Let’s get out and enjoy nature.
Most of us have uttered similar words or fashioned similar thoughts, before a walk or a bike ride, a camping trip or bird-watching. It’s an understandable phrasing, given the contrast between our workaday lives and the alluring charms of forests, mountains and oceans.
But it’s also misleading phrasing, because it subtly positions us as separate from nature. The truth is that we are very much a part of nature, and nature is part of us.
The dependency runs deep. Yes, nature provides us with recreation and rejuvenation, but we also rely on it for food, water and shelter. Nature regulates our climate, generates the oxygen we breathe, produces medicines that heal us, and stores waste we generate whether it’s plastics or carbon dioxide.
Nature, in other words, is an asset — natural capital, just like roads and buildings (produced capital) and knowledge and skills (human capital) are assets. And nature, like all assets, must be managed.
We humans have been lousy managers of our human capital, according to a new study on biodiversity and economics commissioned by the British government and produced by Cambridge University economist Partha Dasgupta. That has ominous implications for the future of our race.
Nature, like any asset, has economic value, Dasgupta says. Think of it as a bank account — one we’ve overdrawn. Because while we know the value of our buildings and roads, we have not assigned a value to nature. It’s free. And thus, we think of nature as being infinite. We can take what we want and not worry about replacing it.
The data support him. Produced capital per person doubled from 1992 to 2014, human capital rose 13%, but the stock of natural capital per person plummeted by nearly 40%, ravaged by human farming, fishing, logging, mining and burning fossil fuels. The degradation can be measured by extinction rates. They’re 100 to 1,000 times higher than the historic baseline; 20% of species could be extinct in the next few decades. That’s a huge problem since biodiversity in nature — like stock diversity in a retirement portfolio — leads to productivity, resiliency, and adaptability to shocks. Weaken nature, we weaken ourselves.
"Estimates of our total impact on nature suggest that we would require 1.6 Earths to maintain the world’s current living standards," Dasgupta wrote.
No matter how advanced we become technologically, we’ll still have only one Earth, and our living standards and population are rising. Absent corrective action, that 1.6 figure will rise, too. No wonder Elon Musk and others are looking to the moon and Mars as new sources of resources.
Technologies that let us get more from nature will be important, but they won’t be enough. We have to learn to share with other nations and change our consumption and production patterns. So re-use and recycle become not just ways to keep stuff out of landfills, but ways to manage our stock of natural capital. Dasgupta has more novel ideas, like paying nations to conserve rainforests and other critical ecosystems, and charging fees for using common resources outside national boundaries, like our oceans.
If nature is an asset, it’s also the inheritance we leave our children. For millenniums, nature has given humans their prosperity. It’s up to us to invest in it, to make sure it’s there for them, too.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.