Photos: Pat Tehan (L), Gretchen Daily (R)
Even before Muir “clung with muscles firm braced” to a treetop to ride out a storm, the conservation movement often fell into a problematic niche as a movement of passions rooted in solitude and wonder and magical wilderness experience. Many ecologists find that niche comfortable rather than problematic—they are in this field because they are sun-struck in love with the marvels of the natural world. But as environmental predictions grow ever grimmer, we recognize that those traditional pathways and constituencies are inadequate to drive change on the scale required to avert disaster. Few have done more to move our cause from its nature-loving roots and onto the center stage of global policy than Dr. Gretchen Daily.
Raised by an American military family in West Germany, Daily traces her earliest conservation sentiments to first-hand observation of the die-back of great German forests because of acid rain. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she began to link the rich ecology education she pursued under biologist Paul Ehrlich and the perspective of Ken Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning economist. The concept of natural capital emerged from her circle of colleagues, professors, and students, and it revolutionized the conceptualization of sustainability. Natural Capital conceives of ecosystems as a class of assets at least as important as (and directly comparable to) economic and physical assets. Today the concept, and related ones such as ecosystem services or ecological economics, are so fundamental to our field that it is difficult to imagine a time that the idea was new. But in free-wheeling, wine-fueled evening conversations after busy days at the university, Dr. Daily was in the mix as the idea was born.
Her attention immediately moved from the abstract and theoretical to the practical, and she has spent decades at the forefront of the revolution that changed the missions of environmental NGOs and led them to reconceive of the paradigm of preservation of wild nature. In field work in Costa Rica, she was present at the start of that government’s revolutionary policies to establish payment for ecosystem services. Many saw these ideas emerge, but she recognized them for the seismic shift that they were, and under her leadership, the idea has blossomed into the foundation of billions of dollars of conservation investment and laid the basis for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Her edited volume, Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems and her ongoing Natural Capital Project lay out a systematic, shareable approach and universal language of natural capital and ecosystem services. Her work advances along four goals: to integrate and advance the science that underpins natural capital, to create compelling demonstration cases around the world, to make these first two globally accessible and actionable through powerful, free decision-support tools, and to convene leaders empowered to drive change at the highest level. Dr. Daily’s genius in this field has been her personal leadership and ability to bring together NGOs, scientists, and decisionmakers into a coalition of hundreds of institutions. Today, 185 countries use the tools she and her team created. Breaking down the silos among these sectors and uniting fractious conservation organizations required the diplomacy, integrity and patience that made the difference between Dr. Daily, a biologist and beloved professor, and Dr. Daily, a pioneer who has led a revolution in our field.