The Nature of Wealth and the Wealth of Nature

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Arizona Science Center and Arizona State University bring "Inspiring Wonder One Innovation at a Time," an event featuring "lightning lectures" by prominent university researchers. These lectures are under five minutes each and cover technology, the environment, and health. In her lightning lecture, Sustainability Scientist and Professor Ann Kinzig talks about "The Nature of Wealth and the Wealth of Nature," concepts that Kinzig finds absolutely vital to achieving sustainability. She explores what makes up wealth and well-being, how we can achieve wealth now without harming future generations, and natural capital.


Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan: Our next speaker, another fantastic scientist that we are privileged to have at ASU, is Dr. Ann Kinzig. She’s a professor of the School of Life Sciences. She is the chief strategist for the Global Institute of Sustainability, and she also leads the next generation research program in the Rob and Melanie Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative. By the way, we are very grateful to Rob and Melanie for their investment, which is going to really make a huge difference to our community. We are thankful for that. Ann leads the EcoServices research program at ASU, and looks at the cost and consequences of change in ecosystem services, and also what can be derived for people because of the biophysical environment. We are delighted to have Ann join us. Ann, if you would, please…?

Ann Kinzig: Thanks, Panch.

That’s fine. Okay, let’s hope that doesn’t happen again. [Laughter] I’m here tonight to talk to you about the nature of wealth and the wealth of nature, because understanding both of these concepts is essential for achieving that elusive goal of sustainability. Now the most common definition of sustainability was given by the Brundtland Commission. It said that sustainability is development which meets the needs of current generations, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. At first glance, this seems great. Sustainability after all, at its heart, should be about our obligations to the future. At second glance you have to wonder, how in the world could we possibly know whether we were achieving this goal? Well, to understand that, we have to turn back to wealth. It actually comes from an old English word, weal, which means well-being. Our wealth is actually the sum total of all of our assets that deliver well-being. Sustainability is ultimately about maintaining or enhancing human well-being. It’s about maintaining or increasing wealth. It’s as simple as that.

What assets make up our wealth? I once had a friend share the stage with the Dalai Lama, and an earnest young woman in the audience was waving her hand, and asked, “How do I teach my children that money isn’t important?” The Dalai Lama thought about it for a minute, and he said, “Well, money is kind of important [laughter], because it helps you buy lots of other things that you care about.” These could be manufactured or built goods, like our cell phones, or our roadways, or our houses. Put that together with money, and call it produced capital. There’s also wealth in people, in our individual skills and our knowledge, and in the synergies that can come from teams and communities: human capital. Yes, there’s wealth in nature, not just in our productive lands, but in the full range of goods and services that she provides: natural capital. Now all three forms of wealth are important to society, and maintaining all three is important for sustainability.

I want to focus tonight on natural capital, the goods and services provided by nature. What are those? Now most of us here are lucky enough to enjoy one of nature’s services several times a day: her bounty. Not just her food, but her fibers and fuels. We are also all aware of nature’s tremendous beauty. Nature provides many other services that are more hidden to us. Nature offers protection. Intact coastal ecosystems like mangrove forests or coral reefs can protect against devastating floods and tsunamis. Trees can sequester carbon or provide shade, and regulate climate extremes. Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus can be kept in check by species-rich ecosystems.

Nature also offers solutions. A leafcutter ant can carry up to ten times its own weight. Now, this doesn’t sound that impressive, cuz ants are tiny. This is like a Kleenex or something. This would be the equivalent of my being able to lift up the entire offensive line of the Chicago Bears, and carry it down the field. [Laughter] Two rams can butt their heads together with great force and not concuss their brains. We can borrow from these and many other solutions that nature offers, and apply them to our own problems through biomimicry.

The bottom line is that, while nature’s bounty has been increasing in recent decades, all of the rest of her services have been diminishing. Why? The problem lies with the fact that in our national accounting and in our indices, we track some forms of wealth and not others. When we don’t track something, we’re sending the signal that it’s not important, that we don’t need to pay attention to it, that we don’t need to take care of it. What do we track? Well, we track the wealth and money, but not in a disease regulation that leads to a healthy workforce. We track the wealth and manufactured goods, but not in the creatures that might have inspired those goods. We track the wealth in our productive lands, but not in our national parks. We track the wealth in a tree when we cut it down to use it, but not if we leave it standing.

Now recently a group tried to remedy this by looking at all three forms of wealth, what it called inclusive wealth. These are the results for the United States. If you look at only produced capital, per capita wealth in the U.S. was increasing at a rate of just under three percent per year. That’s what we normally do. Human capital was increasing, but more slowly. We were actually losing natural capital at a per capita rate of over one percent per year. When you put all this together to get inclusive wealth, we aren’t getting rich nearly as fast as we thought we were. The time we’re gonna be at this event tonight, scientists estimate we might lose as many as six species from the planet forever as a result of human activities. Which of these do you want to lose? It doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn to understand the true nature of wealth. We can learn to track the wealth in nature, and in doing so, put ourselves on a more sustainable pathway. Never stop wondering how we can make the world a better place, and never stop believing that we can. Thank you.