Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Natural Assets and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Perry L. McCarty Director Chris Field reflects on the need for "special tools" to assess the full value of ecosystems and other natural assets. 

bicycle in field
Feliz Mittermeier

Read related newsletter here; subscribe here.

As our newsletter’s new moniker implies, harmonizing the needs of people and the environment is central to the Stanford Woods Institute’s mission. The Natural Capital Project, or “NatCap,” has been at the cutting edge of that effort since its evolution from a Environmental Venture Project 13 years ago.

NatCap’s annual symposium – which drew nearly 300 people from 30 countries this month – provides a welcoming front porch to an exciting community bubbling with energy, keen to learn new skills, and tackling new problems. NatCap empowers this global community on many levels. It provides a powerful toolkit for evaluating natural assets and how they contribute to human well-being. It forges relationships that help people around the world make good management decisions. It also demonstrates the value of taking a broad view, accounting for human, ecological and economic assets.

Why does this require special capabilities beyond the tools of traditional economic accounting? Bicycle repair provides a good analogy. I’m a serious cyclist, and I love repairing bikes. But bicycle repair is frustrating and failure-prone without some specialized tools and knowledge – the other half of the toolbox. Just as the hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers in the first half of the toolbox don’t work for bike repair, the standard economic toolbox can’t assess the full value of ecosystems and other “natural assets.”

Consider the bike. Disassembling an axle requires a cone wrench. A cone wrench looks like a regular wrench, but it is very thin. A cone wrench is a specialized tool. Without one, you can twist and pound and grab an axle all day, but you can’t get it apart. Natural asset accounting requires a broad range of specialized tools. Without a detailed analysis of the way waves erode coastlines, there is no way to compare the effects of a mangrove swamp with a sea wall. Without a tool that quantifies watershed processes, it is impossible to compare the effects of a forest with a water filtration plant. Models of natural processes are the cone wrenches of natural asset accounting.

Bike repair also requires specialized knowledge about how to approach a problem. For example, the left-side pedal installs with a left-hand thread. It turns counter-clockwise to tighten and clockwise to loosen. This sounds easy to figure out, but if you are trying to remove a very tight left-side pedal, and you don’t know this in advance, you are headed for some ruined parts and probably some smashed knuckles.

With natural assets, access to a good solution almost always depends on the way the problem is framed and approached. Often, this means setting the boundary of the problem at the right place. A city water supply needs to be understood as regulated by the entire watershed, with opportunities for intervention or protection at many locations. Erosion control has some mechanisms that operate at the scale of individual grains of soil but others that respond to processes that operate over scales of hundreds of kilometers. Protection from wildfires has elements that are local and regional, but also elements that depend on climate change. Unless each problem is understood and framed correctly, any solution will be forced, potentially with some ruined parts.

Fortunately for us, and the planet, the NatCap community continues to expand the other half of the natural asset accounting toolbox. Its innovative software and approaches are being deployed around the world, with inspiring results. In China specifically, they are showing how the right tools can advance conservation decisions at a nationwide scale, and are creating models for other countries to learn from.

At last week’s Natural Capital Symposium, we celebrated those successes and marked NatCap’s new partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. When new, specialized tools emerge from this and other collaborations, I will think of bicycle mechanics –the clearest example I know of the value of the other half of the toolbox.  

By Chris Field, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Explore More