The Arts & Humanities Research Council - which has now agreed to fund discussion, networking, research, and an art exhibition dedicated to the issue of Nature vs Natural Capital
Considering questions like these, and researching their implications, is something the official grant-giving body for social science research, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) might be expected to fund and encourage, but so far at least they have refused to do so, preferring to get on board the "nat.cap." bandwagon and play down any worries about the validity or consequences of the concept.
However these issues are being seen differently in one of the other academic research councils - the Arts & Humanities Research Council - which has now agreed to fund discussion, networking, bits of research, and an art exhibition dedicated to this increasingly important topic, providing an innovative space for critical perspectives outside the economic orthodoxy.
The project starts in November (2016), and will be led by Rupert Read at the University of East Anglia, together with Aled Jones and Victor Anderson at Anglia Ruskin University. It provides an opportunity to question the "natural capital" bandwagon, which is increasingly shaping the ‘Green' thinking of many governments and some companies. It is said, for example, to be the key concept underlying Defra's new UK 25-Year Plan for Nature.
The debate about "natural capital" starts from a dilemma. On the one hand, seeing the natural world as a collection of "pieces of natural capital" all of which can each be valued in monetary terms may be the most effective way to get the environment taken into consideration in political decision-making processes which are dominated by economics. Many ecologists and conservation biologists (who perhaps should know better?) have climbed on board the natural capital bandwagon on the basis that it is "the only show in town" for those who want to protect the environment.
The other horn of the dilemma is that by calling the natural world "natural capital" and by seeing "valuing" it as about putting a monetary value on each "piece" of nature - and by thinking that the natural world consists of such "pieces" when the essence of ecology is that everything interacts with everything else - we are involved in a misrepresentation of how the world actually is and a highly misleading way of assessing the significance of its different parts and aspects.
This looks like a conflict between pragmatism and principle, but (as usual) the issues are more complicated than that.
Our new project - currently called "Valuing Nature", (we're still looking for another name) - is drawing together a range of people from different backgrounds to look into both the central dilemma and some of the less obvious complications.
Given the range of people we hope to involve, we don't expect to arrive at the end of the 18 months of the project with an agreed set of conclusions that everyone has signed up to. But we do hope to clarify and communicate the issues and difficulties involved and all be more aware of just what is hidden there in those two words "natural capital".
I will be blogging regularly as one of The Ecologist New Voices about how we get on with this task.
Victor Anderson is Visiting Professor at the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, UK. He is the author of Alternative Economic Indicators and worked as an economist for the UK Sustainable Development Commission. Victor.firstname.lastname@example.org