Debating “Natural Capital” in Scotland

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Nick Dearden speaks before members of the Scottish Parliament at 'Natural Capital, Managing the Risks" forum (photo: P.M. Lydon | CC BY-NA)
Nick Dearden speaks before members of the Scottish Parliament at ‘Natural Capital, Managing the Risks” forum (photo: P.M. Lydon | CC BY-NA)

A few nights ago, Flavia Salvador and I had the opportunity to sit in on a discussion about nature and ‘managing the risks of natural capital’ at the Scottish Parliament, hosted by politicians Patrick Harvie and Jamie Hepburn.

Politicians talking about nature? I was prepared for a dry and/or depressing talk centered on business as usual… but apparently this isn’t how Scotland rolls when it comes to the environment.

The panel discussion began with a debate between Jonathan Hughes of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and Nick Dearden, Director of the World Development Movement, and then opened up to the floor with guests from varying corners of the ecological, economic, academic, and nonprofit worlds, Final Straw included.

The debate essentially centered around whether or not we should use private interests and the global financial market to help curb ecological destruction. Global business seems to favor this approach, while many others obviously have trouble accepting it.

This is a largely ignored — or at least misunderstood — topic, and yet it is one which is in dire need of clarity. With the exception of a few whose heads are buried far too deep in the sand to see much of anything, the majority of the world has come to understand that we simply can not continue practicing business as usual without regard to the environment.

This notion however, needs to be taken further, to the point where nature is the center, and business is the periphery.

Policy Centered on People and Environment

The fact that a nature centered conversation was happening in a forum such as this should give us tremendous hope. To sit down with government in a talk about the importance of nature and to hear the room passionately yet honestly discuss it in a way which is not centered on industry and profit was something I couldn’t have imagined seeing in any political forum. This speaks greatly of Scotland, yet it needs to expand from here and from other similar places.

This kind of conversation desperately needs to be happening all over the world.

The environmental agenda has been taken hostage by big business and industrial profit-driven interests. This is beyond dispute. You will see it at every international ecological forum.

When most governments or environmental non-profits sit down to talk about ‘saving’ the planet, this discussion is either framed in context of — or worse, centered directly on — how industry and big business can continue. The delegates wax poetic about how ‘innovation’ and ‘technology’ can enable us to save ‘enough’ of the planet while still maintaining our current lifestyle.

Mitigating environmental destruction while continuing to increase consumption and profit is not an issue that deserves to be talked about right now, let alone a world forum dedicated to it.

Sorry folks. We’ve far passed that point. Innovation and technology aimed at profit making has not brought us to where we need to be. It’s time to aim our innovations (and most everything else we do) at a different target.

When the United Nations sits down to talk about environmental concerns, they use weak words like ‘mitigate’ and ‘reduce’ when it comes to slowing environmental destruction, and in the same sentence, utter words like ‘growth’ and ‘profit’ when it comes to economy and industry. If you are a forest or a traditional agrarian community, this is an unhelpful conversation at best. If you are living in a modern, industrialized nation, it is convenient, yet still a contradiction in terms of the greatest magnitude.

Mitigating environmental destruction while continuing to increase consumption and profit is not an issue that deserves to be talked about right now, let alone a world forum dedicated to it.

Changing Politics and Business at Usual

And so it was refreshing, for at least a few hours of an evening, to sit down in a cozy form at the Parliament, and to hear reasoned voices from both sides of the argument talk about the environment and yet keep focus where it should be, on the environment.

On this night, Nick Dearden called for us to take political and community decisions out of the hands of the financial market, and to limit the power of big business in procuring environmental resources.

From the pro “natural-capital” camp, Jonathan Hughes offered the argument that nature conservation has failed, proposing that it’s time we handed the process over to the free market, and time we sat down to discuss the “true value” of nature in monetary terms.

Two rebuttals to this argument seemed particularly on task:

  1. Invoking a system of “natural capital” is like saying that since we haven’t succeeded yet in conservation efforts, we may as well give up and hand control of the issue over to the banks, corporations, and financial markets.
  2. Once you put a price on something, someone will come up with the money to pay for it. That someone won’t be a local indigenous tribe, it won’t be a polar bear, it won’t be a politician. It will be a company with billions of dollars. Look at who owns the wealth today, and you’re looking at who will own nature in the future if something such as ‘natural capital’ becomes an established standard.

At least for now, people and governments still have some control over the environment.

Currently however, many of those in positions of power — politicians, corporations, and the largest of our advocacy and conservation groups — are all equally making a mockery of the environmental discussion.

I think I heard a lone tree sigh in relief last night then, when Patrick Harvie, MSP, ended the panel by saying that we need to “fundamentally change the kinds of people who make these decisions.”

Amen, Mr. Harvie.

At this point, there is no excuse for governments across the world not to have made both people and the environment the center of their policy and actions.

If your politicians aren’t doing this, they need to be replaced by those who will.

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