Another Life: Counting values for nature as well as GDP

Michael Viney: In 1961, I watched above Keem Bay as one of the last of thousands of basking shark was slaughtered by fisherman’s nets

Once upon a time, the value of a basking shark could be reckoned as the worth of the oil to be extracted from its liver. In 1961, by chance, I watched from the cliff above Achill’s Keem Bay as one of the last of thousands of the great fish was snared and slaughtered in the fishermen’s nets below.

Earlier this month, the basking shark was admitted to protection under the Wildlife Act, a long-delayed response to those who admire and study this huge and harmless gulper of plankton. Along with a certain return from eco-tourism (boat skippers, scuba divers, B&B ), its value is to an ocean ecosystem and this island’s array of biodiversity.

That either can have value assessed for the national economy may seem improbable. But each part of the natural world renders service to human survival and comfort. Its existence and welfare can be measured as a natural capital asset.

In the United States last month, president Joe Biden’s administration unveiled a 15-year plan for creating statistics alongside those for Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that shows how the nation’s natural assets are faring. It will measure change in forests and wetlands, ocean ecosystems and the quality of the air pepe breathe.


GDP has dominated economic reporting across the world for more than seven decades. But, in a little-publicised agreement last year, UN member states adopted a new statistical framework that takes into account the contributions of nature, when measuring economic prosperity and human wellbeing.

As UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said hopefully: “We’ll no longer be heedlessly allowing environmental destruction and degradation to be considered economic progress.”

“Natural capital accounting” is now also a concern of the EU Commission. It includes Ireland among the growing number of member states embarked on their own initiatives.

The most obvious of these, and independent of Government, is the non-profit company Natural Capital Ireland (NCI), founded in 2014. It brings together university academics, NGO leaders and individuals enthused by the natural capital agenda.

With biodiversity treated as a national asset, an immediate aim is to protect it by enforcing existing laws. “The biggest transgressor of environmental law,” the NCI says bluntly, “is the State. Noncompliance is rife at all levels of society, from Government noncompliance with EU laws down to wildlife crime by individuals.”

A NCI survey of Irish Times readers found strong concern for pollinators, high approval of local green spaces with lots of different flowers, and willingness to pay taxes for pollinator protection

It cites 14 cases currently open against Ireland for infringement of EU environmental law and the failure to reach legally binding targets agreed under water and marine directives, and the Common Fisheries Policy.

Natural capital, says NCI, is “an economic metaphor for nature”, framing the world’s resources like plants, animals, water and minerals as assets or stocks that yield a flow of benefits to people. But moving “natural capital” from metaphor to reality can prove elusive.

In the United States, Yale University bioeconomist Eli Fenichel, a leader in the White House plan, seeks ways of valuing resources such as fish stocks for their future potential with better management. In Ireland, the NCI’s professor Jane Stout seeks a value for insect pollinators that balances their worth to trade with the non-market value to society of flowers, bumblebees and butterflies.

In a research report for the Environmental Protection Authority (Report 291), a team led by Dr Stout identified pollinator services, national and global, as worth up to €902 million a year to Ireland’s food production and trade.

But a more holistic measure must include non-market values. A NCI survey of Irish Times readers found strong concern for pollinators, high approval of local green spaces with lots of different flowers, and willingness to pay taxes for pollinator protection.

There are some who have a gut reaction against putting the natural world into anyone’s capitalist portfolio. Their views have been voiced in the UK, for example, by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot.

“The notion that nature exists to serve us,” he argues, “that its value consists of the instrumental benefits we can extract, that this value can be measured in cash terms, and that what can’t be measured does not matter, have proved lethal to the rest of life on Earth.”

He was commenting on a 600-page report, The Economics of Biodiversity, commissioned by the treasury from a Cambridge professor, Sir Partha Dasgupta. This argued against perpetual growth, and urged global policies that put a value on natural assets and meet the hidden costs of ecological damage.

He saw beginnings in China’s Gross Ecosystem Product and New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework. But he urges transformative global change in attitudes to nature on a scale to match the economic Marshall Plan that followed the last world war.

That was all in the fading months of Boris Johnson’s premiership. Today, with the most nature-friendly minister of recent years, Michael Gove, well out of favour, the headlong pursuit of growth once again rallies the capitalist, aright in the island next door.