inherently anti-ecological

The notion of natural capital is therefore inherently anti-ecological and has little to do with valuing nature, or making its value tangible. It is a form of exploitation of nature which aims to enhance and legitimize a declining economic system.

Negligible investments

Research shows that markets for natural capital and ecosystem services are failing

The other postulate of the supporters of natural capital is to claim that it helps to lay the foundations for a sustainable society. In practice, however, it is evident that most businesses and governments are unwilling to invest in natural capital. So even if one sticks price tags on natural elements - knowing that it is impossible to determine the total value of nature - a recent research shows that the markets dedicated to natural capital and ecosystem services are failing. In reality, they are not markets at all but rather disguised grants.

In addition, private investments in natural capital are negligible compared to investments in unsustainable economic activities. These activities are much more profitable, and represent a much better form of capital or "moving value".

When Ecuador, for example, called on the country's government and companies for the conservation of the Yasuni protected area, investment promises remained well below what we hoped forand the actual investments were still much lower than what had been announced. Result: the country now allows companies to drill the park to draw oil.


On the other hand, claiming that natural capital contributes to make the value of nature tangible is a hypocritical argument. The value of nature is clearly visible to investors: they know that destroying it is much more profitable than saving it.

Destroy under the pretext of protecting

Natural capital leads to destroy nature under the pretext of protecting it
Even more alarming, natural capital leads to the destruction of nature under the pretext of protecting it. Programs based on natural capital generally offer compensate for the destruction of nature, this destruction generating the funds necessary to invest in its conservation. According to the logic of natural capital, investments in unsustainable economic activities are therefore “offset” by equivalent investments in sustainable economic activities.

In theory, this practice should lead tono net loss - or better yet, to a net positive impact on nature and biodiversity. In reality, it leads to an untenable contradiction by inducing that nature can only be conserved if it is first destroyed.

But, as we mentioned above, this is a virtual problem because the real investments in the conservation of natural capital are insignificant. Worse yet, companies typically invest a lot more money in powerful lobbies to keep environmental regulations in place. bare minimum. If they sincerely believed in the profitability of nature conservation, they would be less inclined to continue this lobbying.

The angry questions

Natural capital is not a realistic way to integrate nature into the economy or to make its value tangible
The conclusion is clear: natural capital is not a realistic way to integrate nature into the economy or to make its value tangible. It is a dangerous illusion which aggravates and legitimizes the environmental crisis. And if some believe in its potential, most of those who drive the current economic system know full well that talking about natural capital is illusory. But by promoting this notion, they also know that more important questions about the logic of our economy and who benefits from it will not be asked.

Isn't it time to get out of an economy based on a growth fetish? which has nothing lasting ? Shouldn't we be thinking of building an economy focused on people, nature and equality rather than on financial investment intended to create ever more wealth? Shouldn't we be banking on an economy centered on the quality of life rather than the quantity of growth?

With a little imagination, the answers to these questions are not only simple, but also pragmatic, logical and truly lasting.

Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher
Wageningen University

La original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.

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