Biohabitats’ Leaf Litter
Vol. 4 Number 4

Thoughts on Natural Capital

The idea that a produced good has commercial worth is relatively easy for us to understand. A pair of jeans, a bottle of wine, a piece of equipment…each is a tangible item with an assigned and accepted value. But what about the goods and services provided by natural systems? What is the monetary value of services like carbon cycling and water filtration? Can price tags be applied to fresh air, clean water and green spaces?

According to renowned ecological economist, Dr. Robert Costanza, the answer is yes. In his commonly cited paper, The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital (Costanza, R., et al. 1997. Nature 387:253-260), Costanza and his colleagues concluded that the world’s ecosystems were worth $33 trillion – and that was in 1997. This study and its applications, along with the growing body of research and projects attempting to link ecology and economics (including Dr. Costanza’s current work at the Gund Institute) suggest that natural capital could be the key to conserving and restoring Earth’s biodiversity.

Yet as you’ll see in the results of our reader survey on natural capital, some of you do not believe it is possible, practical or philosophically appropriate to assign monetary value to the goods and services produced by nature.

Whether you see natural capital as a catalyst for economic transformation, a guiding light on the pathway to better land use decisions, or an elusive, idealistic concept, one thing is certain – it is a topic worth exploring.

Join us as we talk with Dr. David Tilley, an ecological engineer at the University of Maryland’s Environmental Science and Technology department. Dave is deeply involved in exploring the use of “emergy,” or embodied energy, as a tool in ecosystem valuation.

Kevin Heatley of Biohabitats ISM applies the concept of natural capital to tree conservation in his article The Money Tree.

See how your colleagues are applying natural capital to their work in their survey answers. Read about how we are working with others to preserve natural capital on two university campus sites.

We hope this issue of Leaf Litter generates thought, discussion and hey, maybe even some new research on natural capital. For further exploration, we encourage you to explore our recommended resources.

As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have comments you’d like to share with us about this or any other issue of Leaf Litter, please contact our editor.

Further Reading

Meet Landscape Designer Emma Podietz
Get to Know Ecologist Caroline Hildebrand
Get to know Water Resources Engineer Nate Wadley
Biohabitats Senior Engineer & Practice Leader, Erin English, on the Rewilding Earth Podcast
Meet Integrated Water Resources Engineer Helen Little

More From This Author

An Oasis in the Most Unlikely Place
Learning from Hurricane Sandy
Thoughts on Soil
Thoughts on Stakeholder Engagement
Biohabitats on the Passaic River