Oct 26, 2016 / by Nancy Cruz / In Socio eco-cultural, Vince Deschamps

Vince Deschamps: Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted


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.

It’s a great time to be involved with natural capital. The concept continues to evolve and draw attention to our dependence on the natural world. Rarely does one get the chance to contribute to the transformation of such a notion into an accepted scientific discipline. This is not to say that the road ahead is clear. There are challenges to getting natural capital into the mainstream of society’s psyche (and which continue to bamboozle those of us “on the inside”). Three such challenges are utmost in my mind:

There is no universal definition for natural capital. Depending on what you Google, you will find almost as many definitions for the term as you will articles. The general themes are consistent, but nuances in wording vary the interpretations greatly. We need to sort this out. Over the years, and after reading and debating a number of said articles with trusted colleagues, my understanding of natural capital is “the stock of natural resources and environmental assets, such as forests, rivers and wetlands, which provide flows of goods and services from which people and communities derive benefit”. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s the definition that makes sense to me from an ecological perspective.

There are no legislative or regulatory requirements for natural capital. Although it is alluded to in a number of Environmental Assessment and related processes, rarely will the term natural capital be explicit. Globally, natural capital has gained traction through the World Bank/IFC Performance Standards and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitments by large multinationals. Within Canada, the regulatory potential for natural capital is taking root, especially at the municipal level where there is more room for flexibility and innovation in how ecological form and function are considered. In all cases, however, progress is somewhat hindered by the third challenge…

There are no standard approaches to natural capital assessment
. However, without the parameters prescribed by a universal definition and legislative/regulatory requirements, we are left without the proverbial “box” into which our hard work is to conform (ironically, it was probably thinking outside of the box that started the natural capital discussion in the first place). Without the box, we run the risk of research being without purpose, and that natural capital will remain on the fringe of scientific validity.

There’s a popular saying, generally attributed to Einstein((See: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/26/everything-counts-einstein/)), which goes:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Until such time that the box is ready, I find that this phrase provides a pretty good reference point when it comes to natural capital and the assessment thereof – after all, we’re talking Einstein here. It helps me to define the “so what” factor discussed in last month’s blog.

Here’s how it relates:

Natural capital assets, and the resulting ecosystem services they provide, only have value when someone is benefitting from them. Value is derived based on the significance of ecosystem services to the beneficiary, or beneficiaries. Benefits can be direct and tangible, such as the provision of food or water, or indirect and less tangible like carbon sequestration.

Beneficiaries can be local in scale (such as First Nation communities with direct ties to the land), regional (how rivers and watersheds function within your County or Township) or global (think climate regulation). Generally, the directness of the relationship is stronger when the beneficiary is physically closest to, and most engaged with, the natural capital asset providing the ecosystem service.

It quickly becomes quite clear that beneficiaries of natural capital – be it a remote First Nation community, residents of suburban southern Ontario or the greater global village – are responsible for deciding what should be counted and what should not. The “so what” factor lies within the needs and priorities of the beneficiaries. How these are defined and measured is on a case-by-case basis; there is no silver bullet. Communication is an obvious key but, in my experience the “values” can generally be organized into three interrelated categories:

  • Economic Values based on monetary worth calculated for the ecosystem service. In some cases this is “real money”, like the value of fish or non-timber forest products. In others, it illustrates the relative importance of services to the global environment rather than anyone actually paying for them (again, think of carbon sequestration and climate regulation).
  • Ecological Values based on the biotic (living)or abiotic (physical) characteristics of the ecosystem service, which consider the ecological functions being provided, as well as the importance of the feature providing these functions on a given landscape.
  • Socio-cultural Values specific to the preferences of the beneficiary(ies) and expressed through land use practices and/or the likelihood of an ecosystem service being used. Some of these values are absolute; invaluable and irreplaceable (e.g., cultural or spiritual sites).

From a practitioner’s perspective, this is where the fun begins, as we now have a natural capital framework that places equal emphasis on the ecological and socio-cultural values and complements the traditional economic approach. How this can be applied – and yes, it can be done – will be the topic of upcoming blogs.

More information is available on Vince’s LinkedIn page: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/vince-deschamps-a713641a

Vince can be reached by email at: vince.deschamps@sympatico.ca