Natural Capital

 

The same people who brought the sewer pipes turn another small piece of the Pine Barrens into money every few weeks. Probably when there’s nothing left, and the last of the watershed is poisoned, the people who are responsible for killing the beaver will know the helpless sense of irreversible loss Rick and I had felt.— Tom Brown, Jr.

In no realm is the campaign to “make it all ours” so concrete as in the conversion of natural capital to financial capital. Natural capital refers to the earth itself: the earth’s minerals, land, soil, oceans, fresh water, genomes, and biota; everything, that is, that was not created by human beings. I would like to say “natural resources”, but in this locution lies the very assumption we are examining. To think of the planet as consisting of “resources” already implies it is ours, defines the world in terms of its usefulness to us, and sets us separate and apart in relation to it.

The most commonly recognized form of natural capital is fossil fuel, comprising coal, oil, and natural gas, which we are depleting at an accelerating rate. These are Thom Hartman’s “last days of ancient sunlight” upon which industrial society depends. However, while the energy crisis certainly does contribute to the convergence of crises that will undo the Age of Separation, it is only a tiny part of the picture. Other forms of natural capital are probably even more significant. First is the earth’s capacity to absorb the toxic effluvia of our conversion of wealth to money: the radioactive waste and the pharmaceutical residues, the agricultural runoff and the incinerator sludge, the sulfur dioxide and the ozone, the CFCs and the PCBs. Once localized or subclinical in their effects, these poisons now threaten entire bioregions and ecosystems. Wait, did I say “threaten”? That isn’t the right word anymore, because many of them are already dead, and many more are dying. As the damage intensifies, the consequences will be harder to avoid. Indeed, they are already upon us, in the rise of birth defects, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. But that is nothing compared to the possible disruption of climactic systems and the mechanisms of atmospheric homeostasis that depend on a healthy ecology.

Another urgent problem is the loss of fertile soil and clean water. Deserts have been swallowing fertile land ever since linear methods were first applied to agriculture. Ancient Sumer, the cradle of civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Now it is the desert of Iraq. North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, is now wholly given to the great Sahara. The same fate awaits the United States, where topsoil losses of two billion tons per year are seventeen times higher than the rate of soil formation,[18] and especially the drier West, where dependency on irrigation exposes vast tracts to salinization. Meanwhile, chemical agriculture contributes to an alarming depletion of soil minerals, as USDA statistics on fruits and vegetables—which have as little as ten or twenty percent the mineral content of two generations ago—demonstrate.[19] As for water, water tables are dropping on every continent. Great rivers such as the Yellow and Colorado routinely run dry, and the Nile and Ganges barely make it to the sea. The Aral Sea has shrunk to half its former size, killing all fish due to higher salinity.[20] Meanwhile, according to the World Medical Association, over half the world population lacks access to potable water,[21] while even in America tap water is routinely treated with chlorine to destroy waterborne pathogens. Increasingly, it is also polluted with various carcinogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors. Of course, like any other destruction of the commonwealth, this presents a great business opportunity. The fastest-growing beverage category is now bottled water, now a commodity like everything else, while huge corporations battle for control of newly privatized water utilities around the world.

Sometimes people object to these doom-and-gloom scenarios by pointing out examples like the Great Lakes where water quality has actually improved. Yes, there have been temporary, localized improvements. Too often, though, the pollution has merely been exported. Factories in China, producing the same heavy industrial products once made in Cleveland and Milwaukee, spew the same pollutants as before into different rivers. Air quality may have improved in Los Angeles, but the worsening air in Bangkok, Manila, and Shanghai more than offsets that improvement. Some pollutants are now banned, and some practices abandoned, but others more insidious have taken their place. Nonetheless, mine is not actually a doom-and-gloom viewpoint. I am an optimist. My optimism does not depend, however, on ignoring the gravity of our situation. It will take an extraordinary transformation in human beingness to create the beautiful world my heart tells me is possible.

I’ll touch upon just one other category of disappearing natural capital: biodiversity. The totality of the planet’s plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi contain an enormous reservoir of genetic material that, once lost, can never be recovered. Typically, environmentalists cite two reasons for preserving this irreplaceable form of wealth. First, diverse ecosystems are more robust and better able to exercise their function in the homeostasis of the biosphere—to manufacture oxygen, for example. Second, the innumerable species presently going extinct might contain valuable medicinal compounds, genetic material, or other components useful to human beings. These are good reasons, but they understate the case. Science is learning that much, if not most, genetic material is never expressed. Once considered junk, this DNA is potentially a reservoir of adaptability that may become essential to the planet’s survival and/or transformation. Of course, the idea that genes are waiting, quiescent within the genome for the time for their expression violates basic principles of Darwinian evolution (as there is no selection mechanism). I will develop this line of reasoning more fully in later chapters.

When people become aware of the catastrophic destruction of natural capital, they either go into denial (“It couldn’t be that bad” or, “I can’t do anything about it”), or they quite rightly become extremely alarmed and think, “We must mend our ways.” However, the origin of “our ways” is much deeper than we think. We can dream of tighter regulations or more reverent attitudes toward the earth, more responsible governments and better technology, but the tragic fact is that our civilization is constitutionally incapable of reversing the annihilation of natural capital, or even slowing it down. That destruction flows inevitably from money system and the sense of self that underlies it.

Let me repeat that: Our civilization is constitutionally incapable of reversing the annihilation of natural capital, or even slowing it down. Get used to that. When we really understand that, the project of reconceiving civilization itself will gain powerful impetus.

The subjugation of all the earth’s land and everything on and under it starts with a conceptual separation, an objectification of the world that facilitates its conversion first into “resources”, then into property, and finally into money. Older history textbooks speak of “How the West was won” while newer, more progressive editions might give lip service to the idea that the North American continent was stolen from its original inhabitants, the Native Americans. From the indigenous perspective, though, the true crime is much greater than that. The crime of the Europeans went far beyond murdering the Native Americans for “their” land, which perhaps would not have been unthinkable to the indigenous mind—after all, territorial disputes are not unknown among hunter-gatherers. The crime, the sin, the sacrilege, was to presume to take the land not from humans, but from something much greater: from Nature, God, the spirit that moves all things.

America was not stolen from the Indians, because the Indians never owned it. The land was not property. While pre-agricultural peoples often have a tribal territory, they would be appalled at the idea that land could be owned. Is not the earth a being greater than any human, or even any group of humans? How can a greater belong to a lesser? To presume to own a piece of the earth, to say it is mine, is from the indigenous perspective a sacrilege so audacious as to be unthinkable. To reduce the earth to property and eventually to money is indeed to make a greater into a lesser, to turn the sacred into the profane, the divine into the human, the infinite into the quantified. I can think of no better definition of sacrilege than that.

If the mass murder of the world’s indigenous peoples constitutes a “crime against humanity,” then the objectification of the world constitutes a crime against Nature, God, and spirit. In fact, the former crime flows naturally and inexorably out of the latter. How much easier it is to kill someone or something that we see as an Other. The original source of both crimes is nothing other than separation itself, a process as old as time that received successive boosts from fire, agriculture, the Machine, and science. But it was agriculture that most powerfully accelerated the conversion of land into thing.

It is easy to see how the concept of land ownership arose with agriculture. Agriculture involves applying labor to a piece of land: tilling the soil, planting seeds, pulling up weeds, watering the plants, fertilizing the soil, and so forth.[22] A farmer has a right to the fruits of his labor, and would certainly object to someone coming by and “gathering” the abundant edible crops he had grown there. However, there is still a huge conceptual leap from owning the crops to owning the land itself. In some societies the only “owner” of land was the king. As the king was considered a semi-divine being, this was tantamount to saying that land was beyond the domain of human ownership. Early ownership of land was probably more akin to a generally-recognized right of stewardship, ensuring people had an incentive to work the land and could justly benefit from their labors, just as early intellectual property rights meant to encourage creativity by bestowing the temporary right to profit from an idea, but not ownership of the idea itself.

Whether in the case of land or intellectual property, the transformation from a right-to-benefit into outright ownership was a gradual one. Let’s keep in mind that this was a conceptual transformation (the land doesn’t admit to being owned), a human projection onto reality. Land ownership (and indeed all forms of ownership) says more about our perception of the world than about the nature of the thing owned. The transition from the early days when ownership of land was as unthinkable as ownership of the sky, sun, and moon, to the present day when nearly every square foot of the earth is subject to ownership of one sort or another, is really just the story of our changing view of ourselves in relation to the universe.

The ending of serfdom in late medieval Europe is a case in point. Before feudalism gave way to a money economy and the commons migrated into private hands, land was generally not a fungible asset. Lewis Hyde writes,

Whereas before a man could fish in any stream and hunt in any forest, now he found there were individuals who claimed to be the owners of these commons. The basis of land tenure had shifted. The medieval serf had been almost the opposite of a property owner: the land had owned him. He could not move freely from place to place, and yet he had inalienable rights to the piece of land to which he was attached. Now men claimed to own the land and offered it rent it out at a fee. While a serf could not be removed from his land, a tenant could be evicted not only through failure to pay the rent but merely at the whim of the landlord.[23]

Complementing the reduction of land to just another thing, in the same period Martin Luther and his ilk absolved worldly rulers of any obligation to rule by Christian principles, accelerating the separation of reality into two realms, worldly and divine. We became lords and masters of the real world, banishing God to a materially inconsequential realm of the otherworldly. Land, like the rest of the world, was no longer sacred. Of course, the peasants resisted their dispossession from the commons, fomenting the bloody struggle known in Germany as the Peasants’ War. It is a struggle reenacted time and again around the globe, whenever people resist the incursion of property rights into yet another sphere of human relationship. As Hyde puts it, “the Peasants’ War was the same war that the American Indians had to fight with the Europeans, a war against the marketing of formerly inalienable properties.” Relationships, land, water. . . what’s next? The air? The sky? Here is a corollary to the eternal business idea of the previous section: Find something so fundamental to life that no one could imagine it being separated off as property. Then by some means deprive people of it and sell it back to them.

As recently as 17th-century England and frontier America, there was much land that was not owned at all—the commons. Today we have reached the opposite extreme from the days of hunter-gatherers: it is hard for people to conceive of land not being owned. Surely someone must own it? It can’t just be there unowned, can it? I like to stump my students by asking them for examples of unowned land. National parks, state forests and the like don’t count, because they are owned by the government, not unowned. Basically, the only unowned land, the only commons still remaining in present-day America is the street. The street is public space, maintained and regulated by municipal governments, but not the subject of any deed. Other than the street, and perhaps Antarctica, all the world’s land surface has been made into mine, yours, his, theirs, ours.

When I say that as hunter-gatherers we were embedded in nature, part of nature, or not separate from nature, it does not mean only that we “lived more naturally”. It means we did not see “nature” as a separate thing from ourselves. The dualism between man and nature did not exist. Tom Brown Jr. speaks of a boyhood experience lying beneath the stars: “We lay for an hour looking up into the black, star-filled sky until at some point, although I never closed my eyes, I was no longer lying in a field. I had become part of a pattern that the stars and the breeze and the grass and the insects were all part of. There was no awareness of this until I heard the first deer coming through the grass. Then I was suddenly aware that I had been lying there without thoughts or sensations other than just being.”[24]

Aside from being conceptually embedded in nature, hunter-gatherers also had a practical reason for having a very limited concept of property: They were largely nomadic and could not carry many possessions with them. Accumulation of possessions was impossible. Agriculture was the practical and conceptual foundation of the age of property. Practically, it permitted a sedentary lifestyle and the accumulation of possessions. Agriculture also gave rise to greater concentrations of population, social hierarchies, and specialization, all of which further propelled the development of property rights and money. On the conceptual level, the fact that a farmer applies work to the land rather than simply taking what the land has to offer contributes to the feeling that the land is his. More generally, agriculture and the entire corpus of technology that developed in agricultural civilizations sought to control or improve upon nature, thus turning nature into an other, the object of manipulation, and thus the object of ownership.

Once the dualistic man/nature conception had been established, it is quite understandable how people would feel free to convert that of nature into that of man. That is precisely the process that the term “natural resources” implies. Resources: things for us to use. Or to conserve and use later, or not to use at all. In any event, things for us.

The millennia-long conversion of natural capital into financial capital is this process in action. Environmentalists have told us for many years that we are “living off our capital”, creating an illusion of wealth through the unsustainable consumption of our natural capital. The root of the problem is that our economic system does not recognize the things of nature as wealth. It is written into the dynamics of business that natural capital be converted as rapidly and efficiently as possible into financial capital, regardless of the ethics, morals, or good intentions of businesspeople. (Government regulation can at best slow down this conversion by offering obstacles to its efficiency.)

One of the gravest errors activists make is to demonize their opponents; for example, to assume that businesspeople and “the rich” are more greedy, less conscious, or less spiritually evolved than themselves. But greed is a result, and not a cause, of our economic system. Imagine that Acme corporation owns a mine but the CEO, being a nice guy, refuses to operate it because to do so would deplete the precious groundwater of the region. A mine that would otherwise produce $12 million a year lies abandoned. Acme’s profits, being $12 million lower than they could be, are reflected in the total value of the company, which is perhaps $200 million lower—$1 billion instead of $1.2 billion. When the shareholders find out about the mine, they put pressure on management to exploit it, perhaps even suing the CEO for failing to act in the financial interest of the shareholders. If he resists, tremendous pressure will be brought to bear. Competitors who have no such scruples will undersell Acme’s mine products, and the company may attract the attention of a corporate raider who will leverage the $200 million equity that the mine represents into a $1 billion loan from an investment bank, buy the company, exploit the mine (perhaps selling it for $200 million), pay back the loan with $50 million interest to the bank, and keep $150 million for himself.

The same fate befalls a company that spends extra money on pollution control, higher wages, or any other socially or environmentally responsible behavior. The reason is that the costs of such behavior are external to the company’s balance sheets. In fact, such costs are called “externalities” in economics—a word which reflects the separation of man and nature implicit in technology; that is, the making an other out of nature.

Until natural capital is converted into a commodity denominated in dollars, it is invisible to our economic statistics and balance sheets. It is hard to even articulate the value of nature otherwise: hence the profusion of environmentalist arguments based on cost-benefit considerations. Why should we save the rainforests? Because of all the medicines that might be produced from the undiscovered plant species there? Because of the economic value of their contribution as a carbon sink? The economic value of their pollinating species? In essence, these arguments try to persuade us to protect the environment because the long-term cost to the economy of environmental destruction far exceeds the economic cost of preservation. Well-meaning as they are, such arguments actually exacerbate the root problem, which is the basic Benthamite assumption that goodness can be quantified, that the way to make life better is to maximize financial returns, and, even more deeply, that nature can be made ours, and, yet more deeply, the illusion of our separateness. Such arguments grant the disastrous premise that nature is indeed a thing, best disposed of according to the financial consequences.

Cost-benefit arguments for environmental protection have the further disadvantage that they are usually ineffective even as a short-term tactic. I am inspired in this regard by Gandhi’s exhortation to “appeal to their reason and conscience,” and by Edwin O. Wilson’s invocation of a universal “biophilia”—a love of living beings—innate to each one of us, however deeply buried. In the long run and probably even in the short run, it may be more effective to appeal to people’s sense of beauty and their desire to do the right thing. “Let’s save the environment because otherwise it will cost too much” is an appeal to a baser instinct. It disrespects its audience by assuming that greed is their strongest motivation. (It is especially counterproductive when facing people who stand to gain financially from consuming natural capital.) It is also on some level dishonest: I do not know any environmentalist motivated by the long-term economic savings of environmental protection. Let us instead appeal to what is highest in other people: their sense of rightness, beauty, and justice; their desire to be a good person; their longing to enact their innate love for our beautiful planet. The greed behind the plundering of the planet, and the insecurity and anxiety behind the greed, is after all a product of our money system as well as an inevitable effect of our separation from self, spirit, nature, and each other. It is not our true essence.

The conversion of all forms of wealth into money violates our sense of beauty, rightness, and purpose. It has made the world uglier. In the realm of art, epithets like “commercial art” or “a sellout” are not compliments. Nor would most people maintain that a lumber yard is more beautiful than a forest, or that the beauty of a well-constructed highway exceeds that of the landscapes destroyed by the quarries, mines and so forth that provided its raw materials.

On a personal level, how often do issues of practicality—which more often than not involve money—seem to interfere with our longing to live a beautiful life? Usually, rational economic interests seem to directly contradict Joseph Campbell’s urging, “Follow your bliss.” I cannot count the number of times when I didn’t do something in the most beautiful way because I “could not afford to.”

Just as the conversion of the world to money makes less of the world, so does the conversion of life to money (Time is money!) make less of life. Adam Smith’s economic man, making choices according to his rational self-interest, affirms the presumption that the value of all things can be tabulated in terms of money. All things admit of a value, a quantity, a measure. Here is the translation (and reduction) of the immeasurability of the Wild into the numbers of human abstraction. And thus the wild, nature, is brought under control. Here is another parallel with the program of science, which seeks, through its equations, to reduce nature to human terms.

The disregard that modern human economies—and the science of economics—have for the environment is inseparable from our fundamental understanding of self and world. As Herman Daly says, the materialistic, mechanistic worldview implies that “the natural world is just a pile of instrumental accidental stuff to be used up on the arbitrary projects of one purposeless species.”[25] If there is no real purpose beyond personal survival, comfort, and pleasure, if the order and beauty of nature is mere accident, and life a seething scum on an insignificant ball of rock hurtling through space, and all existence “a sound and a fury, signifying nothing,” then what does it matter, really, the fate of the earth?

At this point it is customary to trot out God as an imposer of meaning, purpose, and sacredness onto our world of dead matter. Such a response, unfortunately, leaves matter no less dead, life no less mundane, and beauty no less arbitrary. When God is separate from creation and spirit is separate from matter, we naturally construe teachings such as “be fruitful and multiply” as divine license to pillage and wreck in converting natural wealth into personal, financial wealth. Too often, the theistic treatment of our planet is no less destructive than the atheistic, and even more.

A non-dualistic religion sees things differently. Wendell Berry, arguing from scripture, puts it eloquently: “Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God.”[26] Instead of granting us divine license to plunder Creation, non-dualistic religion would see the destruction of nature as, to quote Berry, a “most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.”[27] By converting natural capital into financial capital, we are assigning a monetary value to the work of God—excusable, perhaps, if matter is separate, “mundane”, unspiritual, but not if nature is the sacred, ongoing expression of divine Creativity. In Psalms 24:1 it is written, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein.” Seen in this light, the conversion of the earth into assets, resources, and property that started with agriculture is nothing more than an attempt at robbery, a sacrilege of the highest order. Only the illusion of our separateness gives us the temerity.

Sadly, because our separateness is indeed only an illusion, we cannot escape the damaged and diminished world that our despoliation has rendered. We can, however, start to reverse the uglification of the world by using our creative gifts, including our technology, toward the divine purpose for which those gifts are meant: to create beauty. If the things of the world are put here for our use, as some interpret the Bible to say, then what other use could it be besides as a participation in and an extension of God’s ongoing work of creation? A fallen branch can be made a flute. Every time we cut down a tree or dig a new quarry, the question we should ask ourselves is, “Does this augment the divinity of Creation by making it more beautiful? Or does it detract from the divinity of Creation by making it more ugly?” And the answer must apply to the whole of Creation, not just a part of it; not just to the sleek new automobile, but to the mine pits, polluted air, and ravaged landscapes that go hand in hand with present industrial processes.

What shall we make of this beautiful world into which we have been born?

 

[18] Roland Wall, “Erosion: Wind and Water, Food and Money”, The Academy of Natural Sciences, http://www.acnatsci.org/education/kye/nr/kye82002.html

 

[19] Several of these USDA composition tables comparing vitamin and mineral content between 1975 and 2001 are laid out in Alex Jack, “The Disappearing Nutrients in America’s Orchards”. December 14, 2004, published on line by the National Health Federation. http://www.thenhf.com/articles_56.htm

 

[20] Lester Brown and Brian Halweil, “Populations Outrunning Water Supply as World Hits 6 Billion”, Worldwatch Institute press release, September 23, 1999.

 

[21] World Medical Association Statement on Water and Health, WMA General Assembly, Tokyo 2004

 

[22] To be sure, some forms of agriculture dispense with some of these steps, but the general principle remains valid that some work is required to lift the land beyond its natural carrying capacity (for human beings).

 

[23] Hyde, p. 121

 

[24] Brown Jr., Tom, Tracker. Prentice Hall, 1978. p. 56

 

[25] Quoted in Adbusters Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 5, September/October 2004. No page numbers are used—yay!

 

[26] Berry, Wendell. “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.” Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Pantheon Books, New York, 1993. P. 97

 

[27] Ibid, p. 98