I’ve spent my life trying to find the algorithm for humans’ relationship with nature. How do we reach net-zero without compromising biodiversity, or consigning people to poverty? How can well-meaning local activities avoid unintended consequences far away? How can governments, businesses, and environmentalists collaborate for human flourishing, rather than blocking one another?
When I worked for Eco-Congregation Scotland we talked about ‘stewardship of creation’, and I promoted WWF’s ‘footprint’ quiz – measuring your impact on earth, to help you tread more lightly. Then, feeling somewhat jaded by the lack of impact the third sector was having, I went off to do a history PhD – but the question of our relationship with nature kept nagging me. I networked and hovered in the space between commercial forestry and conservation, and met some amazing people who were developing ‘Natural Capital’ – the first of four interrelated concepts providing a framework to answer these questions:
Natural capital is simply planet Earth – rocks, soil, water, atmosphere, and all living things – viewed from the specific perspective of its ability to support human life.
Ecosystem services are the revenue of natural capital: food, water, clothes, houses, transport, clean air, health, wellbeing.
Circular Economy is the system of ensuring that in harvesting the revenue we need, we reinvest in, rather than depleting, our planetary capital. This means taking account of everything (Natural Capital accounting), using mineral resources so wisely that they are a closed loop, and ensuring new biological inputs are from systems which are not merely sustainable, but regenerative.
Regenerative production is where farmers and foresters come in. Managing land to produce and restore simultaneously drives circular economy. The land produces food; timber for housing, packaging, clothing and other products; renewable energy; medicines and beauty products. It can also sequester carbon and support biodiversity, and regenerative production is the art of doing doing all of these at once.
Here is that complete model of how humans can live on our crowded planet. The economic model could also be expressed as a philosophical insight: the more you give back to the earth, the more richly it will reward you.
The Natural Capital model structures complex interactions, and links disparate sectors. In practice, it involves extending our accounting to cover not just those flows of goods and services which have financial value, but every change, whether taking or giving, good or bad, we effect on the world around us. This applies to business accounts, farm accounts, third sector accounts, the nation’s or world’s accounts, or our own personal income, expenditure, and lifestyle. Our every breath, every cup of tea, is part of the global carbon and water cycles. There’s another philosophical insight: we are intimately connected to everything on earth.
This is why Natural Capital is such a fast-developing, all-encompassing concept. Carbon payments, pricing nature, scope-three emissions, river catchment plans: many of the strange new initiatives that are poking into undisturbed corners of our activity are outworkings of this new conceptual framework to fix our relationship with nature.
Galbraith is already connected: it’s a people-based company, managing natural resources for the long term, across forestry, land, energy and the built environment, across England and Scotland. It is already managing natural capital, and my role is simply helping structure and align the team’s activities with this emerging economic framework, as governments and businesses begin to participate in it. The excitement at the opportunities it creates is palpable – not just amongst the partners who decided to invest in this new role, but amongst young graduate trainees, traditional farming clients and new investors in land. Global political and market signals are all pointing towards increased importance of Natural Capital approaches, and businesses who want to be on the front foot are driving its implementation.
Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.