Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Lifelong nature lover Steve Polasky says we need to add the value of clean air and water to the balance sheets.
Why can’t someone fix the world already? Temperatures are rising; fish, animal, and bird species are going extinct faster than we can count; and drought wracks the Western states. And we know all this! Is there just something about people that, when given the choice between driving fast in a Corvette while coughing themselves to death or riding a bike slowly and pleasantly, compels them to leap for the Corvette? Even if it’s too late for the moose (Minnesota’s lost 60 percent of them in the last 10 years), the Carteret Island people of Papua New Guinea (relocated because of rising seas), and Mount Everest’s glaciers (gone within a hundred years), surely someone, somewhere, can figure this out. Is this rocket science? Do we need to bring in rocket scientists?
“It’s not rocket science,” laughs Steve Polasky, an economist at the University of Minnesota, a former staff economist to President Clinton, and one of the few people on the planet who the World Bank, the Chinese government, our government, and companies like Unilever call when they want to figure out how to stop destroying the world and, in some cases, start fixing it. “Every time one of these things happens—a lake is messed up and fish can’t live in it anymore, land is polluted with heavy metals because people put them there and the groundwater is poisoned, you name it—it never seems like rocket science because it isn’t. These are the consequences of decisions made over time, nothing more.”
Since Polasky is among those making actual progress to fix these problems, I’m forced to take his word for it over lunch at a Korean restaurant in St. Paul: not rocket science. So, what is it? Economics, he says, but not just GDP, jobs reports, and currency fluctuation. Polasky is a professor of economics and ecology at the U of M, which lured him away from Oregon State in 1999 after hearing about his work in a new interdisciplinary field that shows how human decisions alter nature and how changes in nature affect our well-being.
Today, his most impactful work is being done through the small but influential Natural Capital Project, which he co-founded 10 years ago as a partnership between Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the U of M. Governments, NGOs, and businesses hire NatCap, as the group is known, to essentially calculate the worth of nature to humankind and factor that into decisions related to development and other projects. Long, complicated story short: NatCap takes reams of data, analyzes and calculates, and then reports its findings to the globe’s top-level decision makers.
Putting a dollar figure on nature is a revolution in thought as well as bureaucracy. Consider it: What’s a coral reef worth to Ecuador? How much is clean drinking water worth to China? What’s a lemur worth to a villager in Tanzania? NatCap is able to answer these questions, making previously invisible forces visible. For example, a researcher using NatCap’s software figured out that in Minnesota, being able to see your toes when you’re standing in the lake is worth a pretty penny—tourists are willing to spend an extra $22 per meter of lake clarity when picking a vacation destination. In 2011, NatCap’s math showed that it would be cheaper for the Chinese government to pay to relocate two million-plus people off disaster-prone mountainsides in the Shaanxi Province and return those areas to wilderness than it would be to develop them to give residents basic services like roads and fresh water.
In South America and Central America, more than three-dozen communities have implemented NatCap-partnered “Water Funds” whereby watersheds that provide clean water have been identified and preserved through methods like fencing and reforesting. Ongoing preservation efforts are then supported by funds generated from residents paying for the water. NatCap’s logic: It’s way cheaper to protect a watershed than to build a water treatment plant. In Tanzania and Rwanda, NatCap helped generate a valuation of a mountain range called the Eastern Arc Mountains, where hundreds of endangered species live and more than 4 million residents of Dar es Salaam get their water. And as of this writing, Polasky was about to get on a plane to Rwanda to help the country figure out how to achieve the standard of living its citizens want, while preserving nature, ensuring safe water and clean air, sequestering carbon, and fostering biodiversity.
To a lifelong lover of the outdoors such as Polasky, it seems odd that it took until the past decade for humankind to start adding the value of clean water and breathable air to the balance sheets. The son of a law school professor, Polasky grew up in Michigan, a devoted runner, hiker, biker, and paddler of canoes. He discovered economics in college while casting around for a major, and then fell in love with it because it unified so much. Yet, it wasn’t long before he began to wonder about the value of biodiversity. While working in academia, Polasky met Gretchen Daily, a Stanford biology professor who was starting to think about economics at the same time Polasky was moving toward ecology. “I remember thinking, finally, a kindred spirit,” says Polasky. He and Daily began collaborating unofficially—and that was the seed that grew into NatCap.
To show why economic values must be attached to nature, Polasky offers a thought experiment: “Suppose Martians land tomorrow. They get out of their spaceship and say, ‘We want to buy the Earth, how much money do you want?’ The answer is, ‘There’s no price. We have no way to live without it, so it’s not for sale.’ [But] what if those Martians have the biggest guns, and they say, ‘How much will you give us not to blow up the Earth?’ The answer is, ‘Everything we’ve got. All of human-made wealth.’ What value would wealth have without the world?”
In other words, when the life support functions of the Earth are threatened, the time to attach value arrives. Doing so has led NatCap to an astonishing chain of worldwide successes. In addition to those mentioned above, the organization has created a sustainable land use plan for Sumatra (including land for tigers), a fishery and water quality plan for Vancouver, and an economic growth guide for Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia that allows those nations to preserve a swath of original rainforest.
And that’s just the beginning, says Polasky, whose current role with NatCap is mainly that of the big idea guy who shows up at the early meetings and sells the idea to the change agents. In the coming months, Polasky hopes to publish one really big idea: a paper he’s been working on for years titled “Make it Fit.” What is he going to make fit? All of it: the coming population of nine or ten billion people, a good quality of life for all of them, jobs, industry, water, energy, food, air, water, biodiversity—all of it.
“If we keep going as we are, things do not fit,” says Polasky. “What has to give? That answer doesn’t have to be gloom and doom. We know how to feed people. We know what’s required for air quality, water quality, biodiversity. How do we address it all? That’s the Holy Grail.” And according to Polasky, the Holy Grail is well within reach. Just don’t call it rocket science.
*Want to play economist-ecologist for a day? NatCap’s free software tools allow anyone to do the complicated math to value all the stuff in nature. The catch? You’ll need to plug in a lot of data to put a price on, say, the Indian Ocean. Find the software at NaturalCapitalProject.org