What price nature?

What price nature?

For Siddarth Shrikanth, biodiversity loss is the basis of ‘the other planetary crisis’. Climate change attracts the attention of activists, academics, policy wonks and financiers while nature is relatively neglected. 

There is some truth to this, as the climate industry booms, but Shrikanth’s naïve claim that steps towards decarbonisation are “gathering pace” is indicative of an unjustified optimism running throughout The Case for Nature.

Though he acknowledges arguments for its intrinsic value, Shrikanth’s main contribution is to make a ‘business case’ for nature. He advances the concept of natural capital: “The natural world is priceless – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value”. 


Part of this value comes from the ‘ecosystem services’ of nature: provisioning (timber, fish, etc), regulating (keeping the planet liveable), cultural (making it worth living for), supporting (biology, physics, chemistry). 

Confusingly, Shrikanth does go on to put a price on nature by proposing a series of market-based solutions. He aims to be “radical, hopeful and pragmatic”, but this uncomfortable combination of buzzwords provides limited cover for his inability to confront the glaring contradictions inherent to his case.

Each chapter surveys existing initiatives across different policy areas in a journalistic style, before drawing unconvincingly hopeful conclusions. 

Discussing ecotourism, we travel between Fiji, Costa Rica and Brazil to learn about how responsible tourism can fund conservation. However, there is little consideration of why some countries are dependent on tourism and when Shrikanth asserts that locals should lead and share in good jobs and benefits, there is no thought about how to achieve this against the parasitic logic of profit-seeking markets.

This strategy of diverting capital – whether from western corporations or consumer spending – towards nature solutions through market mechanisms is generalised. 

Both rewilding – “nature protection and restoration” – and regenerative agriculture – “nature friendly food production – are vaguely and uncritically defined. 


Although their realisation is apparently dependent on the contingent generosity of multinational corporations – Danone is cited as offering £25bn to farmers for long-term contracts supporting transition – Shrikanth draws a romantic conclusion that a new food system is within reach. 

This optimism extends to new technology with positive examples presented as products of an invariably progressive process of innovation tending towards the environmental good. 

But what of the political-economic drivers behind technological development? What of the technologies still being produced to worsen rather than solve the nature crisis?

The Case for Nature concludes with an appeal to indigeneity, as is presently fashionable, in which the contradictions of Shrikanth’s arguments are sharpest. 

The market-solutions he advocates couldn’t be more counterposed to the Indigenous knowledges and cultures of land management that he references. 


Quite possibly Shrikanth feels this deep-down, but he lacks the conviction to subject his pro-market zeal to substantial scrutiny. The cases surveyed are not put in a wider political-economic context and there is no consideration of the role of marketisation in driving the very crisis he wants it to solve. 

There is no discussion of the scalability or political viability of the various initiatives. Instead, they are clumsily stitched together to form an incoherent basis for a pre-determined approach cloaked in superficial appeals to pragmatism.

It is unsurprising that Shrikanth lacks – and actively eschews – a political program to sit alongside his so-called business case for nature as he offers limited suggestion of how his market-optimism can be realised.

How exactly can markets be wrestled away from the short-term profit motive that has defined capitalism until now? What role for the state or social movements in instigating world historic shifts in capital’s relationship to nature? 

Such political questions are beyond Shrikanth’s capacity, and his contribution is all the more disappointing for it.

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Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal and is the author of Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice.


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