There is much that I agree with in George Monbiot’s “Price Less” piece. Unfortunately, his central premise is fatally flawed.
He says that (natural) capital theory is predicated on financialization:
“Capital is properly understood as the human-made segment of wealth that is deployed in production to create further financial returns.”
“Capital” is a general theory of stocks and flows of resources that can be used to support wellbeing. It’s almost as if Monbiot hasn’t read Donella Meadows, which is hard to imagine. I suggest he read Dana’s 1998 report, Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development, to gain a deeper understanding — and appreciation — of capital theory.
And then, he may want to familiarize himself with a more comprehensive history of capital theory that Mark McElroy of the Center for Sustainable Organizations compiled (based on his brilliant doctoral dissertation.) Perhaps start with Kenneth Boulding’s 1966 “The economics for the coming spaceship earth.” Or just throw at dart at the list — it’s all good stuff. Required reading, really, before making the kinds of assertions in Monbiot’s piece. I trust that readers will note the irony that amongst these assertions are the “intellectually vacuous” nature of capital theory. Methinks thou dost…
To be clear, Monbiot is absolutely right that almost everyone who uses the capitals framework misapplies monetization, because they fail to properly contextualize the carrying capacities of capitals. What the hell does that mean? Essentially, putting a price on nature without regard to vital sustainability thresholds of the viability of ecological systems (McElroy borrowed the concept of carrying capacities from the field of ecology to apply to the capitals). Think carbon budget.
We at Reporting 3.0 pointed this out in our Data Blueprint. In providing a Recommendation for maturing the Crown Estate’s Total Contribution methodology, we suggested the need to apply “Context-Based Monetization Curves” as first proposed by McElroy in 2014.
Interestingly, as I recently tweeted, a research team from Oxford recently came to the very same conclusion, in their important report, The Wealth of Nature. And they even noted the same thing we did in the Data Blueprint: the danger of substituting anthropogenic capitals (e.g. human capital or social capital) for natural capital, as if they are interchangeable. They are not. For the geeks in the audience, that’s the weak sustainability versus strong sustainability argument, which we cover in the Data Blueprint (citing good ol’ Dr. McElroy as our source.)
The general idea could be summed up as “price more,” to play off Monbiot’s play on words. In other words, the closer a system comes to the sustainability thresholds, the more monetization inflates. Infinitely. Such that it becomes prohibitively expensive to use resources unsustainably.
So, Monbiot unfortunately makes the right analysis based on the wrong premise. He faults the theory. Which is misplaced blame.
It’s not a wrong theory; it’s the wrong application of the theory.
Now that the likes of Oxford are beginning to catch on, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.