There is a growing demand from science, from policy and from conservation itself to include people in conservation.

In the meantime, conservationists are still trying to figure out how to best conserve habitats and species and now how to do this with climate change. Now we’re piling on people, too?

But I would argue that thinking people — both how nature serves people but also how to invest in people to better serve nature — can make everything simpler for conservation. At the end of the day, nature and people have the same economic bottom line: survival.  So why can’t we speak in one currency?

We need that universal currency, and not necessarily in the form of a price tag for the services that nature provides — like clean water and clean air.

We need to rethink the way we talk about “value” in all senses: economic, environmental or otherwise.  As historian Eric Zency articulated in a recent New York Times opinion piece:

…this [economic] downturn offers an excellent opportunity to get rid of…gross domestic product [G.D.P.]…a deeply foolish indicator of how the economy is doing.

Zency describes multiple things wrong with the indicator, but the most salient for conservation being that generally G.D.P doesn’t reflect real and complete costs and benefits. Burn fossil fuels by using electricity to dry your clothes and up goes G.D.P. But if you air dry them, conserve our natural capital (i.e. our air), and ultimately enhance our planet’s sustainability…there is no change in G.D.P.

Conservation scientists can help with this problem perhaps not by actually getting rid of G.D.P., but rather by providing the food to fuel the integration of nature’s value in this index.  The problem is: We don’t. Instead, as Thomas Friedman discusses in a recent Times column:

We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems…separately.  The poverty fighters resent the climate-change folks; climate folks hold summits without reference to biodiversity; the food advocates resist the biodiversity protectors.

So, how to value what ecosystems do for us in a way that’s objective, not subjective? I don’t think this value needs to be a marketable dollar value, at least not right away. The first step is to work backwards: Figure out the origins of what people value about nature.

For instance: Water “comes” from a tap. But really, it might come from an aquifer partially fed by surface water streams that come from the snow pack on a mountain range hundreds of miles away. Melt the snow pack or degrade the mountain vegetation so the soils no longer soak the water into the aquifer and suddenly we have no water in our taps — whether we are poor or rich.

So there is value in that snow pack and in that vegetation and in those soils. Admittedly, no one knows exactly how much value and what it’s “worth.” But I don’t think we need an exact measure to integrate the value into our economic accounting systems.

The Nature Conservancy’s water fund projects in Quito and elsewhere in Latin America are a good example of approximating such value. Water utilities need clean water for their clients (often urban residents). Hydropower companies need water free of sediments to generate power. So instead of paying for water treatment plants and for dredging equipment, why not invest that money in the protection and restoration of the watershed where the water comes from? Invest it in people and in nature.

These projects do just that — and in so doing, a market is created and a non-subjective value attached. Water funds make it one conversation. It’s not simple, but it’s possible. And the sooner people, banks, poverty, climate, animals, water, fish, birds, cities, fungi and bats all enter the same picture, the sooner we can find more solutions to a set of problems that are inextricably linked.

(Image: Maria Aigaje (on right) with her daughter Adelaida (center) and son, Saul prepare beans at their home in the traditional Quechua community of Oyacachi, which lies within Ecuador’s Condor Bioreserve. The community of Oyacachi has benefited from funds generated by a sustainable water fund in Quito. Adelaida has organized a youth group to do reforestation work. “They’re helping to replant 7,000 polylepis trees. They’re teaching all of us how to care for nature,” stated her mother. Credit: Bridget Besaw.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I really like this. I work in the environmental field and although I know that educating people, especially children, is the way to increase conservation I sometimes forget. I think we have to get to the root of things in order to make a bigger impact.

  2. That’s so awesome. I’ve always thought it’sbetter to show how we’re all connected and how by “aving the environment” we mean saving the environment…for us (as well as everything else) but it’s not always an easy message to get across. Well done.

  3. In my work environmental/social responsibility work with children I always find children have very simple but logical solutions to complex problems. When you than present the work by children to decision makers they are often amazed about the awareness and foresight which children show. Children express the value of nature in its purest form.

  4. I just stumbled on these amazing words today and am stunned to learn more people are joining my thinking … leave people out of the equation of conservancy and you leave out a critical dimension for a host of reasons. If we, the people, had not taken advantage of the nature of earth’s ecology, I believe there probably would be no nature conservancy or this blog. All current problems, economic, social, health, political from the local to global levels, have people at the centerpiece as perpetrators and saviors. It’s taken us a long time to get to this fundamental understanding of this interdependence.

  5. The greater difficulty I see isn’t to somehow learn to fit natural values into our economic equations—today it’s time more for the reverse: for people to start seeing themselves and their economic needs as valid and able to be fulfilled only insofar as they fit into the life system.

    I’ve found it endlessly fruitful, energizing, and just plain useful in daily decision-making to develop a world view from a position inside the natural system, the earth-star energy system, of our little planet.

    Once you work this properly radical idea through, it tends to suggest a really simple, frugal life, with appreciation for nature’s daily gifts rather than stored value, since that involves debt against the future, and always, at bottom, against nature.

    You should read Eric Zencey’s articles about Mr. Soddy, published in the New York Times.

  6. It’s going to take some very talented and far-sighted people who are willing to not only look at all the pieces in the puzzle that make up our small piece of the Universe, but find ways to educate the world about how we are all connected.
    It’s like what’s happening now with some of the members of CITES voting against a ban on bluefin tuna fishing.
    We are stewards of Nature. We believe we are omniscient when it comes to taking from our World Bank of resources.
    My question to the future is – what and how will we give back?
    We are truly part of a web. Will be help keep it alive or kill it?

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