Book of the Week: Nature’s Fortune

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Nature is priceless, or at least that is what most environmental activists will tell you. Over the last two centuries, nature writers from Henry David Thoreau to Edward Abbey have fostered the idea that ecosystems occupy a sacred space far removed from the pursuit of modern capitalism. The attitude is deeply engrained in many of today’s environmental activists, for whom the notion of putting a price tag on nature is gauche at best and a dangerous precedent at worst.


But as resources grow scarcer, it seems increasingly prudent to assign natural environments aScreen Shot 2013-04-19 at 10.17.03 AM dollar value. When Ecuadorian officials discovered an estimated $7.2 billion worth of oil under Yasuni National Park, a biodiversity hotspot home to more species per hectare than almost any other place on Earth, they proposed leaving the crude in the ground and preserving Yasuni – if the international community would contribute a little more than $3 billion to offset the lost oil revenue. While some Hollywood stars, a few governments and a handful of private foundations scratched together a bit of cash to preserve Yasuni, most big donors and national governments demurred, leaving Ecuador far short of its fundraising goal. Critics who refused to contribute labeled Ecuador’s request environmental blackmail, but Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa had a different take.


“Because the U.S., U.K. and others can consume the assets generated by the Amazon jungle for free, they have committed absolutely nothing,” he told The Guardian in September.


The idea of looking at the environment as a tangible asset priced in hard currency is central to the new book “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” written by Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams. Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy and a former Wall Street investment banker, represents a new breed of environmentalist equipped with a solid financial background and wholehearted embrace of capitalism. Tercek makes a strong argument that the best way to protect nature is not only to show the business community its inherent value, but to express that value in dollar terms. Ably assisted by Adams, a science writer and conservation biologist, Tercek asks environmentalists to embrace the language of finance when expressing their conservation goals.


“Concepts such as maximize returns, invest in your assets, manage your risks, diversify, and promote innovation are the common parlance of business and banking,” the authors write. “These are rarely applied to nature, but they should be.”


Tercek and Adams explore a number of case studies, ranging from watershed management in the Andes to cooperative fisheries in California, to demonstrate how adopting a more businesslike attitude toward nature can benefit both the environment and the economy.


“Nature’s Fortune” is a compelling argument for a more useful approach to environmental issues, and at its heart, the book’s message should not be controversial. To put Tercek’s and Adams’ ideas into effect, businesses would have to adopt a more holistic, long-term approach – a posture not always welcomed by investors scanning quarterly reports. Environmentalists would also have to begin viewing the world at least partly through the lens of capitalism, something long held to be anathema among many parts of the movement. But perhaps the biggest challenge will come in convincing people and businesses to recognize and shoulder the long-term costs of environmental damage by paying to protect nature. “Nature’s Fortune” argues that the best way to protect the priceless natural world is by recognizing that nature can be a high-performing asset.


Courtesy of Brasil2 (iStockPhoto)