It’s been my pleasure to be a part of the Natural Capital Lab’s (NCL) Innovation cohort. As a natural capital practitioner, it’s been a very worthwhile endeavour, and having the opportunity to express myself through a blog series on the Natural Capital Lab website has been an amazing opportunity to explore my somewhat unconventional views on the topic. As stated way back in my first blog, this series attempted to define the “so what factor” of natural capital by looking through the socio eco-cultural lens to try and better understand how we, as individuals and society, understand natural capital and consider it in our day-to-day lives and decision-making processes.
Were we able to accomplish that? I’m not sure, and it may have been a bit ambitious – as most worthy undertakings are in the beginning. I do know however, that I learned a few key items along the way that both highlight my experience as a natural capital Innovator and which may help me to figure out my path forward in the world of natural capital. As the NCL Innovator cohort wraps up, I’ve taken a bit of time to think about how it’s affected me and my outlook on natural capital.
Natural capital is truly an example of where two worlds – the ecological and the economic – collide. To paraphrase the words of my favorite Costanza ( George, not Robert, as the latter has still yet to accept my LinkedIn invitation):
“A Natural Capitalist – divided against itself – cannot stand”1
Both worlds look at the issue of natural capital from a distinct perspective, yet the shared and evolving science of natural capital assessment allows both disciplines to at least accept (if not completely understand) the other. I knew that being an ecologist in the Innovator cohort would be a challenge. We were outnumbered by economists and accountants at a 10:1 ratio, with the result that conversations revolved almost exclusively around economic frameworks and developing “national accounts”. As I stared out the boardroom windows of the big-time downtown Toronto accounting offices hosting our sessions, I kept wondering how the connection between my ecological world and the accounting juggernaut could be made. Would our worlds ever collide?
Yes, they did, but not in the way that I thought they would.
Predictably, the Big Bang happened over drinks with Jeff Wilson – a fellow Innovator and a confessed economist. The result of this “collision of the minds” was the revelation that natural capital is really all about the human element: how each of us perceives the natural world, how we benefit from it, and how we care for it. Paramount to this, is the need for us all to realize that we are an integral part of the natural world, no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from it. And vice-versa: the “natural world” is now arguably just as much a human construct given the dominant role that we play in the modern world’s functioning. Some of us find purpose under an ecological light, others operate with an economic bend. And this is okay; in fact it’s probably necessary, as by intent “natural capital” would have no value if it weren’t benefiting humankind. So, from that perspective, I guess that we may have been successful in defining the “so what factor” – bravo!
Having said that, I wish the Innovators had more time so that we could investigate the “natural” side of natural capital as thoroughly as we did the “capital” side of it. Not only would this have afforded us a breath of fresh air, but it would also have given me the chance to share the ecological perspective of natural capital with my colleagues. I really wanted them to get to know the physical characteristics of the living systems that they were trying to assimilate into accounts – and seeing why this wasn’t always possible – in the hopes that they would develop an understanding and an appreciation for the dynamic, living systems that provide ecosystem services on our behalf. This is not meant to dismiss the efforts of the lab, or to downplay the labors of the gracious hosts who treated us so well, but both sides of the natural capital story need to be understood if we’re going to be effective. I strongly feel that sometimes worlds need to collide for us to understand each other. After all, isn’t that how families work?
Given our society’s fixation on money, and obsession with short-term fixes and funding cycles, a critical part of the way forward is to continue exchanges between the economic and ecological worlds, to keep colliding and collaborating. Natural capital is about long-term vision and commitment – it’s not just about balancing accounting sheets, managing “assets” or even hard-core conservation – it’s the realization that we need to stand together in order to pave the way forward.
The conclusion of this blog series doesn’t signify the end of the natural capital discussion for me – in fact I’m just getting started. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with future entries on The Natural Step’s main blog,, and hope that you’ll continue to follow along.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my sincere gratitude to my co-writer in this series – Nancy Cruz. Nancy is the uniquely patient person who brought me into this role, made my many rambling thoughts into some fairly decent and coherent blogs, and even taught me how to use “the Twitter”. I will miss writing with her and can only hope that she will keep her promise of continuing to read future posts. Thanks Nancy.
Vince Deschamps is an ecologist and Registered Professional Planner with over twenty-five years of professional practice, including living and working in protected areas in rural and remote parts of the globe. Vince is at the forefront of developing Natural Capital and Ecosystem Service Assessment (NCESA) as a scientific discipline and has applied the approach in support of traditional land use systems and conservation initiatives in Indonesia, Barbados, and Ontario’s Far North.
Vince is a member of the Natural Capital Lab’s Innovation Cohort. More information on NCLs activities, including more blogs, can be experienced at http://naturalcapitallab.com/.
More information is available on Vince’s LinkedIn page
You can also follow Vince on Twitter @VinceDeschamps
Vince can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
1Seinfeld, season 7, episode 8: The Pool Guy