A new report from the Natural Capital Initiative celebrates 10 years of collaborations in the effort to rethink how society values the natural world.

In 2009 the American ecologist and evolutionary biologist Guy McPherson said: “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money.” In the past 10 years, the economic value of nature has become more apparent, and we have been leading participants in the discussions around this through the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI).

At the NCI’s recent Valuing our Life Support Systems 2019 summit, over 180 scientists, policymakers and practitioners discussed how to better manage and protect our natural, rural, urban, and marine environments. If you want to seriously consider what the value of nature to our economy, health and happiness is then we hope the resulting summit report and ideas for future work will be of interest to you.

The world’s existing economic models have not worked for nature, and so our natural environments have continued to decline, but it is already clear that it is not just the economic frameworks we need to consider; it is also social, scientific evidence and governance.

Since the first Valuing our Life Support Systems summit a decade ago, interesting new areas of research and policy as well as practical work have emerged. In 2019 the conversations ranged from using artificial intelligence and the internet of things for the environment, to efforts to build governance and research partnerships around land and water management across boundaries and landscapes.

Social sciences are entering the scene more actively too. Discussions at the summit highlighted the different values underpinning natural capital conversations, as well as the value of including different people and disciplines in research.

Keynote speakers and panelists challenged participants to think about the ultimate aim of a natural capital approach and an optimistic question: what if we achieved it? Do we only want to protect biodiversity or nature that brings benefits to people? Can natural capital approaches help us make difficult choices between consumption, land use and nature protection? Could AI and blockchain be solutions to tackling the scale and complexity of the influences that produce environmental challenges?

The summit also discussed what progress has been made and what the priorities for future work should be. There were signs of a new spirit of collaboration, too – truly interdisciplinary collaborations where different knowledge (and disciplines like arts, social sciences, psychology) are equal, we talked about disciplinary excellence, communication, respect and building relationships.

In terms of policy, the summit called for whole system thinking that sees the connections, for example, between food, land use and conservation, and the tradeoffs and their (often uneven) impacts on people´s lives.

This requires long-term thinking, which brings us to the young people too. We talk about future plans but less about who are going to be implementing them in the future. So we should be engaging with young people and involving them in our work. One speaker pointed out that there is no intergenerational equality if we are not prepared to make a change ourselves and let the young people be part of our work now too.

Communicating the complexities of the challenge, possible solutions and the networks of people involved requires innovative approaches. In one of the final sessions, participants dived into the world of theatre to try new communication techniques for better listening and talking to each other.

Ultimately the health and wellbeing of people, as well as the environment, is what is at stake. Hopefully the new insights gained by bringing committed experts together again for our latest summit should encourage further collaboration to effectively value nature.

Read the report here.

This article first appeared in the special anniversary edition of the The Biologist, October 2019.