Sunday, September 27, 2009

Worth more alive than dead: Our biodiversity challenge - Part 1

One of my enduring critiques of the CSR movement is that it has failed to have a dramatic impact on some of the biggest global challenges we face. Despite all the CSR reports and ISO management systems, many things are getting worse, not better. This is indisputable when it comes to biodiversity loss. It is not exaggerating to say that we are causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of planet earth.

I always have to pinch myself when I present figures on this - WWF's Living Planet Index, which tracks populations of 1,313 vertebrate species, has gone down 30% since 1970. Just think about that. We have lost a third of the world's vertebrates in just one generation! According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 60% of our ecosystems are degraded.

The reason is that nature - as it is currently measured and valued - is worth more dead than alive. Which of course makes no sense at all. It's what Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr, in their book "For the Common Good", call "when to kill the goose that lays the golden egg". We have known for a long time that nature has an economic value, but it hasn't been factored into markets.

In 1997, a team led by environmental economist Robert Costanza estimated the economic value of 12 ecosystem services to be $33 trillion, nearly double world GNP at the time. And yet these same services (and many others) are given a value of zero, by default, in most of our economic and investment decisions. It is true they are free, but only while they continue to function.

When the bee colonies started collapsing in the United States in 2007, the 'free service' of pollination suddenly started to look frightfully expensive - approximately $14.6 billion a year more expensive, according to some estimates. What we need, therefore, is a game-changer. Something to radically alter the debate, to change the way we think about biodiversity.