Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Monetizing Nature"

Carolyn Raffensperger

I agree with Barbara Unmüßig’s premise that we need to return to first principles including the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. One way to do that would be by reframing the conversation with concepts she mentions only briefly, such as the public good. Reframing the conversation would challenge the rules driving capitalism’s approach to ecosystem services. If the basis of the economy is capital, then we will continue to wrestle with monetization and commoditization, which is the language of capitalism. But if the basis of the economy is actually the Earth, and if the Earth is a commons, then we will use valuation appropriately—to assess the potential harm of a project for purposes of making polluters pay, obtaining appropriate assurance bonds, etc.

Predicating the discussion on the commonwealth of the natural world invites a public trust theory of government as the steward or guardian of the commons. Valuation and accounting principles can be used by governments to report on the status and well-being of the commons to commoners. At the present time, audits of the commons are being done in various jurisdictions to assess the success or need for restoration or protection of specific commons such as salmon fisheries.

I would urge a few additional first principles. One, the principle of subsidiarity suggests that government size and budgets must be tailored to the commons under a particular jurisdiction. Two, free, prior, and informed consent of the community must be obtained before an action is taken that threatens the commons and the interests of future generations. Informed consent is emerging as a right of community to protect their commons. An expression of this right can be found in places such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Royal Bank of Canada will not fund a project unless the project proponent has obtained the free, prior, and informed consent of any indigenous community affected by the proposal. Three, future generations’ interests in the commons must be defined, asserted, and protected. It is those interests that compel use of the precautionary principle.

Essentially, what we need is to make clear that destroying the commons of the Earth is fundamentally unethical. The precautionary principle; free, prior, and informed consent; and the interests of future generations put those ethical questions to the fore. In sum, the precautionary principle will always be on a slippery slope where financial capital is the treasure that we seek to protect. When we understand the natural world as the common treasure that we seek to protect for present and future generations, then the precautionary principle and other first principles fall into place, and we are more likely to leave a healthy world to those generations to come.

Carolyn Raffensperger
Carolyn Raffensperger is executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. She is best known for her work on the precautionary principle and a legal framework to assert the rights of future generations.

Cite as Carolyn Raffensperger, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Monetizing Nature," Great Transition Initiative (August 2014),

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