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.

Easter and Eostre, Germanic goddess

This post was written in 2013 – pre-Brexit and Trump, before we realised how plastic was killing our oceans, when the northern white rhino was not extinct. It’s about value over volume, about the quality of life over the quantity of life – the sort of thing we should consider at the start of Spring or even at Easter-time.

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In the Christian tradition, it is Easter – named after Eostre, the Germanic Goddess of Fertility and Spring. It is that time of year, when we look for growth all around us. Yet, more prosaically, mention growth to most and we talk about recession and how ironically the current German goddess (Chancellor Merkel) is not so keen on helping those in need around the periphery of Europe.  She wants them to help themselves.

Growing Pains

Michael Heseltine, Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher, who recently provided a report to the UK Government on the regeneration of English cities that David Cameron and George Osborne have welcomed , told The Independent newspaper on Saturday, March 30, 2013 that: “the richer you get the less imperative there is” for people “to drive themselves”.”

BBC Radio 4 followed this up with a debate on Saturday’s Today programme between Mariana Mazzucato (an economist) and Terry Greenham (from New Economics Forum – NEF). Terry ended by calling for more quality rather than quantity in how we measure “growth” – that GDP as a measure was flawed.

Our Affluent Society

Back in May, 2012, I posted “The Affluent Society and Social Balance” which looked back at the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith (author of The Affluent Society) and wrote about how mindsets had not changed since he wrote the first edition in 1958. Quantity was still valued over quality – economics was still all about more things, not more quality of life despite our (developed world) ability to acquire so much stuff.

I spelt out four areas for concern as developed nations seek to address further “growth” requirements. They were characterized as follows:

Forty years ago, five, major elements were missing from or only sidelines in Galbraith’s analysis – issues which have become more central over time and which complicate the prescription that Galbraith proposed: They are repeated below:

1. Globalisation

2. The errors in GDP accounting – quantity vs quality

3. The Environment – valuing quality

4. Civil Society – ending the private vs public sector spat

5. Social Balance

1. Global Trading

The world is a different one from 1958 or even 1973. We trade globally and the developed nations increasingly use labour from the undeveloped nations to do low-cost, manual work (often in conditions we would not tolerate in our own countries). It is a 19th Century state of work but internationalised– where now, international companies tend to operate as the mill owners of old.

From a micro-economic sense that is understandable – each company is different and many act responsibly. However, from a macro-economic viewpoint and from an international political viewpoint, there are limited mechanics for equalizing health and safety laws let alone education and pay scales.

Galbraith’s concern was that we produced too much and that we should be able to make less in a country like the USA. When the work goes international, the responses to the problem have to as well.

2. Production by numbers: quantity versus quality

In an affluent society, production is made the cornerstone of all we do (the economy is central to all our decisions) because work is needed to secure income. Even in an affluent society, income at a certain level is deemed to be critical. Products of progressively less use (or utility) are sold (often solely on the back of advertising) and we buy them and this is meant to keep us in work and more buying goes on.

Of course, in an international labour market, that won’t always work (as Gandhi found out in the early 20th Century when England produced most of the cotton garments sold in India) and it has become harder to focus just on one country.

However, the global economy does not mean that products become more useful – much of what we make is simply wasting energy and resources. However, it is keeping people in work in many developing nations.

But, growth is measured by GDP and GDP is a poor measure of quality of life or even production. Quality of education, for example, is measured in GDP by its cost (an input) not an output. A £500 handbag is deemed worth the same as £500 worth of essential foods – no difference in utility is assessed.

The felling of a rare tree is “valued” at the cost of felling or its price in the market as a table. The value of a river is missed completely – unless over-polluted when its clear-up costs may enter as a cost in a nation’s GDP.

It is production by numbers, quantity versus quality.

3. Environmental Balance

While mentioning the issue of environment, the main topic of “The Affluent Society” is the social balance between public goods and market production. All these are made by people – so, the environment in which we live is ignored. The trade-off is not, of course, that simple (even though the Galbraith trade-off has never been seen to function). The environmental trade-off (our need to maintain our natural capital) is now being understood but remains relatively hidden in economic debates. Natural capital needs to be brought into any debate on affluence in society – our quality of life as opposed to the quantity of life.

4. Civil Society

To Galbraith, the game is between the market and the public sector and to most, this battle still exists as the only one. There was not much mention of civil society – where most of us spend most of our time – except through discussion of leisure time. Here, the trade-off was between productive working and spare time. I expect that this assumes that all non-productive time is spent on hobbies or watching TV.

The creativity and value of civil society – a huge array of organisations from sports to international development, from charities to women’s institutes – is normally missed completely by economists and thinkers on society. The problem is that it does not fit easily into econometricians’ computer simulations: more of the “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist” syndrome.

Of course, for centuries, people have been undertaking “good deeds” – the history of the 19th Century is full of examples of charitable activities. However, society is changing fast and as politics loses its appeal for so many (with parties genuinely fearing for their future), the role of civil society is growing and, in affluent societies, taking back more from the state that it lost to the state in the 20th Century.

This escape from the centre is to be applauded, but needs to be better understood.

5. Social Balance

Complete reliance on the market or on the centre (libertarianism or communism) may still appeal to some. The reality is that complexity is the norm. Society is a mixture of competing ideas and competing structures – out of which we muddle through and where individuals take centre stage and form organisations to make their voice louder.

Nevertheless, we should learn from history and our mistakes. Centrism is a doctrine of the defeated; totalitarianism a doctrine of the damned. There is no one answer but a constant mix of opportunities that society provides and where changes are constant in the way we answer our problems.

The mix of competing answers does no longer rest between public and private sector in an affluent society – that is a 20th Century doctrine or response. The response now has to take into account the social balance we want from our lives between products, social value, natural capital and civil society relationships in a global context not a rigidly national one.

This means being adult about the causes of change and grown-up about the challenges – it means being international in approach and understanding the complexity of the problem – not something that can be understood wholly by quantities or computer simulations.

As we grow materially (i.e. through the quantity of products we are able to manufacture) and bump up against the troubles of environmental degradation and massive disparities of wealth and conditions (on a global scale), the question to be addressed is how does a complex society best form itself to take the decisions it needs to maximize the value we all give and receive from this “affluent society”.

So, should we Give up on Growth?

Terry Greenham of NEF would propose (as does NEF) that this is what we have to do. As the developing world strives towards economic well-being as described by growth of GDP (gross domestic product), the developed world should (in NEF terms) re-balance the lives of their people so that quality is maximized and quantity is stabilized.

Of course, all our measures and motivation focus on quantity. Homo sapiens have developed over 100,000 years to seek food and shelter and the more the better. However, following Maslow (Hierarchy of Need), humans aspire to more than just “stuff” and as we gain wealth, the majority want more that is not measured.

A salutary valediction from The Independent’s Michael McCarthy (Environment Editor) today after 15 years with the newspaper, showed a pessimism that the human race could wake up to the qualitative disaster that it was causing in its rush to quantitative growth. Governments have responded with nothing in this debate – transfixed as they are by the glamour of GDP statistics. Heseltine is the first senior Conservative in the UK to state the obvious – that being the fastest growing economy is not necessarily what we all want. GDP is, in reality, meaningless as it fails to measure value as outlined above. A tree is not worth the amount it costs to fell and transport; a river is not worth just the cost of keeping clean – they have value beyond this that is not within the bounds of GDP.

Businesses, operating in the micro-economy cannot be expected to make the change – they are set up to benefit their shareholders and adjust to cultural and legal pressures (usually with some degree of resistance).

It ends up with Government having to lead. In very few nations is there an understanding of the problems that faces us – the race to grow GDP. Most completely misunderstand what GDP measures (and that includes most economists – centred as they are on econometrics the simulation of economies that reflect the 19th Century reality not the 21st Century’s).

We need to establish measurement (if that is how we work best) of the Gross Domestic Value  –  GDV  –  where Value takes over from product (things).

In this way, CO2 in the atmosphere can be valued; that tree being felled can be valued; humans can better value their time given back to society.

We should not give up on growth, but growth of value not product or income (based on the wrongful simulation of salaries, costs and sale prices).

National Value or Gross Domestic Value should become the target – not how many products we have. The question is whether there is a drive and energy to establish an understanding of what really is important or whether (as economist Georgescu-Roegen said in the 1970’s)

“Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence. Let other species — the amoebas, for example — which have no spiritual ambitions inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine.”

Michael Heseltine is only partially right. There is a limit to the drive and push people have to continuously get more stuff – but, there is probably no limit to our drive for more value. Michael McCarthy is, maybe, too pessimistic – we can drive human growth through value not products – GDV not GDP.