28 September 2005

And the Poor Shall be Rich...

In a meeting I attended last week in Monterey, California, much of the talk centered on ecosystems services and how to account for them, how to factor them into the mix for conservation action, and their impact on the poor.

How curious to note, then, that only the week before, on the floor of the UN, the environment minister of Costa Rica was making similar comments and selling the concept to a group there gathered.

Maybe there is something in the air.

The concept of ecosystem services -- the life-sustaining properties and protection provided by nature -- has been kicking around for more than a decade. Only now, it seems to be getting some traction.

Countries like Costa Rica have unparalleled natural riches; this is undeniable. That we should economically quantify the contribution of such natural services as clean water from watersheds, flood and storm control from coastal wetlands and barrier islands, greenhouse gas reductions from forests and grasslands is not a new idea. But there is a new twist.

Where ecosystems services are concerned, it turns out the poorest are richest.

As The Economist (17 Sept 2005) says, "When natural accounts are expanded to include not only 'produced' wealth (goods and services), but also intangibles (such as knowledge) and especially natural wealth, they reveal some interesting patterns."

Now the World Bank and others, such as Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, that environment minister from Costa Rica, are calling for a new accounting to measure a country's economic welfare, a sort of "Green GDP," in the words of some.

It's been tried before, most notably in the macro-scale by Robert Constanza and other authors of a controversial Nature article a few years ago, but never (to my knowledge) on a country by country basis.

"If all environment ministers abandon tree-hugging in favor of such talk of profit and loss," The Economist notes, "Mr. Rodriguez's dreams may yet come true." That may be a long time coming, maybe too long to outrun the herd.

And there are still many a naysayer in the environmental community who would eschew any such valuing nature. They believe nature has "intrinsic value" and argue we should be altruistic in our efforts and our goals.

Wiser minds than mine have pointed out that "profit trumps altruism" every time. Maybe it's time to cede the bean counters the floor, and give profit a chance. Then the meek shall inherit the true wealth of nations.

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