Sunday book review – Natural Capital by Dieter Helm


This is a book written by an eminent economist who is also passionately interested in wildlife. There may be lots of such people but I haven’t met many of them. And Professor Dieter Helm has been since 2012, the chair of the Natural Capital Committee in England.

The author states in his preface that ‘The central argument of this book is that only by putting the environment at the heart of the economy can there be much hope of addressing the scale of destruction that will otherwise happen. It is perfectly possible to achieve sustainable economic growth. The prize is great and it can be financed. The loss of biodiversity and much of our natural environment may be a physical and biological process, but the solutions lie squarely in the allocation of scarce resources – in other words with economics‘.

That’s a characteristically clear and forthright statement and the book is full of many more. You don’t have to be an economist to get a lot from this book (I’m not, and I did).

One could take the paragraph of Helm’s (above) and substitute ‘politics’ for ‘the economy’  in the first sentence, and ‘politics’ for ‘economics’ at the end, and I think it would be true. How one feels about the approach of valuing nature objectively, as an economist might, depends a little for those of us who care more about nature than economics, on how useful we think the economics will be in influencing the politics and saving nature. For a non-economist nature conservationist a large part of the ambivalence about valuing nature is about whether it will lead to more nature being conserved or less.

The early chapter ‘Facing up to the Challenges’ is a clear-eyed, hard-headed look at where we are and where we will head on a business as usual track. It is a joltingly sobering read.

In ‘Sustaining economic growth‘ Helm suggests that although we could opt for a zero-growth future, which would be feasible if vegetarianism were adopted very widely globally and if we shared the world’s resources much more equally, it isn’t the only possibility.  He makes the distinction between renewable and non-renewable assets. Looking to the future, he suggests that non-renewables (think North Sea Oil) can be used up provided that they are replaced by something else (a load of solar power that will propel the cars of the future, perhaps) and that is fair to future generations. Renewables can be depleted too, but not beyond a threshold from which they could bounce back, and that threshold is difficult to identify very clearly in complex cases such as rainforest function.

You may find it hard to believe that a chapter entitled ‘Defining the Aggregate Natural Capital Rule‘ is the fulcrum around which this book attempts to change the future – but it is. And it’s a very good chapter. It puts forward the idea that we should concentrate on handing on, as per the Brundtland report, a set of assets that will allow future generations of people to make their own choices about the world. But which assets need special care and attention in being bequeathed to future generations? Helm suggests, for several good reasons (read the book!) that natural assets deserve and require a special place in the legacy we give to our children and grandchildren and beyond. And he argues strongly that natural assets are a form of natural infrastructure which come in systems (habitats, ecosystems) that are rather like man-made infrastructure such as transport systems or electricity systems. We need roads and electricity for the future; they don’t have to be exactly the same in the future as now (and aren’t remotely the same now as they were in the past) but we should pass them on. Natural assets are similar and are valuable and should be valued and should be part of our contract with future generations. We will pass on a road system to the future whether we like it or not, and we shall pass on a natural world too – both should be part of our conscious legacy to the future.

If you were to accept that handing on assets to the future is a large part of living sustainably in the present, and that that is a large part of sustainable living, it gets you away from measuring economic growth all the time and into stock-taking assets – including the neglected natural assets such as Skylarks and Bluebells. This is a good way of thinking about things, and one that is quite likely to appeal to people of many political persuasions, in theory.

Once you sign up to this idea than the rest is just about deciding which assets, how to measure them and how to protect them. Helm is good on these things and even if you might not find yourself agreeing with him always, his case is put very clearly and in a way that engages the brain of the reader.

And so I believe that Helm’s book persuaded me that his approach is a good one – which really means that it suits me. If we hold to the idea that we should (ethically) pass on a certain collection of assets to future generations, and that those should include defined and measured natural assets, then that would, as Helm states, be a big step forward from the present position. It wouldn’t make the road ahead completely smooth, or much less steep, but it does provide a path to the future.

This subject is not a jolly one but it is important. And this book is not a trivial read but it is very accessible if one is in the mood for thinking. The author makes a good case and makes it well.  If politically adopted, the Aggregate Natural Capital Rule could mean that there is more nature in the future than there would be without it.


Natural Capital: valuing the planet by Dieter Helm is published by Yale University Press.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


6 Replies to “Sunday book review – Natural Capital by Dieter Helm”

  1. Mark,

    I’m surprised that you took so much from this book as I would have thought that it represents something that you would widely disagree with. I am definitely against the premise of this book and what the author proposes. How can we treat the natural world as another aspect of the economy? The natural world is so important because it can not be valued, and I am against anything that goes along the lines “Let’s keep this part of the natural world because it benefits the economy and let’s not care about this endangered species because it doesn’t”. I think the importance of the natural world goes beyond the value of it. After all, it’s not even up to us to do that because we are part of the natural world and we can’t escape from this.

    1. I haven’t read the book so I cannot say overall whether I agree with it or not. I do agree with you though that an approach that only seeks to preserve species and habitats that have some perceived benefit to Homo sapiens is not one that I would support. The fact that some species may not make an obvious economic contribution and at the same time lack the charm or the ‘wow factor’ that would make us want to preserve them for the sake of the emotional uplift they provide, should not be a reason for consigning them to the dustbin. Even if we want to retain a narrowly utilitarian perspective, that approach carries the risk that we may lose many things before we ever find out how they are good for us.
      On the other hand it surely makes sense to aim to leave behind ‘natural assets’ to benefit our children and grandchildren. It is also crazy to not ‘account for’ nature in our economic models if this means disregarding the cost of species loss, depletion of resources and pollution of the air, land and water (or, worse still, using an accounting system that somehow turns the cost of dealing with these things into a benefit because it helps ‘grow’ the GDP).
      If Helm’s ‘natural assets’ include those myriads of species and habitats that make no obvious contribution to our well-being, whether financially or spiritually, then perhaps he is onto something. If not, he only has part of the answer at best.

  2. Half agree with the above comment but it seems that putting a price tag on something is the only way to raise the eyebrows of politicians, particular in places like China, India etc.

    Also, unrelated but there’s a awful recent article by the telegraph you might find amusing Mark.

    It describes the the crane fly as an arachnid that lays egg sacks and makes cobwebs…Oh dear.

    I even wrote an article about it to help them out

  3. This book – and the thinking behind it is seminal. It also, I think, points up some of the big problems facing nature conservation thinking at the moment. Do you start big, questioning our blind faith in GDP and an economic system depleting its own resource base almost without serious questioning ? Or do you work up from the natural world and its myriad of species, especially the non- charismatic ? Because I think they probably meet in the middle and its a question of how do you get there. Unlike almost everyone else in conservation I’m not that taken with Lawton. Yes, the message that we need bigger is spot on BUT anyone can spend £ billions to get there (if they can get their hands on it) and the Lawton approach is bedevilled by a curse of our time: it is almost entirely sectoral and there is no way conservation is ever going to get the scale as a purely sectoral bid for resources. What is vital about the Natural Capital argument is that it doesn’t cost in cash terms (though you may have to invest in the short term) and it brings together a host of compatible sectors – it would be a real challenge to create 100,000 hectares of new wetland or 250,000 hectares of new peri-urban woodland without benefitting wildlife and the sort of broad coalition realising these benefits requires gives a real prospect of creating an opposing vision to the rapacious greed of current economic thinking.

  4. I agree with the comment that all the species on earth have their own value.
    But that is not the choice we have now, because the whole economic system just ignores that, and environmental. The effect of this is that commercial decisions must ignore that aspect of our world.
    I will read this because getting the value of ecosystems somehow into everyday decisions of governments seems to be the only way out that has a chance of working.

    I think it is important that economists take this problem on board and get working on it.

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