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.

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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.

Government, Society and Business – People Organisations

Dominic Lawson, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has a good go at attacking Corporate Social Responsibility – CSR. His claim is that business (to paraphrase Milton Friedman) is there to make profits and reward shareholders and it is to Government (through the taking and use of taxation) that goes the rigors of social responsibility.

Lawson’s simplistic assessment of business in society (the article is a reaction to David Cameron’s speech at the Business in the Community awards last week) fails to understand the complexity of the economy and society and the role of the three main parties involved in making the economy and society work.

From his article, anyone would think that there are only two parties in charge – Government (hopefully, elected) and business. Underneath, there appears the mass of the population – deriving their income from either one or the other and buying the means to life and living from one or the other.

What is forgotten in this simplistic overview (and a short article is all Lawson has to work with, so some excuse there, I guess) is that society is not just made up of the two leaders and the proletariat underneath. Society is a complex mix of individuals, groups, associations, lobby groups, small businesses, medium-size businesses, large / multinational businesses, local government, regional government, national government, export markets, importers, international governments – the list goes on.

Lawson’s simple simulation of reality misunderstands society in the same way that economics misunderstands economics. Macro and micro-economics stand uneasily in the same story (for economics is more a story that a science) and have never coalesced.

Business in itself is complex. Recent arguments over bonuses have shown how managers (in a business world where ownership and management are widely separate) have managed so often to take the profits out of the business before shareholders (now operating primarily through a secondary marketplace or via agents such as pension plans – themselves run by managers, themselves divorced from ownership and direct responsibilities) can obtain what Milton Friedman may have believed was rightfully theirs.

This complexity is expanded hugely in relation to business’s relationship with the society that provides them with their reason to exist. Market economics (and I am pro the market economy – any centrally driven economy is doomed) required businesses to be within a complex national and international environment and for governments (operating on behalf of the people) to ensure that they act properly.

This means that government have to ensure that pressures on business allow them to be competitive nationally and internationally BUT that society’s needs are properly considered as part of the trade-off for all the other protections and benefits offered. The latter includes education, infrastructure (roads, railways and the like), banking system, laws that work.

So, while outside the City of London businesses don’t get a vote (the fact that they still do in the City is not just a 19th Century throwback but one much older) they get a huge lobby through trade associations like the CBI. This influences governments of all types and makes the Dominic Lawsons of this world lose sight of the complex, adaptive world in which we live.

The fact that certain companies or their leaders cozy up to the CSR community is rather a cheap, anecdotal simplification in a complex world where businesses, like all “living” things, have to continuously adapt to meet the changing environment and conditions they find themselves in. Society is highly complex and the over-simplification (which we all love to do because we can then mislead ourselves into thinking we understand the issue as a result) too often leads to decisions that are completely wrong.

We live in a complex society where we have to make changes that reflect the complex mix of the various parties involved. There is no such thing as “business” – it is made up of many strands and people and interactions. Governments set the laws and implementation, only people can work within them. Businesses are mere technical constructions that people form – people then have to live with other people. They have to make the decisions not some artificial construct called a business – no matter how we construct its form in law.

Lawson seems to believe that people don’t exist – or, if they do, that major organisations have a precedence. For so many reasons, he misses the complexity. CSR may not be the answer, but it is an attempt to develop relationships between organisations of people (businesses) with others (local communities, consumers or whatever). People and people – not some simulation of them.