Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's so natural about natural capital?

A recent study - "Changes in the global value of ecosystem services" - has found that the value of the world's ecosystem services - the benefits nature provides to society, like the ability of wetlands to stem flooding - is somewhere in the neighborhood of $145 trillion. That is, without a doubt, a lot of money. It's in fact much more than the global economy as currently accounted for produces. In statistics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) we count everything from the value of goods like cars to services like haircuts, and while we generally count the goods that nature provides, like timber and food, we've so far consigned the counting of nature's services to academic papers.

An important chunk of the $145 trillion is the $12-47 billion Louisiana wetlands generate in lessening the impact of storm surges, providing habitat for commercial fish species, and sequestering carbon dioxide. Worldwide, wetlands - and in particular, coastal marshes - are the single most monetarily valuable ecosystem. However, in Louisiana, they are being lost at a rapid rate because of oil and natural gas development, sea level rise, and levees along the Mississippi River that prevent sediment from settling out in floodplain marshes and building new land. In Gaining Ground, a study outlining the value of Louisiana's wetlands (featuring Bob Costanza, lead author of the "Changes" paper) researchers found that restoration of wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta could increase this ecosystem's asset value to $62 billion. The report's authors write:
"natural systems tend to appreciate in value rather than depreciate and fall apart as built capital does....natural capital is self-maintaining and lasts for a long time; it is fundamentally different from built capital, which deprecates quickly and requires capital and maintenance costs."
Similarly, as a write-up on the "Changes" paper put it - in pivoting from a point about the cost of flood protection levees raised by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina - "And while it’s expensive to maintain man-made defenses, wetlands rebuild themselves."

What we get from both viewpoints is the sense that nature, as natural capital, does all this unpaid work for us. A wetland is like a factory worker: it gets up in the morning to go to work soaking up carbon dioxide, coming home at night to rest and reproduce itself for another day. Even better, it's a worker that only gets better with age. Natural capital, it seems, is any good businessman's holy grail: it's an investment that is self-valorizing.

But, really? Despite protest from area fishermen, any major restoration of the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is likely to feature diversions of sediment from the river through engineered breaches in levees, projects that are expected to cost up to several hundred million dollars each. The 2012 Master Plan, a document written by Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to organize the state of coastal science and direct funds towards specific restoration sites, acknowledges that any large-scale restoration of the region's wetlands won't work without using the river. Sediment diversions are intended to harness the power of the river to do work building wetlands, but harnessing is a far cry from self-maintenance. Restored wetlands simply won't exist without the upkeep and ongoing operation of diversion megaprojects - built capital to be sure. It's equally naive to assume that wetlands will maintain themselves without legal efforts to prevent further degradation. Such efforts would be directed at stemming climate change and minimizing if not eliminating the ongoing impact of the oil and gas industry from spills and subsidence.

So is natural capital long-lasting, as the Gaining Ground authors suggest? With the right amount and kind of sediment input, wetlands do build themselves over time in relation to the sea level. Louisiana's Master Plan predicts diversion projects could provide decades of land-building. Even more forward-looking, scientists have determined that there is enough sand in the Mississippi River basin to build wetlands for at least 600 years. On the other hand, other projects are not so resilient. Some parishes in Louisiana are creating new marshes by dredging and piping up material from the bottom of the Gulf. But given current forecasts for irreversible sea level rise, these wetlands are expected to last only 20 years, perhaps functioning fully for only 5 years. Everyone knows it, but the short-term payoff from these massive engineering projects appears worth it.

In short, natural capital is not so separate from other other kinds of capital, like built capital. As the authors of Gaining Ground acknowledge, the restoration projects proposed in the Master Plan do not amount to "a cut-the-river-loose scenario." What they do amount to is a set of hybrid infrastructures that blur the lines between what we typically think of as natural and social. And even when the Mississippi does get cut loose, or rather, cuts itself loose, it may work against capital. A couple of years ago, a crevasse opened up in a levee south of New Orleans, delivering freshwater and sediment to flow into nearby marsh ecosystems. It is the Mississippi's first distributary to form in several decades. This is about as close to "natural" capital as one gets: the river is autonomously rebuilding coastal wetlands (though to deem it natural, you'd have to overlook the fact that it's breaching at the spot of an old spillway). But in the process, the crevasse has flooded several roads the oil/gas industry needs to access wells. The industry would rather have the breach fixed, while environmentalists say this is the very kind of thing the Master Plan calls for, except that it didn't cost a dime to happen. As the director of CPRA reflected, “If we can benefit the coast for ‘free,’ we would like to do that." That is the holy grail after all: a self-valorizing investment, or what Karl Marx called "free gifts of nature to capital." But... “The challenge is making sure that we are making decisions with our eyes open." That means making sure natural capital works for the oil/gas industry. The question that has to be asked here is not how much natural capital is the so-called Mardi Gras Pass creating, but under what conditions do ecosystems become capital? What is the line between an ecosystem service and disservice and who decides?

"Capital is a process not a thing," geographer David Harvey notes in his recent review of Thomas Piketty's miraculous hit of a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (To see how far the natural capital concept now reaches, just look at one of the last chapters of the book, where Piketty adopts the term. He essentially rehashes the Stern Review point that money invested now to fight climate change will pay off in the long run.) For Harvey, Piketty's asset-based conceptualization of capital - as inert and static pieces of stuff (cars) or discrete services (haircuts) plucked out of the world and made valuable - is inadequate. Capital is always in motion - it has to be, since for Harvey (and Marx) it is "a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money." Nothing can be capital unless it is being used productively.

Nature, then, simply is not "natural capital". In an early and influential paper on the value of ecosystem services, Gretchen Daily, alongside Nobel Prize-winning economists Kenneth Arrow among others, declared, "the world's ecosystems are capital assets. If properly managed, they yield a flow of vital services..." Similar sentiments are to be found throughout the green accounting realm. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an EU-funded program promoting ecosystem services amongst decision-makers, wrote in their initial report on the first page in big bold lettering: "Maintaining stocks of natural capital allow the sustained provision of future flows of ecosystem services." But both Daily and TEEB get the formula backwards. Ecosystems are not capital with maintenance costs, much less self-maintaining capital, as the Gaining Ground report suggests. It is only after ecosystems are "properly managed" that they become something resembling capital, and then only if they work for capital. Marx already had hinted at this: "Natural elements entering as agents into production, and which cost nothing, no matter what role they play in production, do not enter as components of capital." It is only when they are labored upon that " a new additional element enters into capital." Realizing the potential $62 billion in asset value from Louisiana's wetlands does not mean harnessing some pre-existing, natural capital, but investing in infrastructure to produce nature as capital. It requires assemblages of what we usually consider separate social, or human, (engineered diversions, legal mandates) and natural (sediments, Spartina grasses) things to work. Our long-held distinctions between what counts as "natural" and what counts as "social" simply aren't helpful to understand the important work of ecosystems.

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