When many conservation scientists justified their efforts to conserve nature simply for the value of its existence, Daily’s risky, non-classical research projects bore ideas that have transformed the way we think about conservation. Photo credit: Ola Hopper
The 2020 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement “recognizes individuals who have contributed in an outstanding manner to the scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world.” Out of 82 awardees since 1973, Gretchen Daily is the seventh woman to receive the prize. She is recognized alongside World Wildlife Fund International president Pavan Sukhdev.
“The Tyler Prize Executive Committee is honored to recognize two outstanding individuals who have pioneered the valuing of natural capital—in rigorous scientific and economic terms—recognizing nature’s vital role in supporting human wellbeing,” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Tyler Prize Chair.
In May 2019, the United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted devastating biodiversity loss and warned that societies cannot continue to pursue forms of economic growth that are blind to nature. Daily has been working to integrate nature’s values into economic and conservation decisions for years; she cofounded the Stanford Natural Capital Project in 2005 to do just that.
“We can think of ecosystems as a type of capital asset; just as we have assets like human capital, or financial capital, we also have natural capital,” said Daily. “We depend on living natural capital—Earth’s lands, waters, and biodiversity. But around the world, we are liquidating nature at accelerating rates.”
Daily’s groundbreaking work forecasting biodiversity change and estimating the values of ecosystems and their services started when she was a PhD student at Stanford. In a time when many conservation scientists justified their efforts to conserve nature simply for the value of its existence, Daily’s risky, non-classical research projects bore ideas that have transformed the way we think about conservation.
“Gretchen showed how there could be other quantitative values on ecosystems through developing and organizing the field of ecosystem services,” said Hugh Possingham, Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy, one of the core partner organizations of the Natural Capital Project. “This research…set her apart as a globally-significant thought leader.”
Today, the Natural Capital Project is a global leader in natural capital science and practice. InVEST, the organization’s free, open-source software, is designed to quantify and map return-on-investment in nature. InVEST helps governments, corporations, and development banks understand the risks and costs of losing natural capital so they can make decisions that preserve it. “Often we appreciate the costs of loss—of flooding after clearing forests, or polluted drinking water after destroying wetlands—only after it’s too late,” said Daily. The InVEST software platform makes the science accessible and actionable, and has been applied in more than 180 nations.
“Remember that nature has not been a part of economic accounting systems in the past. We just took it for granted that we’re going to get clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration. The use of economic tools by a biologist is not something we find in everyday practice, and this has been Gretchen’s great gift,” said Marton-Lefèvre.
Renowned Stanford biologist and professor emeritus Paul Ehrlich, who received the Tyler Prize in 1998, holds Daily in the highest regard. “In my view, she is the most important scholar working on environmental sustainability issues in the world today,” said Ehrlich.
World Wildlife Fund is a core partner in the Natural Capital Project partnership, making this joint honor with Sukhdev especially significant. On April 30, Daily and Sukhdev will deliver a public presentation about their work at the New York Academy of Sciences. In a private ceremony on May 1, the Tyler Prize Executive Committee and distinguished members of the international environmental community will join to honor the two new Laureates during a ceremony in New York City.
This story is modified from the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement news release.
Gretchen Daily is the co-founder and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project, Bing Professor in Environmental Science at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies, Emeritus at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and a Senior Fellow, Emeritus at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.