George Monbiot’s criticism on Biodiversity Offsets and the Natural Capital Agenda: “The pricing of Everything”

Crit­i­cism on the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda and Bio­di­ver­sity Offsets

George Mon­biot has pre­sented a detailed (how­ever mostly neg­a­tive) analy­sis of his crit­i­cism on the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda (in the UK) includ­ing Bio­di­ver­sity Off­sets as one part of it at his annual lec­ture at the Sheffield Polit­i­cal Econ­omy Research Insti­tute. The tran­script of his speech was pub­lished in his weekly col­umn for The Guardian (see below). I will cite some of the main points of his reasoning.

Argu­ments against the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda and Bio­di­ver­sity Offsets

Mon­biot gives the fol­low­ing four argu­ments (with ris­ing sig­nif­i­cance) against what he calls the “Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda” under­pinned with dif­fer­ent exam­ples, one of them being bio­di­ver­sity offsets.

  1. pric­ing nature is non­sense because the num­bers are not reliable
  2. Unbundling ecosys­tem ser­vices and trad­ing them sep­a­rately means dam­ag­ing the holis­tic sys­tem of nature
  3. the power of the eco­nomic sys­tem as a whole against the power of nature
  4. Prob­lem of val­ues and fram­ing: tak­ing the posi­tion of the oppo­nent (the mon­eti­sa­tion of nature) means loos­ing the own val­ues (instrin­sic vlaue of nature)

The Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda: the pric­ing, val­u­a­tion, mon­eti­sa­tion, finan­cial­i­sa­tion of nature in the name of sav­ing it

Mon­biot starts off with giv­ing argu­ments from sup­port­ers of the Narural Cap­i­tal Agenda. He refers to two points: giv­ing a value to nature and rais­ing money to save it:

“Those who sup­port this agenda say, “Look, we are fail­ing spec­tac­u­larly to pro­tect the nat­ural world – and we are fail­ing because peo­ple aren’t valu­ing it enough. Com­pa­nies will cre­ate a road scheme or a super­mar­ket – or a motor­way ser­vice sta­tion in an ancient wood­land on the edge of Sheffield – and they see the value of what is going to be destroyed as effec­tively zero. They weigh that against the money to be made from the devel­op­ment with which they want to replace it. So if we were to price the nat­ural world, and to point out that it is really worth some­thing because it deliv­ers ecosys­tems ser­vices to us in the form of green infra­struc­ture and asset classes within an ecosys­tems mar­ket (i.e. water, air, soil, pol­li­na­tion and the rest of it), then per­haps we will be able to per­suade peo­ple who are oth­er­wise unper­suad­able that this is really worth preserving.”

They also point out that through this agenda you can raise a lot of money, which isn’t oth­er­wise avail­able for con­ser­va­tion projects.”

He con­cludes:

“These are plau­si­ble and respectable argu­ments. But I think they are the road to ruin – to an even greater ruin than we have at the moment. Let me try to explain why with an esca­lat­ing series of argu­ments. I say esca­lat­ing because they rise in sig­nif­i­cance, start­ing with the rel­a­tively triv­ial and becom­ing more seri­ous as we go.”

Pric­ing nature is non­sense because the num­bers are not reliable

“Per­haps the most triv­ial argu­ment against the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda is that, in the major­ity of cases, efforts to price the nat­ural world are com­plete and utter gob­bledy­gook. And the rea­son why they are com­plete and utter gob­bledy­gook is that they are deal­ing with val­ues which are non-commensurable.

They are try­ing to com­pare things which can­not be directly com­pared. The result is the kind of non­sense to be found in the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Committee’s lat­est report, pub­lished a cou­ple of weeks ago(4). The Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Com­mit­tee was set up by this Gov­ern­ment, sup­pos­edly in pur­suit of bet­ter means of pro­tect­ing the nat­ural world.

It claimed, for exam­ple, that if fresh water ecosys­tems in this coun­try were bet­ter pro­tected, the addi­tional aes­thetic value aris­ing from that pro­tec­tion would be £700 mil­lion. That’s the aes­thetic value: in other words, what it looks like […] It’s just not pos­si­ble to have mean­ing­ful fig­ures for ben­e­fits which can­not in any sen­si­ble way be mea­sured in finan­cial terms.”

Rare exam­ples where pric­ing actu­ally works to the ben­e­fit of nature

“Now there are some things that you can do. They are pretty lim­ited, but there are some gen­uinely com­men­su­rable pay-offs that can be assessed. So, for instance, a friend of mine asked me the other day, “What’s the most lucra­tive invest­ment a land owner can make?”. I didn’t know. “An osprey! Look at Bassen­th­waite in the Lake Dis­trict where there’s a pair of ospreys breed­ing and the own­ers of the land have 300,000 peo­ple vis­it­ing them every year. They charge them for car park­ing and they prob­a­bly make a mil­lion pounds a year.”

You can look at that and com­pare it to what you were doing before, such as rear­ing sheep, which is only viable because of farm sub­si­dies: you actu­ally lose money by keep­ing sheep on the land. So you can make a direct com­par­i­son because you’ve got two land uses which are both gen­er­at­ing rev­enue (or los­ing rev­enue) that is already directly costed in pounds. I’ve got no prob­lem with that. You can come out and say there is a pow­er­ful eco­nomic argu­ment for hav­ing ospreys rather than sheep.

There are a few oth­ers I can think of. You can, for instance, look at water­sheds. There is an insur­ance com­pany which costed Pum­lu­mon, the high­est moun­tain in the Cam­brian moun­tains, and worked out that it would be cheaper to buy Pum­lu­mon and refor­est it in order to slow down the flow of water into the low­lands than to keep pay­ing out every year for car­pets in Gloucester.

There were quite a few assump­tions in there, as we don’t yet have all the hydro­log­i­cal data we need, but in prin­ci­ple you can unearth some directly com­men­su­rable val­ues – the cost of insur­ance pay-outs, in pounds, ver­sus the cost of buy­ing the land, in pounds – and pro­duce a rough ball­park com­par­i­son. But in the major­ity of cases you are not look­ing at any­thing remotely resem­bling finan­cial commensurability.”

Unbundling ecosys­tem ser­vices and trad­ing them sep­a­rately means dam­ag­ing the holis­tic sys­tem of nature

“Prob­lem Two is that you are effec­tively push­ing the nat­ural world even fur­ther into the sys­tem that is eat­ing it alive. Dieter Helm, the Chair­man of the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Com­mit­tee, said the fol­low­ing in the same report I quoted from just a moment ago. “The envi­ron­ment is part of the econ­omy and needs to be prop­erly inte­grated into it so that growth oppor­tu­ni­ties will not be missed.”

There, ladies and gen­tle­men, you have what seems to me the Government’s real agenda. This is not to pro­tect the nat­ural world from the depre­da­tions of the econ­omy. It is to har­ness the nat­ural world to the eco­nomic growth that has been destroy­ing it. All the things which have been so dam­ag­ing to the liv­ing planet are now being sold to us as its sal­va­tion; com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, eco­nomic growth, finan­cial­i­sa­tion, abstrac­tion. Now, we are told, these dev­as­tat­ing processes will pro­tect it.


Now nature is to be cap­tured and placed in the care of the finan­cial sec­tor, […] we need to “unbun­dle” ecosys­tem ser­vices so they can be indi­vid­u­ally traded.

That’s the only way in which it can work – this finan­cial­i­sa­tion and secu­ri­ti­sa­tion and bond issu­ing and every­thing else they are talk­ing about. Nature has to be unbun­dled. If there is one thing we know about ecosys­tems, and we know it more the more we dis­cover about them, it’s that you can­not safely dis­ag­gre­gate their func­tions with­out destroy­ing the whole thing. Ecosys­tems func­tion as coher­ent holis­tic sys­tems, in which the dif­fer­ent ele­ments depend upon each other. The moment you start to unbun­dle them and to trade them sep­a­rately you cre­ate a for­mula for disaster.”

The power of the eco­nomic sys­tem as a whole against the power of nature

“Prob­lem Three […] is, of course, power.

Power is the issue which seems to get left out of the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda. And because it gets left out, because it it is, I think, delib­er­ately over­looked, what we are effec­tively see­ing is the invo­ca­tion of money as a kind of fairy dust, that you sprin­kle over all the unre­solved prob­lems of power in the hope that they will mag­i­cally resolve them­selves. But because they are unre­solved, because they are unad­dressed, because they aren’t even acknowl­edged; the nat­ural cap­i­tal agenda can­not pos­si­bly work.


You haven’t changed any­thing by sprin­kling money over the prob­lem, you have merely called it some­thing new. You have called it a mar­ket as opposed to a polit­i­cal sys­tem. But you still need the reg­u­la­tory involve­ment of the state to make that mar­ket work. Because we per­suade our­selves that we don’t need it any more because we have a shiny new mar­ket mech­a­nism, we end up fudg­ing the issue of power and not address­ing those under­ly­ing problems.


You do not solve the prob­lem with­out con­fronting power. But what we are doing here is rein­forc­ing power, is strength­en­ing the power of the peo­ple with the money, the power of the eco­nomic sys­tem as a whole against the power of nature.”

 Crit­i­cism on Bio­di­ver­sity Off­sets: the exam­ple of Smithy Woods

“Let’s start on the out­skirts of Sheffield with Smithy Wood. This is an ancient wood­land, which eight hun­dred years ago was recorded as pro­vid­ing char­coal for the monks who were mak­ing iron there. It is an impor­tant part of Sheffield’s his­tory and cul­ture. It is full of sto­ries and a sense of place and a sense of being able to lose your­self in some­thing dif­fer­ent. Some­one wants to turn cen­tre of Smithy Wood into a motor­way ser­vice station.

This might have been unthink­able until recently. But it is think­able now because the gov­ern­ment is intro­duc­ing some­thing called bio­di­ver­sity off­sets. If you trash a piece of land here you can replace its value by cre­at­ing some habi­tat else­where. This is another out­come of the idea that nature is fun­gi­ble and trade­able, that it can be turned into some­thing else: swapped either for money or for another place, which is said to have sim­i­lar value.

What they’ve said is, “We’re going to plant 60,000 saplings, with rab­bit guards around them, in some other place, and this will make up for trash­ing Smithy Wood.” It seems to me unlikely that any­one would have pro­posed trash­ing this ancient wood­land to build a ser­vice sta­tion in the mid­dle of it, were it not for the pos­si­bil­ity of bio­di­ver­sity off­sets. Some­thing the Gov­ern­ment has tried to sell to us as pro­tect­ing nature greatly threat­ens nature.”

Protest against plans to build a motor­way through Smithy Wood and use bio­di­ver­sity offsets

Photo: San­dra Bell

If nature is val­ued at £x, devel­op­ment will be val­ued at


“Say we decide that we’re going to value nature in terms of pounds or dol­lars or euros and that this is going to be our pri­mary met­ric for decid­ing what should be saved and what should not be saved. This, we are told, is an empow­er­ing tool to pro­tect the nat­ural world from destruc­tion and degra­da­tion. Well you go to the pub­lic enquiry and you find that, mirac­u­lously, while the wood you are try­ing to save has been val­ued at £x, the road, which they want to build through the wood, has been val­ued at £x+1. And let me tell you, it will always be val­ued at £x+1 because cost ben­e­fit analy­ses for such issues are always rigged.

The bar­ris­ter will then be able to say, “Well there you are, it is x+1 for the road and x for the wood. End of argu­ment.” All those knotty issues to do with val­ues and love and desire and won­der and delight and enchant­ment, all the issues which are actu­ally at the cen­tre of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics, are sud­denly ruled out. They are out­side the box, they are out­side the enve­lope of dis­cus­sion, they no longer count. We’ve been totally dis­em­pow­ered by that process.”

Prob­lem of val­ues and fram­ing: tak­ing the posi­tion of the oppo­nent (the mon­eti­sa­tion of nature) means loos­ing the own val­ues (instrin­sic vlaue of nature)

“But the real prob­lem, and this comes to the nub of the argu­ment for me, is over the issues which I will describe as val­ues and fram­ing. […] In other words, we are try­ing to make a case to peo­ple who just don’t care about the nat­ural world. How do we con­vince them, when they don’t share those val­ues, to change their minds? To me the answer is sim­ple. We don’t.


This, in effect, is what we are being asked to do through the nat­ural cap­i­tal agenda. We are say­ing “because our oppo­nents don’t share our val­ues and they are the peo­ple wreck­ing the envi­ron­ment, we have to go over to them and insist that we’re really in their camp. All we care about is money. We don’t really care about nature for its own sake. We don’t really believe in any of this intrin­sic stuff. We don’t believe in won­der and delight and enchant­ment. We just want to show that it’s going to make money.”

The alter­na­tive to the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda is mobilisation

George Mon­biot con­cludes with his alter­na­tive to the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Agenda — action and activism:

“So you say to me, “Well what do we do instead? You pro­duce these argu­ments against try­ing to save nature by pric­ing it, by finan­cial­i­sa­tion, by mon­eti­sa­tion. What do you do instead?”

Well, ladies and gen­tle­men, it is no mys­tery. It is the same answer that it has always been. The same answer that it always will be. The one thing we just can­not be both­ered to get off our bot­toms to do, which is the only thing that works. Mobilisation.”

About George Monbiot

George Mon­biot is an envi­ron­men­tal expert who stud­ied zool­ogy in Oxford. He is envi­ron­men­tal and polit­i­cal activist who writes a weekly col­umn for The Guardian and is the author of a num­ber of books. His arti­cles are also pub­lished and archived in his blog The men­tioned speech is avail­able as a tran­script here: and as a video here:

About the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Ini­tia­tive in the UK

To find out more about Nat­ural Cap­i­tal and the Nat­ural Cap­i­tal Ini­tia­tive, please visit:

“NCI’s mis­sion is to sup­port decision-making that results in the sus­tain­able man­age­ment of our nat­ural cap­i­tal based on sound sci­ence. We aim to do this by:

  • Ini­ti­at­ing and facil­i­tat­ing dia­logue between peo­ple from acad­e­mia, pol­icy, busi­ness and civil soci­ety who make or influ­ence deci­sions to find shared solu­tions and approaches; and
  • com­mu­ni­cat­ing inde­pen­dent, author­i­ta­tive syn­the­sis and eval­u­a­tion of the sci­en­tific evi­dence base.

Our aim is to be the UK’s lead­ing forum through which decision-makers from acad­e­mia, busi­ness, civil soci­ety and pol­icy can engage in mean­ing­ful cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral dia­logue on how to embed nat­ural cap­i­tal think­ing in pol­icy and prac­tice based on the best avail­able evi­dence from across the nat­ural and social sciences.

The NCI champions:

  • Pol­icy– and deci­sion– mak­ing based on sci­en­tific evidence.
  • Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, cross-sector engagement.
  • A whole-systems per­spec­tive that seeks to develop our resilience to change.
  • A pos­i­tive approach that aims to iden­tify prag­matic solutions.

To read more about our strat­egy for 2014 – 2018, please click here.

What is nat­ural capital?

‘Nat­ural cap­i­tal’ is an increas­ingly pop­u­lar metaphor for the fea­tures of the nat­ural envi­ron­ment that under­pin soci­ety, the econ­omy and well­be­ing. The con­cept of nat­ural cap­i­tal is attrac­tive to busi­ness and gov­ern­ment alike. It puts the nat­ural envi­ron­ment on an equal foot­ing to finan­cial, man­u­fac­tured, human and social capital.”


George Monbiot’s criticism on Biodiversity Offsets and the Natural Capital Agenda: “The pricing of Everything” — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Blogs on Biodiversity Offsets - Biodiversity Offsets Blog

  2. “Is Eco­nomic Val­u­a­tion a “Neolib­eral Road to Ruin”? A Response to George Monbiot”

    I have found an inter­est­ing reply to Monbiot’s speech by Bar­tosz Bartkowski on his blog “The Scep­ti­cal Econ­o­mist. A pragmatic’s blog about sus­tain­abil­ity, eco­nom­ics and other inter­est­ing things.”

    Read it here:

    “To sum up, I think that the main prob­lem of George Monbiot’s argu­men­ta­tion against eco­nomic val­u­a­tion of envi­ron­men­tal goods and ser­vices is that he con­flates the sci­ence behind eco­nomic val­u­a­tion and some cherry-picked misinterpretations/misuses of it. Also, he seems to be gen­er­ally “aller­gic” to eco­nomic concepts–I don’t see any other pos­si­bil­ity to jus­tify his eager­ness to equate envi­ron­men­tal eco­nom­ics with neolib­er­al­ism. While hav­ing some points, which I tried to appre­ci­ate in my response, I think that he gen­er­ally misses the tar­get. For sure, eco­nomic val­u­a­tion is not THE road to sal­va­tion. But nor is it a “neolib­eral road to ruin”.”

  3. Pingback: Love or Leave? The controversy about Biodiversity Offsets - Biodiversity Offsets Blog

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