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Nature as natural capital: an illustration of the concept

Joss Blériot, head of editorial and content at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, considers how the international biodiversity conference in Nagoya put into practice the valuation of nature’s services, a key component of a working circular economy.

If diversity is strength...

One of the principles of the circular economy is that we should use insights from living systems to design systems that work and sustain themselves.

Life has constantly adapted to survive and thrive, it’s been going on for more than 3 billion years yet somehow we seem to have gradually moved away from its basic framework, forgotten how important the restorative ‘nature of nature’ is. Did the International Biodiversity Conference held in Nagoya in October help get us back on track?

Our current model generates waste, takes chunks of precious finite resources and turns them into downgraded by-products which are at best useless, at worst toxic. Nature does not do that, and does not see waste as anything other than food for the next cycle… What’s more, it relies on a large variety of species, systems and organisms that allow it to withstand external shocks, because diversity equals strength. This is precisely why the deal reached at the end of the international biodiversity conference in Nagoya recently should be given the credit it deserves.

Now before we go into further detail, let’s make one thing clear – granted, the agreement reached could have been more legally binding and bolder in its objectives. There have been many critical views voiced since its publication, and several observers have pointed out that international institutions put much more effort into protecting the model that destroys ecosystems than the ecosystems themselves…

The purpose of this article is not to analyse the outcome of the conference in detail or individually judge its results, but to outline the importance of the principle it actually put to work: the evaluation, in monetary terms, of nature’s services, which has been called for by many experts for years.

Algae biofuels, algae-based pharmaceutical products, minerals...Algae biofuels, algae-based pharmaceutical products, minerals… the real challenge is to find a way to “use and not use up”. Nature must be seen as capital to build, not to deplete for short-term profit. (Photo: Joss Blériot)

It would be easy to let that crucial part of the deal go unnoticed, under the radar, to only focus on the ‘sanctuaries-creating’ effort. In fact, one needs to consider both aspects are intertwined, as Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman put it:

“The new agreement states we will take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of habitats and species in order to ensure that by 2020 our natural environment is resilient and can continue to provide the essential services that we would otherwise take for granted.”

Contrary to what a lot of people think, it was not about flying representatives of 190 or so countries to Japan in order to safeguard a handful of exotic flowers no one has ever heard of – alleviating some of the pressure biodiversity is under must not be mistaken for a simple conservation effort, it’s not about trapping a few areas of outstanding natural beauty under a thick coat of varnish to make sure they never change. It might sound a bit caricatural, but that view is more common than one might imagine – the real goal is to try and protect the balance of the whole system by taking care of its parts, whilst at the same time acknowledging its real economical contribution.

If diversity is strength – to add another founding principle to the mix – allowing it to dwindle amounts to consciously letting the living systems that support us weaken, while we should be doing exactly the opposite: building natural capital. Surely, if we are going to learn lessons from living systems, we want to have as many sources of inspiration as possible….

So why is it that looking after nature, its resources and the services it provides us, is often seen as an anti-progress stance? Probably because, as Michael Braungart puts it, our industrialised society has destroyed the environment so much – for short-term profit – that we now compensate, with a guilt-induced desire to do as little harm as possible (once again, the ‘do less’ motto is at work). And of course, this won’t lead us anywhere, as it merely delays the inevitable.

But if you think the Nagoya biodiversity agreement is an effect of that process, think again, because arguably for the first time an international convention looked further than the simple decorative qualities of nature and actually put a value on some resources and services – not to lock them up in a vault, but to give them the respect they deserve, to make sure they can continue to thrive, remain an asset, and a source of inspiration for a better future. Now go tell Eben Bayer, the mushroom-packaging inventor that imitating and working with nature is not a progressive way of looking at things, and see what he thinks…


This article was originally published on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation blog.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working with education and business to inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a sustainable future.

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