UW News

June 24, 2015

Group at UW shows how to account for nature’s benefits in decisions

UW News

Most people appreciate a beautiful sunset. But for the resources we depend on daily – food, energy and clean water – it’s easy not to give a second thought to their value.

A group with field offices around the U.S., including at the University of Washington, is trying to change that. The Natural Capital Project wants to integrate the socioeconomic, cultural and spiritual values of nature into all major decisions affecting the environment and human well-being. Part of that is first recognizing that we deeply depend on nature in all aspects of life.

Planting mangroves for coastal protection in Placencia, Belize.

Planting mangroves for coastal protection in Placencia, Belize.Nadia Bood

“If we actually name and pay attention to the benefits we get from nature and are smart about where we protect and restore, we can make decisions that better reflect the values of diverse stakeholders,” said Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and lead scientist, who is based at the UW. “There are now countless examples around the world of using that kind of thinking to make decisions that have better outcomes for people and the planet – and are cost-effective.”

Guerry is the lead author of a paper that appeared last week in a special feature of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that shows the impact of factoring nature into decisions. The journal’s special edition includes examples from all over the world, ranging from the public-health benefits of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon to how some coastal habitats in Belize protect people from sea-level rise and storms.

The overview paper co-authored by Guerry, plus the on-the-ground examples, intend to show how the science and practice of ecosystem services – the benefits nature provides – have matured.

A mangrove buffer protects the Belize coast.

A mangrove buffer protects the Belize coast.Nadia Bood

Nearly 15 years ago, the United Nations called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year process that engaged more than 1,360 experts from around the world to investigate the consequences of ecosystem change on human well-being. They found that humans are depleting the Earth’s natural capital and straining its capacity to provide for future generations.

These recent articles are the first to highlight in the 10 years since the assessment how scientists, policymakers, nonprofits and corporations have worked together to marry the value of nature to economic and social development plans.

“We are celebrating that we’ve raised awareness and had some successes on the ground,” Guerry said. “We’ve advanced the science in interesting and useful ways, but we also recognize the job isn’t done.”

The Natural Capital Project started a decade ago as a unique partnership between two universities (Stanford University and the University of Minnesota) and two nongovernmental organizations (The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund). About four years in, Guerry and now managing director Mary Ruckelshaus, a UW affiliate professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, both joined the organization as experts in coastal and marine issues. The Seattle group grew to a team of eight and moved to the UW about two years ago, wanting to strengthen their academic ties with UW.

The organization’s UW office is in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and supports two graduate student research positions in the College of the Environment each year. Its scientists are collaborating on papers and projects with various researchers on campus, and the group has created online software, open-source tools and an online course that researchers and decision-makers can adapt and use to map, model and assign value to a number of benefits provided by nature to people.

The team hopes to grow into a bigger resource for the UW community while also benefiting from partnerships with researchers on campus.

“The Natural Capital Project thrives because of the strong collaborations we develop with scientists whose disciplinary expertise complements our own,” Ruckelshaus said. “UW’s excellence in freshwater and urban systems, climate change, fisheries from ecological and human perspectives, computer science, and how changes in the environment affect human health and livelihoods offer exciting opportunities for The Natural Capital Project to improve the science and innovation in our engagements with decision-makers and in our software tools.”


For more information, contact Guerry at anne.guerry@stanford.edu and Ruckelshaus at mary.ruckelshaus@stanford.edu.