The Green Tau: issue 37 

17th March 2022

Natural Wealth

We usually think of wealth in terms of money. Maybe we have an image of a vault full of coins and precious jewels like that of Harry Potter’s at Gringotts Bank.  Today I want to focus on natural wealth by which I mean the stock of natural resources that the earth provides for us. These natural resources range from water, air and soil,  plants and animals, to rocks and minerals.  The World Bank describes these things as being ‘natural capital’   which points to their use as means of generating something more. This is not an inappropriate concept. It fits with the repeated phrase used in Genesis chapter 1, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. In creating the world, God was creating a thing that would grow and reproduce, diversify and abound, prosper and flourish.

What the two terms, natural wealth and natural capital, may point to is that natural resources can be misused  diminishing wealth and productivity. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Soil

Soil is a natural resource to be found in all parts of the world. It should be valued as a key part of the world’s natural wealth. Soil enables plants to grow. Without plants we would starve and so too would all other creatures. Without plants, our atmosphere would suffer: carbon dioxide would cease to be absorbed and oxygen produced. Soil absorbs water preventing flash floods. Soil is home to wealth of biodiversity – moles, worms, ants, mites, fungus, bacteria etc. it is the nesting place for puffins and shearwaters, for rabbits and foxes.

Soil was not created ready formed. Soil is the result of the erosion of rocks creating small mineral particles; the decaying  of plant and animal remains; the addition by water of further chemicals; and the digging, mixing, tilling action of creatures as diverse as ants and worms, birds and badgers. When soil is being newly formed such as on lava outcrops or newly exposed rock surfaces, or where shores have been exposed, pioneer species of plants will begin the soil making process, to be replaced overtime by other plants, insects and animals as the soil’s fertility increases. 

However the wealth of the soil can be lost. If it looses its protective plant covering, it can be blown or washed away. If its goodness is used to grow successive generations of plants without that goodness being replaced, it becomes a non-fertile dust. If is infused with poisons (pesticides, herbicides etc) the biodiversity within the soil will lost and with it the ability of the soil to process and absorb decaying plant and animal material that gives the soil its fertility.  If it is overridden by heavy equipment, its structure is crushed, spaces for air and water are lost and with it, the soil’s ability to support life forms. Across the world, as self destructive as it may seem, humans misuse the soil: deforestation; monoculture; use of increasingly large and heavy farm equipment; use of insecticides, herbicides and overuse of artificial fertilisers; destruction of the infrastructure for biodiversity (hedgerows, verges, copses); over grazing etc. All these contribute to the destruction of the soil. 

All soil, cultivated or not, needs to be protected. Where it is cultivated it needs to be carefully tended and fed, and its structure and maintained. 

Forests

Forests are another key part of the natural wealth of the planet. Forests stabilise and protect soils. They are home to a great variety of different plants (more than just trees!), animals, birds, insects and many other living things. They provide humans with timber for building (homes, railway tracks,  bridges etc), for furniture, tools boxes. Timber for making paper and card, for making fabrics (eg viscose). Fruit, nuts and saps for food, as well as saps that are used to make rubber and resins. Many forest plants have medicinal uses. Forests provide shade which can be used to protect vulnerable crops (eg shade grown coffee). Tree cover can protect the soil for either drying out or being washed away, and sylvan farming techniques utilise this value of forests. Forests slow the flow of water so reducing the risks or scale of flooding. Forests absorb carbon and contribute considerably counterbalancing the excesses of carbon dioxide generated by human lifestyles.

And yet the wealth of our forests is being diminished. 

‘Forests cover 31 percent of the global land area – 4.06 billion hectares… Between  2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year, down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s.  Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity… Large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm) accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33 percent.’  https://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/

Oil

Oil, like coal and gas, is a substance formed over many millennia in very precise circumstances that coincided hundreds of millennia ago. It is a highly adaptable material that can be used not just as an energy source, but also to make products as diverse as lipstick and fertilisers, and of course, plastic. Plastic has proved a very useful material being cheap, light, non perishable, highly mouldable etc. However oil was formed by locking away carbon deposits over hundreds of thousands of year but which we are now released into the atmosphere in just three centuries. This rate of release is far more greater than the ability of the atmosphere to safely contain it. Oil has become the biggest human pollutant. Oil extraction, through oil leaks etc is also a cause of  localised pollution. And in addition we are now aware of the polluting effects of the plastics we have produced – micro particles of plastic have been found in all parts of the planet as well as in animals, fish, birds and human beings. Oil whilst appearing to offer many benefits, has and continues to damage the earth.

Unlike soils, which can be rescued and regenerated, and forests that can be replanted and restored, oil – and other minerals that we extract from the earth – is a non renewable resource. For those those things for which oil-based products are beneficial, we should make every effort to recycle and reuse all that we do have.

Natural wealth is a gift from God, a gift of creation. We should not squander or degrade it. Rather we should cherish and nurture it. This should determine how we use that wealth, how we care for the soils and the forests, how we use – or rather don’t use oil -and how we recycle and reuse plastic items.

Whilst the level of care given to our natural wealth may vary between nations (and this could be for any number of reasons such as economic policies, poverty, heritage), the distribution of natural wealth across the planet is independent of  national boundaries and its distribution could be viewed as inequitable. Some countries have large areas of fertile soil conducive to growing wheat, corn or rice. Others have soils and climates conducive to the growth of forests. Some countries have large reserves of minerals such as iron ore, lithium and gold. Some countries have large reserves of fossil fuels. Some have tides, rivers and reservoirs suitable for producing hydro electricity, or climates suitable for wind and solar power. More recently we have realised that some countries have reserves of natural wealth that excel as carbon sinks: forests, peat bogs, mangroves, kelp forests. What we have not perhaps resolved is how we share this global wealth fairly – other than through economic markets – or how we share the responsibility of caring for this wealth, and ensuring that we pass it on us diminished to future generations.  

Whilst wealth and money are not, per se, the same thing, putting a monetary value on natural wealth helps countries and people to recognise the value of natural wealth and to shape their actions accordingly. The World Bank has been working on an Ecosystem Accounting framework that allows countries to assess the services contributed by natural wealth and give them a monetary value. By having a standardised system countries can  calculate how the natural wealth contributes to their GDP. “This is a huge step towards seeing nature as an economic asset that needs to be managed and preserved to ensure sustainable growth. For example, the Government of Cambodia asked the World Bank to provide the economic rationale behind preserving 65% of the country’s forests as protected land. While some benefits were  obvious, it did not have the economic analysis to fully justify such a  wide-ranging decision. Using ecosystem accounting, the World Bank team supported the Government of Cambodia in quantifying a suite of services that forests offer  –  water, agriculture and hydropower, ecotourism and carbon storage – for the Pursat River Basin in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. The analysis revealed that economic gains from preserving the forests was five times higher than cutting them down for charcoal production or agriculture. It also found that the benefits to other economic sectors derived from forest ecosystems are 20 times higher than the cost of maintaining them”. https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/giant-leap-towards-measuring-natures-contributions-economy

The British Government, too, is developing the use of ecosystem accounting. ‘The Office for National Statistics estimate that England’s woods and forests deliver a value of services estimated at £2.3 billion annually. Of this figure, only a small proportion – 10% – is in timber values. The rest of the value derives from other more ‘hidden’ benefits to society, such as human recreation and air pollution removal, which improve health, and carbon sequestration which can help combat climate change’. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/natural-capital-tool-launched-to-help-protect-the-environment If followed through, this should ensure that we – as a nation, as a society, as landowners and as business enterprises –  do actually value and safeguard our forests and woodlands. 

As individuals we can speak out for and protect our world’s natural wealth –

  • Be an ethical consumer 
  • Be an ethical investor whether that is with direct investments or via investments made on your behalf by your pension fund provider, insurers, bank etc.
  • Support nature conservation schemes, nature friendly farming research, alternative energy etc
  • Be a campaigner, make your voice heard 
  • Visit and enjoy local nature reserves and green or blue spaces. 

Visit https://greentau.org/2022/02/24/eco-tips/ for more  tips on being a sustainable consumer.

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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