New White House Report: The Economic Value of Nature

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. (Here’s a link to the full report.) 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. S0 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.

(Image: Pike’s Place Market, Seattle. Image credit: Jim Nix/Nomadic Pursuits/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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


  1. excelente articulo,la ANALOGIA entre economia y ecologia muy interesante.

  2. Very nice to see some actual analysis and efficiency mentioned here. Instead of propaganda, we need science. I have respected TNC for their scientific approach.

    Encouragement of private habitat investment should also be recognized. Our clients increase and improve aquatic habitats every year. They need recognition as well as encouragement for all private landowners.

  3. why most of the typha grass in streams,lakes and rivers are not control by biological or chemical means,and if they control by either of the means the fauna and flora species will die.i need possible solution to it.

  4. As a Travel Facilitator-Interpreter in the Southwest of the US for foreign visitors, I realize better than anyone the value and importance of our National Parks, property of the American People.
    The Chinese word for America is : Mei Gwo=Beautiful country.
    Lets keep it that way for us now and our future generations..
    Please visit and appreciate the beauty in your backyard. Get the children off the TV sets and games and take them hiking and photographing the beauty of their own country..
    Be proud it is still America the beautiful, but we have to fight for trends of Big Business who wants to re-open Uranium mines in Grand Canyon, cut our old Groves etc etc..
    Keep your dirty hands off what is left of our wilderness..Fight please to keep it and improve it and expand it for all to enjoy..

  5. This a very interesting approach… Giving an economic value to nature you are making that some people that only see $$$$$ realize the value of it!

  6. It is of upmost importance that we conserve our natural resources and maintain the unspoiled beauty of our country. Our ecosystem is often forgotten in favour of corporate profits and must be left in tact as a legacy for our children.

  7. I totally agree with this article. It is a win-win for us to be keeping our earth beautiful and the wildlife free from harm.

  8. Every State and National tourism board should be aware of the fact that the first thing many travelers look at when vacations is the availablibility of experiences with native flora and fauna. Often, this is represented by the number of national parks in the area.
    This is where my travel dollar goes and it has provided me with truly wonderful experiences-even though I am not a camper or much of a hiker. Finding a wild orchid or new bird is as thrilling as the breath-taking view or any other experience.

Add a Comment