“Natural Capital” is a Bankrupt Metaphor

Tom Butler, a writer and conservationist, is editorial projects director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. His books include Wildlands Philanthropy and ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when putting a price on human beings was acceptable. Humans who were owned by other humans didn’t freely volunteer their labor – their “services” were appropriated through legally sanctioned brutality. Such violence was normal.

Today, the idea of human slavery is morally repugnant, but the enslavement of Earth and its countless nonhuman inhabitants is perfectly acceptable. Toilers in the field of ecological economics assign dollar valuations to the labors that nature provides, the “ecosystem services” such as clean water, climate stability, and pollination that undergird human well-being. We strip the world of its wild beauty and diversity through an organized system of brutality, and such violence is not just normal, but celebrated. We call it “progress.”

I don’t mean to offend with this analogy, but to suggest that cultural norms change, sometimes dramatically. The social change movements prominent in recent history – to abolish slavery, enact women’s suffrage, achieve equal rights for people of color and homosexuals – have all worked toward equitable treatment for formally marginalized people. The wing of the conservation movement focused on protecting wild habitats and wild creatures for their own sake (not merely because of their utility to people), continues this tradition of justice-seeking, but expands the sphere of ethical concern to include nonhuman nature.

What drives these occasional intellectual revolutions that bend the moral universe toward justice? Certainly multiple factors contribute, but most notable is language, which provides the metaphors upon which any worldview is constructed. If we speak of other humans as property, we will treat them differently than if we speak of them as, say, our sisters or fellow children of God. If we speak of nature primarily in terms of its ability to provide services to people, we will treat Earth as a resource colony.

Language has great power to either reinforce or undermine the arrogance of anthropocentrism. Thus conservationists need to be careful in how we communicate the overarching problem of our time – the unraveling of Earth’s natural diversity due to human numbers and behavior – and how we speak about our work to combat that eco-social crisis.

Even as humanity lives by the grace of nature, our language generally conveys a relationship of ownership. We speak of protecting “our” oceans or forests. Areas that we exploit for economic gain are “working landscapes.” The living Earth becomes “natural resources” to be developed or “natural capital” to be valued. These metaphors perpetuate the delusion that our species isn’t a member in the community of life but a global technocrat managing commodities.

While it is crucial to educate a populace estranged from nature that human life is possible only because of the ecological context in which we are embedded, I’m wary of the ecosystem services argument. It contributes to a lexicon of commodification that frames the relationship between humans and nature as one of economic exchange, as opposed to intimate interdependence. That’s counterproductive if our long-term goal is to expand justice, which requires that our species become a “plain member and citizen of the biotic community,” as Aldo Leopold counseled.

Despite my wariness, I regularly mention “ecosystem services” when discussing with audiences utilitarian arguments for conservation, including the scenic, recreational, economic, and spiritual values that parks and wilderness areas offer. But I’m careful to follow those human-oriented benefits with the most ethically defensible rationale for conservation: Wild places and creatures have intrinsic value. We have an ethical duty to allow other citizens of the biotic community to pursue their own lives, to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – or the pursuit of snowshoe hares, if we are speaking of lynx.

As an overarching frame for conservation, emphasizing “ecosystem services” is dangerous because much of life may be irrelevant to human welfare. The US population has grown by more than 200 million since the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet were driven to extinction roughly a century ago. Clearly, ecosystems can be diminished and simplified by our actions and still provide enough “services” to support human life.

What greater injustice can be imagined, however, than for our species to hurl other creatures into eternal nothingness? Surely this is humanity’s greatest sin.

The conservation strategy promoted by thought leaders of the so-called “new environmentalism” emphasizes “ecosystem services” and “natural capital,” prioritizes human welfare, dismisses the idea that all species have intrinsic value, and allows that some species will go extinct (because we choose not to alter our present way of living). It stresses human management of the planet by focusing on “working landscapes” and less on protected areas.

This approach seems unethical to me because of its failure to follow the arc of the moral universe. Most troubling is its concession that anthropogenic extinction is inevitable so that the human economy can continue growing. But it is also unwise from a narrowly human-centered view, as it ignores the precautionary principle. No scientist can tell us which threads in the tapestry of life are redundant, which species hold mysteries that might be vital to human welfare.

Renouncing the lexicon of dominion, including “ecosystem services,” and replacing it with an older, more humble language of reciprocity between humans and nature is one crucial step toward treating Earth as a community with justice for all, not a commodity we wish to manage as overseer of the planetary plantation.

For an opposing view, read what Mark Tercek has to say.

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