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Reflections on the Natural Capital Symposium & Interview with NatCap Co-Founder Taylor Ricketts

Nov 22 2016
By Anne Guerry

I told Mary she was crazy, but she insisted on dedicating a significant chunk of the first morning of our Symposium to introductions — passing the microphone around the room and getting each person to say their name, affiliation, and where they were from. We’d done it in the past and liked it. I thought that this year the meeting had gotten too big — that we could pull that off with 100 people, even 200. Not more. The morning came, we did it, and I had to eat some crow. Mary was right (as usual). It was so inspiring to hear the diversity of institutions, geographies, accents, and voices in the room. It was a wonderful opportunity to put names to faces. And, perhaps most importantly, it was a way to put each person — the individual members of the community we are working so hard to build — in the spotlight. So, get ready, if I have any say, we’ll be passing that mic around for years to come.

(Re)learning that Mary’s instincts are generally spot-on was not my only take-home from the Symposium. In fact, I took home 31 pages of notes. They are filled with citations of papers to go read, some great quotes (“gorillas are big, black, furry ATM machines”), ideas for using Google’s amazing Global Fishing Watch tool, and so many other gems. That is significant because at previous annual meetings, I didn’t learn as much. They primarily featured Natural Capital Project staff, talking about our approach, our tools, our lessons learned. At this meeting, we shared our expertise, but also provided a forum for you — our comrades and collaborators — from all over the world to come together and share your science, your tools, your ideas, and how you are working to bring the value of nature to bear on real-world decisions to enhance biodiversity and human well-being. At NatCap, we know well that we don’t have this all figured out — it is all hands on deck as we work to fundamentally change the way decisions are made on this little planet of ours. Building capacity within the community, broadening our collaborations, engaging new partners, and doing more listening and learning are absolutely critical to our mission.

Pulling off a meeting such as our Symposium is no small feat. It takes an astounding amount of time, resources, and heroic efforts on the part of pretty much every single member of our staff, as well as every participant, who put everything else on hold to join us, often coming from halfway around the world. But there are significant dividends, which I believe will grow as our community grows. Thanks to all of you who were part of it this year. And to all of you out there — please come join us next time, we have so much to learn together.




What inspired you to pursue conservation as a career?

I’ve always liked being outside. After college I took a job as a guide and lecturer with an extreme nature tourism company. I spent five years living on a ship. We’d take people to the Amazon, Indonesia, the North Pole. I’d go back to places in the Amazon where we had led tours a few years earlier, and it would be just — a field. In Antarctica I saw penguin colonies getting smaller and smaller. All the nests were visible and every year fewer and fewer were occupied. I realized that the cool parts of nature were changing really fast, and that’s what motivated me to get into graduate school in conservation biology. I quit my ship job and had to come back to shore.

Why did you decide to write this new book “A Field Guide to Economics”? (Roberts & Company, 2015)

The average conservationist has a shelf full of field guides, like “The Birds of South America.” We (co-authors Brendan Fisher and Robin Naidoo) think economics is really, really cool, and that every conservationist should have a field guide to economics that they take down just as often, as part of their toolkit.

It’s economics that drive a lot of conservation problems and a lot of the solutions. It’s as important as knowing the names of species.

In the book, you recount your 2004 research which showed how pollination by wild bees on a single coffee plantation resulted in more beans and of higher quality, worth an extra $60,000. How did you begin to look at the economic values of nature?

My PhD had nothing to do with economics, it was straight up ecology, but I got a post-doc that extended my work in Costa Rica to bees, and their benefits to farmers.

I was out one day taking pictures of the coffee field where I was sampling moths and butterflies and the coffee was flowering and you could hear the whole landscape buzzing softly. I started to wonder if the coffee was benefiting by having these bees around. I was thinking, “What if I studied bees the same way I studied moths?” I went home a few months later and wrote a proposal, though I had never touched a bee before. I had to learn about the economics of this problem, and how to do study it properly. I did it improperly several times.

A lot of people dream of having the time to write a book. How did you fit the writing into your busy schedule?

We got it done in a series of four or five retreat getaways over three years. It was an incredible amount of fun. If anybody wants to write a book, write with other people. It keeps you accountable to each other and getting together with friends, to write, is inspiring.

Your book clarifies a common misperception: “When we say economics we’re not talking about how the stock market is doing. … Economics is about the broad world of understanding how the incentives we face affect the decisions we make.” What have you learned about communicating about the economics of conservation?

One of the lessons is how seldom the actual dollar values have mattered. It’s just not the unit of measure that speaks to people that I thought it would be going in.

In developing countries, people are often asking, “How does [conservation] affect health and poverty? How is this going to help people with the problems that keep me awake at night?”

How did that thinking change your work?

We started another consortium of NGOs and universities, HEAL, (Health and Ecosystem Analysis of Linkages), to focus on the big question “How does ecosystem change affect changes in health outcomes?” and “Is conservation a good investment in public health?”The mission of HEAL is to find out conditions under which that is the case.

How does HEAL relate to what the Natural Capital Project does?

It’s kind of an overlapping Ven diagram with NatCap. We hope a lot of the HEAL products get pulled into InVEST.

Any final thoughts about communicating about conservation?

The economic arguments don’t have to compete with other arguments for conservation. It’s — adding an argument. “Here’s another reason that conservation is important here.” We argue for action all the time on multiple fronts. The more arguments we can muster, the better off we are.

Taylor Ricketts is a co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, co-founder of HEAL, Gund Professor and Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, a Senior Fellow at the World Wildlife Fund and recently the co-author of “A Field Guide to Economics” (Roberts & Company).

To hear an interview with Taylor and co-author Brendan Fisher on Vermont’s NPR:

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.