Being Cynical about Natural Capitalism

A Cynic “Knows the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing” – Oscar Wilde

The World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh from 21-22 November 2013. This was around 18 months after the Natural Capital Commission was set up in England – see my earlier note on this.

The stated aim is to develop a way of costing the natural environment. In Scotland, the host for the Forum, the Scottish Wildlife Trust stated this as:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.

Now, I am sure that all those accountants, business people, academics and so on are completely transparent about the not just perceived benefits but also the pitfalls of accounting for natural assets. I hesitate to criticize my own profession (yes, I am a qualified accountant) but the relatively simple task of accounting for profits, business assets, transfer prices, taxation, royalties, inflation, shareholder value and the myriad of other pricing mechanisms is an industry in itself.

Valuations of properties and land values (land which is marketable) are very difficult; valuations of anything is except in key market driven areas. So, before we consider whether everything should have a price, can everything be priced?

Pricing in the eye of the beholder

Michael Sandel has written vividly about the dangers inherent in pricing everything. The market continues to stretch itself to many aspects of our lives – to everything a price. Oscar Wilde described a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Well, maybe it is time to be a little cynical. The Greek Cynics such as Diogenes believed that humans should be rid of worldly goods and live as close to nature as nature intended.

To them, “natural capitalism” would be a paradox and if the word “cynic” has been usurped to mean one who distrusts others’ motives (a somewhat jaded negativity), then it is still worth us having a good look before we hurtle into the world of valuing nature – purportedly to enable it to survive.

The problem for us all is that we (humans) seem to respond automatically to numbers. Whether it is GDP or wages and salaries or league tables or baseball and cricket statistics or KPI’s or health targets or bankers’ bonuses, the human mind seems to adopt numbers as the common language. This has had ridiculous consequences.

We now actually believe that Gross Domestic Product calculations are a real and meaningful simulation of the value of our existence. We may note that GDP rose when the BP oil spill was in the headlines because of the way that GDP is counted. We may know that GDP rose enormously when the Viet Nam War was in full flight – a rise in our prosperity at the time when so many were dying. We may note lots of things and then discount the “knowing” as we allow our brains to consider only the number.

Just like economic theory is a very poor simulation of reality, using numbers to simulate life is very difficult and a very poor approximation of reality.

Pricing is in the eye of the beholder. When there are many of the same item and large numbers of buyers, then prices can be developed that (at a particular time) can be adjudged reasonable. A day later and the price will change; a bit more demand and the price may rise if the supply stays the same or there is no alternative; a bit less demand and the reverse – all other things being equal (which hey never are).

Yet, pricing is the underpinning of the marketplace and serves its purpose – allowing us to satisfy demand through the pricing mechanism. Where it is less workable is where the market is not large enough or where the item being priced is unique.

For a work of art, this does not matter too much. Such a work of art as the Francis Bacon triptych which recently sold for $142m or the $58.4m for a Jeff Koons painting potentially hurts no-one but the wealthy buyer should the price collapse overnight. Anyway, no one will be revaluing these works until they are re-sold. While the loss to public exhibition may be a shame (if they are kept locked away) it is not a tragedy.

For our natural capital, there is a different set of criteria.

Valuing quality

 Traditionally, major projects have used a form of cost-benefit analysis. Prices or costs are provided to each part of a project and the benefits calculated overall. In this way, countless projects (corporate and public sector) are continuously appraised.

Recently, the HS2 rail project proposal in the UK has been treated in this way. HS2 is a plan to link London to the north of England by a £50 billion investment programme (which some think will rise to £80bn) – to speed up rail links and to provide much more capacity. In this way, it is believed that significant benefits will accrue to the northern towns (although many see the benefits accruing to London as more northern towns become commuter towns for the capital).

As Frank Ackerman (an Environmental Economist) wrote in 2008 in an excellent paper for Friends of the Earth that there are six major flaws with cost-benefit analysis that he calls:

  •    Pricing the priceless
  •   Troubling Trade-offs
  •   Uncertainty and Precaution
  •   Distorting the Future
  •   Exaggerated costs
  •   Partisans and Technicalities

His paper warns against the simplistic tendency of cost-benefit analysis – its atomistic view of the world (a world of numerical opinions – usually slanted towards where the answer is directed to be).

The alternatives to simplistic cost-benefit analysis include one (the precautionary approach) that approximates to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s antifragility proposition – or at least an approach tending to resilience.

The inclusion of natural phenomena and the benefits that accrue from them into a numbers game is a tremendous risk. It suggests that we hurtle towards some valuation methodology because we are caught up in the spirit of pricing everything. Yet, we don’t hesitate enough to consider the ability of the valuers (those who make the key assumptions which drive the computations) – which include those who work backwards from decisions they want taken to those who are inadequate in their assumptive judgements.

It is normal for large projects to overrun in terms of cost by two to three times and most large projects overrun substantially on timescale. This means that basic projects cannot be properly valued – how difficult is it to put a price on our natural capital and use those calculations in determining how we use the natural resources / capital? It is not our ability to compute that is at question – it is a mix of our ability to ask the right questions, to set the right assumptions and to reason on a qualitative basis.

Private and Public (People) needs

The sectors involved in developing natural capital accounting and using them for decisions are naturally coming at this from different directions. The private sector, especially large companies naturally concerned about the long-term sustainability of their businesses, need to evaluate their impact on the environment and on their raw material base in order to see their long-term survivability.

This is an essential survival tactic in a world with limited access to natural resources and where it is understood by companies that their customers are also taking impact on environment (for example) seriously. For almost all businesses, taking account of natural capital is a fundamental need of the 21st Century marketplace but should not be seen as companies becoming primarily societally driven. Accounting for natural capital wherever possible is a natural go-to for business. It sets up an accounting mechanism which, after all, is the basic language of business and which can be used for decision-making and for influencing those decisions internally and externally.

The external decision-makers are citizens – local, regional, national and international – often (not always) represented by the public sector (and, in many countries, misrepresented).

Quantity versus Quality

 

The problem for people (us) is, of course, fundamentally different to those of businesses that are fighting for long-term sustainability and want to manage their use of resources (and look for substitutes) and help the marketplace to view them as 21st Century businesses that are aware of society’s needs. Accounting for natural capital can help to do that.

Citizens (however grouped) have another consideration – the quality of life outside the quantity of goods and services that they can buy.

Quality of life includes good air to breathe and a sustainable climate – items not quite on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or developed in his basic needs structure – which was, after all, originally developed for business marketing purposes.

Government (local, regional, national and international) is our representative – tasked with managing our natural capital to our benefit (along with private owners). The key question is whether Government understands that the issues are not just about how business remains sustainable (a world dominated by GDP) but how the quality of life is sustained for all of its citizens. While this includes key quantitative factors such as economic well being, that is not all.

To citizens, the environmental impact of business misuse is not just an “externality” that needs to be costed into business decisions. These so-called externalities are central parts of our existence.

So, one of the key questions is how to develop a framework that incorporates the requirements of the two sectors – private and public (here being used to define what people need) and the issues of quantity and quality.

 Slide1

Keeping that balance is the key – we should not be overly dependent on the numerically calculative approach as that leads to more goods and services but a natural environment that is depleted not just of raw materials but also the naturally occurring benefits on which life depends.

We cannot completely guard our natural capital either – as that will deprive us of needed goods and services.

Counting the costs and benefits of natural capital may assist in some ways to prolong sustainable business but real leadership on behalf of all of us should understand that counting is a tool – only to be used in certain situations and only as an aid to considered thinking – the use of our human brains in determining qualitative outcomes.

Looking Down from Mount Olympus

With Olympics fervor at its height, it’s tough to resist Homer’s description:

“Olympus was not shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor did snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovered a radiant whiteness.” Homer, Odyssey.

Today, the equivalent of the 12 Gods on Olympus are, maybe, the G-20, or G-2, or the UN or any of the international organisations that are set-up on our behalf.

Or, maybe it’s closer to home – the national heads who make up the EU or the lesser number that make up the EZ; the 100 Senators in the US Congress.

Or, maybe they are the 1% who own 40% of the earth’s assets (financially-speaking).

Or, how about Forbes Global 2000 – the top 2000 of the world’s companies that, between them, account for $149 trillion in assets and employ 83 million people. This compared to McKinsey’s estimate of $212 trillion value of the world’s capital stock in 2011 – a huge percentage.

Icy Slopes

The Greek Gods took their place after a war with the Titans – who ruled before them. Mythology into reality – our new Gods rule in much the same way after a 20th Century where totalitarian regimes fought each other, amongst each and against  democratic nations in bloody conflict. Millions died in China, the Soviet Union, Europe, Vietnam, Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere as different theories of government battled for supremacy.

Francis Fukuyama declared it “The End of History” as liberal democracy supposedly triumphed. We know now that he was wrong (as he has himself declared). For, the winner (for now) was not democracy but a form of capitalism that promotes a new set of god-like creatures and a new Olympus where the wind does not blow and the air is clear. This new capitalism – the complete dominance of quantity no matter what type of government is in power – was relatively bloodless in its conquests, but no less callous in its purpose. Indeed, its callousness is worse than before as it is merely the “invisible hand” that drives the marketplace that has led to the victory of the new Gods.

Now, sitting upon the summit, surrounded by the icy slopes that let few into their circle, they can look down upon the rest in their eco-defended enclave.

How the War Was Won

 

The titanic struggle was won on the back of the primacy of goods – developing the ability for ordinary people to secure their basic material needs and then onwards to “choice” and leisure and luxury. This has been wonderfully accompanied by the ability of business to promote their products so that demand could be developed without the consumer realizing it. This ability to influence demand (so brilliantly described in Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”) has led to a victory of quantity over quality in the West and will do so elsewhere.

The victory was made easier by Governments’ willingness to adhere to the 19th Century economic theories that made “growth” and GDP the concepts upon which all governing was placed – but, placed them in simulations which cannot reflect reality. Mathematicians and econometricians have extended the fallacy – we live for numbers. The evidence for this can be seen so well in Russia and China. For most of the 20th Century, both held out as anti-capitalist bastions as the world moved to strengthen democracy. Neither has succumbed to democracy – Russia is a gangster-elite State, China is a legalist, centralized State. But, both yielded wholeheartedly to the market.

Who Won the War?

Many argue that the democratic West won the war (as Fukuyama attempted to suggest) but this is wrong. The western form of liberal democracy with its desire to provide representative government, elections and low corruption levels (comparatively) as well as supposed access to education and upward social mobility is losing out. It is arguable that even in those countries that still pursue these ends, there is now a vastly worsening separation between rich and poor and a hardening of social structures – with far less mobility.

In China and Russia, elites have won the war and their instruments of war have been capitalist – as their citizens climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of need from the very bottom, quantity of goods is supreme no matter how they are derived. As Jonathan Fenby describes in “Tiger Head, Snake Tails” this is, in China, despite rampant corruption, ecological degradation and vast differences in wealth between elites as well as complete indifference to the vast population when their houses are demolished to make way for new buildings or motorways (for example).

Who Lost the War?

Millions of lives were lost in the 20th Century as nations defended themselves against the onslaught of totalitarianism. But, a new totalitarianism has taken root right beneath our noses.

It is the totalitarianism of the elites that control the markets – markets fed by a constant diet of GDP statistics and growth targets.

The losers are (in Orwellian-speak) supposedly the winners – the mass of the population that has grown “wealthier” throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

So, it seems to be a benign revolution but the problems are becoming clearer by the day.

In Greece, home to Mount Olympus, the country is in its fifth year of recession. In Spain, 24.6% of people are now officially unemployed. In most countries, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is growing steadily.  Economic strains are now working their way around the system as growth (measured traditionally in 19th  Century models) stalls outside of newly developing nations (yet, who believes the measures coming from China?). Today’s youth in the developed west are unlikely to be “wealthier” than their parents in pure GDP terms.

But, we should not be focused on pure numbers. Economic growth is also threatening the ecology of the planet at an alarming rate. Whether or not fossil fuels are near their end, the effects on the planet are growing and recent changes to our weather patterns merely the first signs. Our damning footprint is ever more etched on the planet and real risks are emerging that the life styles we live now may not be available for long. As Rumanian economist Georgescu-Roegen surmised over fifty years ago, maybe we can’t change and will simply go out in a puff of smoke.

Maybe, though, society will not, for ever, tolerate the new totalitarians, the new Olympians.

The Gods were not immortal

 

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The Greek Gods did not survive (except in mythology) and neither will the current ones.

The problem is that we are engrained with the belief that quantity is the key to good life (which it may be up to a point) and have lost a connection with what society is about. Mass production has led to greater wealth but, as Galbraith saw 60 years ago, society cannot be all about quantity.

Maslow, developing his Hierarchy of Need as a marketing tool, expected that we would go beyond quantity to some form of self-actualization. We have definitely not managed that yet but we have some signs that societal self-actualization is possible.

A major problem in the way of this is that different countries are at different stages of economic development. China has a massive population still well down the material scale and there will be no let-up in the leadership’s drive for “growth” to stem the dismay of their people on all other issues. In Africa, the longing for material wealth is as strong and who can blame them bearing in mind the economic and social torment they have suffered?

So, initiatives like Zero Impact Growth being developed by John Elkington and his Volans company are worth considering.

This is an approach to growth with zero impact on the planet and ultimately to give back more than is taken out. Where others seek to quantify (and there are dangers in the approach of quantifying everything), the Elkington approach is to develop a maturity matrix as follows:

Maturity Level Definition from ‘The Zeronauts’ Analogy: Characteristics of a company on that level
No strategy and goals No definition The company barely understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions and hardly reports on sustainability. Furthermore, no strategy has been defined and no targets have been set.
Eureka Opportunity is revealed via the growing dysfunction of the existing order. The company understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions. No considerable actions have been taken yet and almost no strategies and targets have been set. The company does already understand the relevance of the topic though, has started reporting and communicates plans to ameliorate its sustainability performance in the future.
Experiment Innovators and entre­preneurs begin to experiment, a period of trial and error. Although the company has started its first inno­vation efforts and internal programs in certain sustainability areas and has developed initial policies and strategies, no concrete milestones and an overarching future vision have been defined yet.
Enterprise Investors and managers build new business models creating new forms of value. The company has developed a short- to mid-term strategy ( ≤ 2020) for specific areas and has set measureable targets. Nevertheless, almost no long-term milestones have been defined. Furthermore, they do not communicate an over­arching future vision.
Ecosystem Critical mass and part­nerships create new markets and institu­tional arrangements. Measureable, ambitious (zero) targets based on a mid- to long-term vision (≥2020) are set. Nevertheless, a conjoint approach and some collaborative aspects are still missing since the holistic zero impact growth vision has not been (fully) adapted.
Economy The economic system flips to a more sustainable state, supported by cultural change. The company has fully adapted the zero impact growth vision. Measureable zero targets that have been adapted jointly are set out for each field of action. A clearly defined strategy is in place on how to achieve these targets, with defined short- and long-term milestones. The underlying benchmarks are clearly defined.

Maybe there is some fight left and the reality behind the model is clear – we can’t fight the invisible hand but maybe there is a chance for society to develop some self-actualisation behind the corporate drive towards zero impact growth where the planet survives along with humanity.

That doesn’t impact on the gap between the wealthy and the rest as the focus is on economics and sustainability. Inequality is as important a problem as ecology. Numbers should be seen for what they are – where money is one aspect of our lives not the only one. Demos, a UK think-tank has just published: Beyond GDP – New Measures for a New Economy.

It is an attempt to seek a rationale for economics beyond numbers. Briefly it posits that:

  • GDP does not distinguish between spending on bad things and spending on good things.  By this measurement, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “positively” contributed to the economy just like the many good and services that people actually want or need.
  • GDP doesn’t account for the distribution of growth. Our total national income has doubled over thirty years, and so has the share of national income going to the wealthiest households, but average households have seen little or no income gains. GDP doesn’t care if growth is captured by a few or widely shared.
  • GDP doesn’t account for depletion of natural capital and ecosystem services.  If all the fish in the sea are caught and sold next year, global GDP would see a big boost while the fishing industry itself would completely collapse.
  • GDP doesn’t reflect things that have no market price but are good for our society, like volunteer work, parenting in the home, and public investments in education and research.

Two studies that show on this morning after that wonderful Danny Boyle-inspired Olympics night – where values were keenly shown as more than just money – that the slopes of Mount Olympus are slippery but not completely impassable: a Danny Boyle-inspired dose of self-actualisation.