Nature Conservancy Canada is hosting a NatureTalks presentation at Memorial University today.  At the presentation several speakers will address the controversial concept of ‘natural capital’ and apply it to Newfoundland and Labrador’s wildlife.

Nature Conservancy Canada’s top ecologist Dan Kraus is visiting Newfoundland to speak at the presentation and make a case for ‘natural capital,’ a concept that has received a lot of scrutiny from academics and environmentalists.

“Natural capital identifies the ecological services that nature provides to people. Through some work that economists at TD Bank have done, we’re actually able to put a dollar value on some of those services, which is kind of neat,” Kraus said.

On the panel Kraus will be discussing a report published by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and TD Bank. The report assigns an economic value to forests across the country, including a piece of property on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.

Krauss argues that putting a price on ‘services’ the forest offers people (such as cleaning the air and preventing flooding) will make it easier to protect those areas from development.

Journalist George Monibot devoted his 2014 Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute lecture to debunking the theory that determining an area’s ‘natural capital’ will protect it.

Monibot believes it’s ridiculous to suggest that the value of nature could be quantified through a financial system, he jokes that it’s like suggesting it’s possible to calculate the dollar value of love. He also says the motivation for defining an ecosystem in monetary terms is to make it easier to destroy areas that would otherwise be protected with the caveat that you will compensate later.

This logic was invoked last fall in Newfoundland and Labrador when Liberal MP Nick Whalen famously tweeted, “That is ridiculous. Just measure MeHg levels, eat less fish while MeHg levels are too high, and compensate.” In response to concerns that flooding relating to the Muskrat Falls hydro-electric dam would cause a spike in methylmercury, poisoning Lake Melville for decades to come, and endangering people’s health and way of life.

“As an ecologist it does worry me a little bit,” Kraus admitted, “because I want people value nature for it’s intrinsic values and there’s all kinds of benefits to that, but because we’re loosing nature so quickly we need to talk about it in other terms so we can work with people involved in its conservation.”

In recent years, many environmental organizations have partnered with large corporations in the hope that they will be able to change the system from the inside. Author and activist Naomi Klein devoted a chapter of her book This Changes Everything to“The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green.”

Klein admits that, “…it’s virtually impossible to do public interest work of any scale – in academia, or journalism or activism – without taking money of questionable origin…” A line that makes it possible to overlook to the fact that Shell Oil is among Nature Conservancy Canada’s funders.

However, Klein goes on to say that these partnerships become dangerous when the corporations begin having undue influence on,  “…the kinds of research undertaken, the kinds of policies advanced, as well as the kinds of questions that get asked in the first place.”

There are lots of pressing questions that Nature Conservancy Canada could be looking into regarding the environment in Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, the money used to determine exactly how much that forest on the Northern Peninsula is worth could have been put toward investigating how the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam would impact Mud Lake this spring.

We need well-funded environmental organizations to ask the questions that the government and large corporations avoid. It might be worth attending this panel to ask how much control TD Bank has over the kinds of questions Nature Conservancy Canada gets to ask.