Tag Archive: natural capital







Reprinted from Grist in it’s entirety:

Hey, remember the woman threatened with 93 days in jail for growing a garden in her front yard? She could have a cellmate! Dirk Becker of Lantzville, British Columbia turned his scraped-dry gravel pit of a property into a thriving organic farm, so of course he’s facing six months of jail time. Why? Well, the thing is, this farm was full of DIRT. You can’t have dirt in a yard! It’s unsanitary.

The Beckers were cited under Lantzville’s “unsightly premises” bylaw, for having piles of dirt and manure on the property. As the Beckers wryly point out, the letter came on the same day that 8,000 compost bins were distributed to residents in their region. So, to recap: Gravel pit: not unsightly. Beautiful farm with dirt in it: unsightly. Fertilizer in bin in kitchen: civic responsibility. Fertilizer actually out fertilizing: filth!

As it turns out, Lantzville has a bylaw that residentially zoned plots can’t grow food at all — even the no-dirt kind! — whether or not they’re farming commercially. The Beckers’ 2.5-acre property is zoned as residential, so they essentially are not allowed to eat anything that comes out of their garden. Ah, local government, always improving lives.

There’s a particular ironic wrinkle in Becker’s case:

This issue impacts all of us on Vancouver Island. Many of you are aware that only 5% of our food supply is grown on Vancouver Island, thus 95% is imported. It may shock you to know that there is only two days fresh food supply on Vancouver Island. That means, any disruption in ferry service, trucking or problems at the US border (75% of BC’s food comes from California) would have a dramatic and immediate effect on our food supply.

In other words, these garden-hampering bylaws are a terrible idea for more than just the usual reasons. In the event of even a minor emergency, a law-abiding Lantzville could be starved out with a quickness.

This case has been dragging on since 2010.

Former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt has something very important to say…to President Obama. He delivered a rally cry from the National Press Club podium on Wednesday challenging the President to stand up to the radically anti-environmental policy dominating The Congress these days, while also managing to offer actionable solutions. His speech is so powerful and so constructive it’s really worth a read in its entirety. It’s all too rare to hear this level of candor and actual information from the mouth of a politician these days. Here’s an excerpt of some of the juicy bits!

More than a hundred years ago, Rep. John Lacey (R-Iowa), made this observation: “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.”

It is now more than ten years since I left public office. I am returning to the public stage today because I believe that this Congress, in its assaults on our environment, has embarked on the most radical course in our history. Congress, led by the House of Representatives, has declared war on our land, water and natural resources. And it is time for those of us who support our conservation tradition to raise our voices on behalf of the American people.

As these attacks escalate the urgent question for those of us who support and advocate for our conservation tradition is how to respond.

One alternative is to lie low, hoping that this storm will soon pass by without too much lasting damage.

Failure to respond, however, is a form of appeasement that has not worked in the past and it will not work this time. Our adversaries prefer to operate in the shadows, outside the sunshine generated by public knowledge and participation. For our opponents know that when anti-environmentalism becomes a public issue they will lose. They know that American support for our environmental heritage is wide and deep.

There is no issue as lasting or as worthy as the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage. Theodore Roosevelt, more than a hundred years ago, put it this way: “We have fallen heir to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

Retire the GDP

We need to stop trying to measure progress by calculating the worst our society has to offer.

Extensive research has revealed that the dramatically escalating consumption of the last half century has brought no increase in the satisfaction levels of Americans. According to Manfred Max-Neef’s “Threshold Hypothesis” when macroeconomic systems expand beyond a certain size, the additional benefits of growth are exceeded by the attendant costs. (Max-Neef 1995.)

And as Elizabeth Kolbert eloquently illuminates in the New Yorker:

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.

And this is all to say nothing of the actual dollars and cents value of the contributions of nature to our fiscal progress. Whether you’re using the GDP or something more realistic, you can’t discount the $33 trillion per year (in the 1990’s) that nature contributes to our economy (as calculated by Robert Costanza and other theorists of natural capital). Researchers arrived at the figure by analyzing 17 specific areas of contribution by the natural environment, including water filtration, pest control, pollination and erosion control among others.

So what are the alternatives? Measuring and evaluating our progress as a society is important work and we don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water”. Enter the Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI. Developed in 1995 by a few geniuses in California, it was promptly and whole heartedly endorsed by about 400 other geniuses (Nobel laureates, economists, business leaders etc) in the following joint statement:
Since the GDP measures only the quantity of market activity without accounting for the social and ecological costs involved, it is both inadequate and misleading as a measure of true prosperity. Policy-makers, economists, the media, and international agencies should cease using the GDP as a measure of progress and publicly acknowledge its shortcomings. New indicators of progress are urgently needed to guide our society…The GPI is an important step in this direction.
The creator of the GDP himself even warned of its limitations:
The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.
A group in Nova Scotia currently working towards a shift to the GPI astutely observes
The things we measure and count — quite literally — tell us what we value as a society and determine the policy agendas of governments.
The GPI may not be the last word in progress measurement, but it is certainly a more complete indicator than what we’re currently working with. The group in Nova Scotia has this to say about the scope of the GPI
The GPI system and framework is based on a capital accounting framework, in which the value of human, social, and natural capital are recognized along with the manufactured and financial capital that are currently measured. Like conventional capital, this human, social, and natural capital is seen as subject to depreciation, and requiring re-investment in the event of depletion or degradation. Based on this approach, the GPI assesses the economic costs of liabilities like crime, pollution, sickness, and natural resource depletion, rather than counting defensive expenditures in these areas as contributions to prosperity (as current measures do).
At this point, it’s safe to assume that as the GDP increases the actual quality of life will be decreasing. What does that say about the relevance of financial capital to social capital?