Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pavan Sukhdev: Natural Capital

This is as concise and data-filled argument as you'll ever see for green accounting and the counting of natural capital.  It's Pavan Sukhdev giving a TED talk, and it's only 16 minutes, well worth your time.

I find two things fascinating:
1) Sukhdev's obvious slant away from the first-world financier's view that tends to dominate global carbon discussions.  He is openly scolding the world for deciding that coral reefs are disposable (in setting a carbon limit above 350ppm), and openly suggesting that bioprospecting should reward local poor communities rather than the prospectors or the host nation.  Sukhdev is, essentially, a reformer of development and a believer that global capital should be subordinate to the public sphere.  This puts him on the far left of the current stage on which ecosystem services discourse plays out.

2) Sukhdev got into this biz through a project of trying to steer the Indian state away from mimicking Chinese-style growth.  This positions his contributions as a kind of postcolonial project in origin (and likely feeding off of the long postcolonial intellectual tradition in Indian political economics), asking the question: how should the Indian state move beyond a colonial world of Eurocentric economies?  How does India become an economic pole in its own right?  Sukhdev's answer was different than the answer of many in India, but still it's apparent that the Natural Capital approach was initially a useful tool in waging a debate over Indian economic strategy, not the kind of grail in its own right that it has been to environmental economists in the US and Europe since the 1970s.

The biggest tell is his repeated commitment to describing global resources as "public" and "common".  This reveals the tension between valuation and marketization -- it is possible to argue for the economic valuation of public goods without calling for their commodification and sale, and defending their identity as public, indeed defending the commons.  This could not be more opposed to Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, the argument which most natural capitalism talk takes as foundational.

Let me be clear, I find all of this encouraging and it makes me more appreciative of Sukhdev and the internal complexity of dialogues about natural capital.  It is possible that what we've got here is just the latest iteration in the conflict between index-makers and price-theory marginalists that we've seen play out ever since Costanza's article.  In that, I'm not sure we've moved beyond the standard script:

Price theorist: "You say you want to value nature, but the only sure way is to observe price in a clearing market.  To say otherwise is an unforgivable economic heterodoxy."
Index theorist: "Ok, but markets create social inequities and perfect information is always lacking in environmental commodities. Reforming GDP and balance sheets is a good place to start to achieve developmental goals".
Price theorist: "So you're saying markets are incapable of creating optimal social welfare?  Communist."

The problem for people like Sukhdev is that it's very, very hard to make the kinds of arguments he's making without heading down the road toward anti-capitalism.  He just said, essentially, that markets do not produce desirable results, that the commons must be preserved, and that the welfare of low-income people should be given special attention through institutional design.  To believe these things are compatible with capitalism requires a kind of willful averting-of-eyes from the laws of capital.  Natural Captalists, then, tend to be those who believe that these laws can be held in abeyance for certain times in certain places, without damage to the overall thing called "capitalism."  And of course the jury's still out on that.


  1. This reads like a very good introduction to the questions you (and others) raise about ecosystems (and their services) being bRought into capitalism's sphere. Nice!

  2. thanks Fabien! I'm also glad to have found your blog at