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Editor’s Note: Peter Kareiva was a member of the working group that produced the new report by the President’s Council of Science Advisors on environmental capital. The views he expresses below are his and not necessarily the position of The Nature Conservancy.

Every morning I listen to NPR, and they report on what the stock market did. Meanwhile monthly reports on GDP, balance of trade, consumer price indices and countless other economic indices shape the national debate about federal policies and the national debt. But underpinning the United States’ economy is a tremendously productive and vibrant natural system that we who live here are very lucky to have — and yet we lack a careful accounting of the status and trends of our natural capital.

What am I talking about when I say “our natural capital”? Some examples:

  • • The United States has some of the world’s most productive coastal fisheries.
    • While we may be suffering droughts, Americans still have reliable access to clean drinking water that you readily appreciate when you travel to some countries and realize you better drink only the bottled water.
    • Our agricultural productivity has no rival.
    • Our national parks, and scenic rivers and seashores get well over 100,000,000 visits each year.


We all learned from the Wall Street donnybrook what a disaster it can be when we have misinformation about our assets and their value. Misinformation and ignorance about our ecosystems and natural capital could be even more disastrous.

On July 22, the President’s Council of Science Advisors issued a report for which I served as a co-author, calling for a series of efforts to assess thoroughly the condition of the U.S. ecosystems and their economic value. (You can find the full report at www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/pcast.) There is a lot in this report that speaks directly to the Conservancy’s priorities and work in North America, and indeed around the world. Less parochially, there is a lot in this report that speaks to environmentalism and conservation broadly.

If you work for the Conservancy, it is probably because you love nature as a result of some personal experience — I doubt it is based on some abstract intellectual argument. And if you are a supporter of the Conservancy or any other conservation NGO, I bet it is because of similar personal experiences and inspiration. But not everyone has had the experiences we have had that led us into conservation. And everyone has not read the books or taken the courses we took in college. However, everyone — and I mean everyone — lives in an economy and depends on the health of the economy in which they live for their own security. So explicitly tracking the condition of and economic value of our natural systems is one sure way of speaking to everyone about the importance of conservation.

The actual report is long, and like most such reports, neither an easy nor exciting read. But there are a couple of sections that really struck me:

  • There is a compelling section describing the opportunities for large-scale Gulf of Mexico restoration (pages 39-40), as well as its economic value and even the number of jobs that can be created by restoration efforts. Part of the message delivered regarding restoring the Gulf’s ecosystem is the need for regional assessments and priority setting — exactly the sort of geographic analyses that I consider to be one of the most fundamental tools of conservation. I say hurrah for all of my conservation science colleagues who use GIS and spatial analyses to guide our actions and investments. If this report gets acted upon, your skills will become even more important.
  • And then there is a discussion of the need to increase the effectiveness of conservation investments and “return on investment” (pages 47-54). During the housing bubble and age of affluence, perhaps the government and perhaps conservation organizations paid too little attention to whether or not we were getting sufficient value for our investments. But now we get it. Federal agencies currently spend more than $10 billion annually on activities that have as their primary goal conserving or restoring biodiversity and ecosystem services — $10 billion every year.  The report does not say this — but I will: I bet we could spend half that much and get twice as much in return if we used science and data and measures of effectiveness to guide our investments.
And the same applies to how conservation organizations spend their money. Measures of effectiveness and outcomes per dollar spent should become an industry standard for conservation. I hope and expect the Conservancy to lead the way.

Text by Peter Kareiva, Cool Green Science Blog, part of The Nature Conservancy.