Environmental scientist and tropical ecologist Gretchen Daily thinks about our environmental challenges, and the people affected by them, on many levels.
At one level, there are everyday farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and other producers.
“People who work on the land, some who work on the water,” she said.
At another level, there are the huge, often impersonal entities—nation states, the European Union, the World Bank—that seek to structure those producers’ lives and, to at least some extent, the natural world in which we all live.
“All of us are drawing from the same natural asset base, and we all need to somehow change the system together—it’s way beyond the power of any one producer, or even any one major industrial or financial player in the system,” Daily said.
The size and urgency of our environmental problems led her to think in new ways about nature—and to encourage others to think in new ways as well.
What if, for example, we valued nature the way we value economic assets?
Daily did not invent the term “natural capital.” Yet the Stanford professor’s influential work on assessing the value of biodiversity, along with her co-development of the Natural Capital Project, netted her the 2020 Tyler Prize, seen by many as the environmental sciences’ closest equivalent to the Nobel, and positioned her as a world expert on the topic.
Today, Daily wants to integrate perspectives from the research community, governments, and the business community—particularly the financial world, where she said new instruments are enabling a transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources.
“We need to bring these values of natural capital in, in a way that puts out really inspiring models of success that then can be replicated,” she said.
Daily admits that this can all seem a little abstract. But her hands-on experience applying the concept of natural capital to two Caribbean nations, Belize and the Bahamas, means she can turn to real-world examples.
“How can we develop coastlines over, say, a ten- or twenty-year time horizon that factors in risks and impacts from climate change, and secures people and property in a way that leads to win-win outcomes?”
Daily helped to come up with an answer. She worked with those two countries’ governments to develop plans to protect and restore natural capital, such as coral reefs and mangrove, while harmonizing the needs of key economic sectors, such as tourism, energy, and offshore shipping and fishing.
Belize’s plan, approved in 2016, was implemented with initial financing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
“They’ve [IDB] now changed their operations to mainstream the valuing of natural capital into all of their support for countries through loans and other investments, right from the beginning of the planning process,” Daily says.
“We’re seeing the science of valuing nature incorporated from the beginning, through planning across country-level development, and being co-developed hand-in-glove with these major development banks and other international financial institutions to bring the plan and vision into reality.”
Another example comes from the World Bank, which has developed what it calls a Global Platform for Sustainable Cities.
With urbanization expected to accelerate in coming decades, particularly in Asia and Africa, Daily sees a need for interventions that make cities healthier and more livable.
After all, the global move to cities is hazardous to health.
City living brings with it a more sedentary lifestyle, along with a rise in obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.
The urban lifestyle also seems to promote mental illness—Daily cites significantly greater rates of depression, anxiety, and similar disorders in urban vs. rural or small-town dwellers.
Here again, Daily believes the concept of natural capital can help.
In concrete terms, what does this mean? For one thing, more parks.
Daily cites data from the Trust for Public Land, which has found that a third of Americans, or more than 100 million people, do not live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of cities now adopting this new science that pinpoints where to invest in cities, to achieve the greatest benefits from the greatest number of people,” she said.
This can be accomplished, she continues, by “adding green space, whether in parks or in making rivers that run through cities more green and safe, with lower risk of flooding, which we’re seeing more and more of, and cleaner water.”
Another benefit of urban green space: urban cooling, which counteracts the well-known urban heat island effect.
Daily’s software, Urban INVEST, is being used in 775 cities across the European Union to determine where new parks or other green spaces should be placed.
For all her appeals to large-scale urban planning and global financial institutions, Daily says she is sensitive to the need for solutions that are not simply imposed in a top-down manner on people or organizations that are smaller and less powerful.
“My motivation in all this came from seeing how trapped smaller businesses or individual farmers and others are in transforming their own operations to be more sustainable,” she says.
“That cross-scale connection between policy at higher levels and how individuals experience it in small businesses and communities—that’s the crux of the problem.”
She says that challenge is one big reason why she and her colleagues often test out their theories in small countries.
Her environmental “war cry”?
Simple, yet resonant on many levels: “Valuing nature.”
“We forget how intimately connected we are to nature,” Daily explained. “Getting off this path and getting onto a better path hinges on recognizing the values of nature in all of our decision-making—and we need to do that in a more routine and mainstream way, so that it’s just second nature.”
“It doesn’t mean just putting a price tag on it—that alone will do absolutely nothing,” she added. “It’s much more about building this awareness in our consciousness and building access to nature into people’s lives.”
“The general movement is all about recognizing the many, many dimensions of nature that we value in different, meaningful ways—spiritual ways, or aesthetic ways, or very personal ways of connecting with nature.”