Plenary Panel with Pavan Sukhdev at the Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity


Back in Norway again! This time as part of a ‘high-level’ Plenary Panel on ‘Trade-offs in National Policies’ at the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity – the theme of which was  ‘Ecology and Economy for a Sustainable Society’ (27-31 May 2013). Designed to enhance science-policy communications following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Trondheim Conferences on Biodiversity have been organised by the Norwegian Government and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity since 1993.

The panel was moderated by Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the high-profile UN and EU programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). I was extremely honoured to be invited to speak alongside key actors in the biodiversity policy world, namely Sir Bob Watson, Co-Chair of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment; Edgar Selvin Pérez, Director, National Council for Protected Areas, Guatemala; Valerie Hickey, Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), World Bank; Nik Sekhran, UNDP; Anthony Cox, Head of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, OECD; and Diego Pacheco, Head of Delegation, Bolivia (from left to right in the image above).

We each had five minutes to speak, and this is what I said! me

It is an honour to be invited to be part of this panel – thank you.

I want to make some comments on the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’.

Yesterday afternoon, Pavan Sukhdev mentioned the Higgs-Boson which is an elementary particle in subatomic physics. Now I am not a physicist, but the story of the Higgs particle is interesting. It was first theorised in 1964, but was only tentatively confirmed to actually exist in March of this year. Its existence is important in order to confirm particular models in physics. And indeed since the 1960s, immense work and resources went into finding it, including the construction of a massive particle collider at great expense and with significant environmental impact. (1)

The Higgs particle is now considered to be an objective fact that exists and has an effect in the world. Another way of looking at this, however, is to say that it has been brought into being through all the work, resources and technical construction that permitted its observation.

I think that the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’ is similar to this. In some respects ‘natural capital’ does not really exist. It is brought into being by particular ways of conceiving, measuring and valuing nature (2). Nonetheless, it is a way of thinking about and constructing nature that has the potential to have powerful effects in the world.

One of these effects might be the provision of numerical information that can assist with generating the sorts of accounting feedback needed to change behaviours and preferences so as to stimulate actions that are more friendly to biodiversity. Great work is being done in this direction. We heard yesterday, for example, about the Trucost and TEEB for Business report that provides prices for the costs of corporate impacts on what have been treated as environmental externalities (3). This is fantastic work, but I would also like to learn more about how companies would in fact internalise these costs and continue or perhaps discontinue their business. We are also hearing about the World Bank’s WAVES [Wealth Accounting and Valuing Ecosystem Services] project, which seeks to assist countries to recognise the capital value of unexploited assets, including perhaps biodiversity (4).

It is noticeable that these approaches seek to change behaviours by making biodiversity more visible within the current economic paradigm. As we have heard this is done through economic methods that assign monetary values to aspects of nature, that turn ecosystem services into work that can be priced, and that construct biodiversity – the myriad breathing and living entities with whom we share earth – into a form of capital, just like any other.

This also worries me. It is a movement that seeks to demonstrate nature’s value, but within the economic and evaluative system that has devalued nature so atrociously. Is there a possibility that by making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics we might enhance rather than reduce its exposure to market failure?

There is another connection here that I think it is important to make. This relates to the extent to which the economic valuing of ecosystems and biodiversity might contribute to current patterns in wealth allocations – which have a tendency towards both significant inequity, and ‘plutonomy’ – that is, to disproportionate influence by the very wealthy in society. We heard a lot yesterday about poverty, and about the intentions in the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty – but I think we need to understand this much more clearly as the mirror of extreme wealth. Many figures exist on this, but to provide a snapshot – Bloomberg Magazine reported last year that the global economy allocated US $2.7 trillion in net worth to 200 people who they describe as ‘the billionaires who pull the levers on the global economy’. [That’s an average of 3.5 billion each.] The poorest 3.5 billion people were allocated only $628 each(5). [A report published this year by Oxfam states that globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the 0.01% has been even greater(6).] In addition, the divergence in wealth seems to have intensified since the financial crisis.

These figures are concerning not least because it is obscene for such poverty to exist alongside such wealth, but because economic inequality – both between and within countries – has also been shown to be a robust predictor of rates of biodiversity loss(7).

In relation to this I hope that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals place due emphasis on measures and mechanisms of wealth distribution as an indicator of societal progress, in the knowledge that this also connects with environmental impacts.

To sum up.. some questions I have include:

  • to what extent does current economic valuation for ecosystems and biodiversity contribute to, or counter, unequal wealth distribution, both within and between countries?
  • Is there more to say about where the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation might lie? for example, might there be basic societal commitments to the sustenance of biodiversity, or to wealth redistribution, that are beyond pricing?(8) And how can governments be supported to enact such commitments?
  • And finally, how might it be possible to more fully recognise, and also to learn from, the diverse other ways that people all over the world have lived with, known and valued other species? On this point, cultural and linguistic diversity correlate strongly with biodiversity presence – we know this because most biodiversity hotspots and national parks tend to be located in areas of high linguistic and cultural diversity(9) – both of which are sadly as threatened today as biodiversity. Is it possible for us to create deliberative forums for listening to and learning from different ways of living with and valuing other species and ecosystems? .. rather than requiring that everyone, every species, everywhere, succumb to the reductive evaluative framework of capital.

trondheim logo


In preparing for the Plenary Panel, panelists were asked to complete an ‘aide memoire’, guided by the following three questions:

a) How can public service, business and households be made aware of the meaning and values of biodiversity and of the actions they can take to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity?

b) How can the biodiversity and economic planning sector assess and integrate biodiversity values and actions into national planning, poverty reduction, accounting and reporting?

c) In what ways can the ecological foundation for measurements of societal progress beyond GDP be advanced?

Below I include my ‘aide memoire’ as guided by these questions.

Title of presentation –
On Evaluative Frameworks, Value Pluralism and the Wealth-Poverty-Biodiversity Nexus
By Dr Sian Sullivan, Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, and Birkbeck College, London University

Abstract Since the CBD entered into force in 1993, enormous work and resources have gone into various layers of biodiversity assessment, measurement and accounting. These have included National Biodiversity Assessments, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 and subsequent National Ecosystem Assessments, various academic analyses of biodiversity indicators, and now the move towards Natural Capital Accounting. Over the same period, there has been no reduction in the rate of global biodiversity decline. This raises questions about the relationship between measurement, assessment and accounting on the one hand, and the actions needed to prevent decline on the other.

Current measurement and accounting practices for ‘valuing nature’ are occurring within an economic calculus designed to support both biodiversity and economic growth, through voluntary internalization of new nature prices and market incentives. It is not clear, however, that such design can produce the massive changes needed to reverse or even slow down biodiversity decline, because of the strong vested interests in developments that transform habitats, damage biodiversity and displace relatively low-impact livelihoods. Given measured links between income inequality and biodiversity decline, both within and between countries globally, it also seems clear that biodiversity decline will continue in the absence of strongly redistributive policies both between and within countries.

Such trends suggest that support for biodiversity will require:

  1. strong regulation and planning;

  2. progressive and redistributive taxation and public service policies;

  3. and deliberative spaces from local to global levels where plural value considerations can enter democratic decision-making regarding choices for both biodiversity and economic sustenance.

Key considerations
How might the CBD process support the need for strong and collaborative regulation by well-advised governments so as to mandate the cessation of actions damaging to biodiversity?
– How can the relationship between inequality and biodiversity decline be better measured, understood and incorporated in policies that support Sustainable Development Goals and targets?
– How might poverty be understood more systematically as a relational phenomenon mirroring mega-wealth and over-consumption, and arising from socio-economic structures that impoverish both people and biodiversity?

Key discussion points and conclusions
What are the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation and natural capital accounting? What are the contexts in which other evaluative frameworks might be more appropriate for making decisions that halt actions causing biodiversity decline?
– Is there a possibility that making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics as ‘natural capital’ will increase rather than reduce its exposure to market failures?

The conference’s core message was projected in large letters on various screens throughout the event:

ecol as currency


(2) I discuss this further in a blog post called ‘The Natural Capital Myth’ for the Public Political Ecology Lab,

(3)Trucost Plc and TEEB for Business 2013 Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business

(5)Miller, M.G. and Newcomb, P. 2012 The world’s 200 richest men. Bloomberg Markets Magazine 1 November 2012

(6)Hickel, J. 2013 The truth about extreme global inequality. Aljazeera 14 April 2013, after Oxfam 2013 The cost of inequality hurts us all. Oxfam Media Briefing 18 January 2013.

(7)Mikkelson, G., Gonzalez, A. and Peterson, G.D. 2007 Economic inequality predicts biodiversity loss. PloS ONE 2(5): e444.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000444

(8)On which, see Bolivia’s ‘Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’ (, in which Chapter 2, Art. 4(2) states that ‘The environmental functions and natural processes of the components and systems of life of Mother Earth are not considered as commodities but as gifts of the sacred Mother Earth’.

(9)See, for example, Loh, J. and Harmon, D. 2005 A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological Indicators5: 231–241.

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