NATURE’S FORTUNE: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. By Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams. Basic Books. 243 pages. $26.99.
What value does a fish have, alive, swimming in the ocean? Can we put a price tag on the fresh water that a forest filters for us? Or on the forest itself beyond the market price for timber? Does investing in floodplains and oyster reefs make more sense than building levees and sea walls?
Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, and conservation biologist Jonathan Adams, ask questions like these and propose a new economic paradigm for the 21st century in “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.”
In a series of contemporary case studies, the authors highlight valuation schemes that respect and sustain natural ecosystems.
For example, a fish that can mature and spawn thousands more like it may be worth more to consumers and fisherman alike if left to swim in the sea than if it is caught and sold.
This “green infrastructure” approach to man’s relationship to nature has inspired innovative catch-share systems in California’s fishing industry and marine conservation efforts among small island nations in the South Pacific.
A former partner at Goldman Sachs, Tercek brings decades of experience in finance and risk management to the battle to conserve natural resources.
He cites The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to bring multinational corporations to the table, from Cargill to Dupont to Dow Chemical — enemies to most enviros — and to enlist coalitions of farmers to save rainforests from further destruction, conserve fresh water for agriculture and restore coastal wetlands that protect towns and cities from storms and rising seas.
Not only are these measures victories for the environment, but they are good for business, too, the authors write.
“Nature’s Fortune” argues that human beings must change how we value natural resources by factoring in what economists call “externalities”: a product or an ecosystem’s costs and benefits to a third party that are not accounted for in its price.
Once we consider the actual value of a forested mountain, we are less likely to rush in to fell the trees.
Or if we factor in the benefits of having healthy salt marshes and oyster reefs, including seafood harvested from tidal waters and quiet protection from storms and hurricanes, we would discover that it is uneconomical to fill in the marshes and build homes next to the ocean without natural buffers.
Environmental protection and capitalism need not be at odds, Tercek and Adams contend, it’s just that current markets are short-sighted and failing.
Despite the freshness and significance of their ideas, the authors cloak them in dumbed-down language that at times is boring and unconvincing. Their call for new ways of thinking must be read between the lines; it’s not explicitly stated.
Attempting to appeal to a general audience, Tercek and Adams have achieved the opposite: Few readers will stick with this book from cover to cover. Lackluster writing, however, should not diminish the importance of their call for “seeing things whole” or the good work of The Nature Conservancy.
“A new valuation of nature,” the authors conclude with their most courageous writing, “integrates conservation values and human development, science and economics. ... If we want a successful business, a liveable city, a green, diverse, and vibrant planet, we have to take nature into account, and recognize the real value of the services nature provides.”
This idea, the book’s central theme, is something worth thinking about, internalizing and carrying with us wherever we go.
Carlin Rosengarten is a writer and environmental consultant based in Charleston.