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Gretchen Daily on the economic value of conservation

She says that if we can see the economic value of conserving our natural world, we will integrate nature in economic decisions.

If we can see the economic value of conserving our natural world, we will integrate nature in economic decisions. That’s according to Gretchen Daily, conservationist and director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.

Gretchen Daily: More and more conservation, as we think about it as conservation for the 21st century, is emerging as an effort that integrates human and natural well-being and seeks to harmonize those things.

She calls it “natural capital” – extending the idea of economic capital to the beneficial goods and services humans get from nature, such as bees that pollinate crops, freshwater for farm irrigation, and marshes that protect coasts from storms.

Gretchen Daily: We invest in physical capital, all of our physical infrastructure. Well, why not invest in our natural infrastructure?

She said that as the wealth of nature is disappearing from the planet due to human demand, more and more people are thinking about how it’s critical to preserve nature for humanity’s future prosperity. Daily said that in the past, conservation was seen to be in conflict with human development. She said that today, conservation is working to integrate human development with nature.

Gretchen Daily: It’s time to think very strategically about how to invest in natural capital to ensure that we maintain and help develop further really prosperous and sustainable ways of life across the world. The neat thing about what’s happening today is that people from all walks of life are recognizing the critical need to integrate understanding of how people depend on earth’s life support systems on our living natural capital; what kinds of conservation investments are needed if we think about environment as a type of capital that supplies us with a stream of benefits we depend all on for our economic prosperity.

In other words, the environment provides humans with tangible benefits for society. Daily mentioned, for example, the massive flooding that occurred in China in 1998 due to deforestation. She said deforestation elevated the flood risk in the Yanghtze River Basin. The flooding affected and killed thousands of people downstream from the deforested area. After the flooding, China began thinking differently about the value of forests in the landscape.

Gretchen Daily: There are massive investments being made now in China in shifting livelihoods from certain kinds of farming to more stable perennial crops and forests, to maintain that aspect of the natural capital of those upland river systems.

She added that conservationists themselves are getting smarter about how to get other people on board with conservation goals.

Gretchen Daily: We’re becoming more clever, and more sophisticated, about how to run with people, how to integrate people and human well-being into conservation activities and investments.

Lindsay Patterson

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