Resource: Natural Capital: Priceless
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Title: Natural Capital: Priceless
Resource type: Principles
Topics: Agriculture, Ecosystems, Energy, Statewide/Global, Water
Keywords: natural capitalism, carrying capacity, systems thinking, global commons
Audience: Education
Region: Minnesota Statewide, Outside Minnesota
Summary: No one yet knows how to engineer systems that provide humans with the life-supporting services that natural ecosystems produce for free.
Content: Traditional economic theory treats natural capital (forests, soils, lakes) little different from "cultivated natural capital" (tree farms, hydroponic greenhouses, fish ponds). Both are viewed as interchangeable.

The ultimate experiment on cultivated natural capital took place between 1991 and 1993 outside of Tucson, Arizona and was called Biosphere 2 (the Earth is biosphere 1). Here, a group of scientists, engineers and architects (including MnSCN member Roald Gundersen; see and built a complex ecosystem covering 3.15 acres under an airtight glass cover. 8 people lived in Biosphere 2 for 2 years. This materially-closed system -- nothing was supposed to go in or out during the 2 years -- was intended to replicate a tiny Earth.

The experiment was tremendously educational. From the beginning, the Biospherians encountered numerous unexpected problems and surprises. Oxygen levels fell to those normally found at 17,500 feet. Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide rose to threatening levels. Tropical birds disappeared. A native species of Arizona ant killed off all other soft-bodied insects. All 7 species of frogs, 19 of 25 vertebrate species and all pollinators went extinct.

After spending $200 million, and using large amounts of energy and state-of-the-art technology, the scientists concluded: "No one yet knows how to engineer systems that provide humans with the life-supporting services that natural ecosystems produce for free. Dismembering major biomes [ecosystems] into small pieces, a consequence of widespread human activities, must be regarded with caution.... The initial work in Biosphere 2 has already provided insights for ecologists -- and perhaps an important lesson for humanity." (Joel E. Cohen & David Tilman, "Biosphere 2 and Biodiversity: The Lessons So Far," SCIENCE, Vol. 274 [November 15, 1996], pgs. 1150-1151.)

-- The above is edited from "Sustainable Development, Part 3" in Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #626 (November 25, 1998), published via e-mail by the Environmental Research Foundation. Back issues at (Click on to view this specific issue.)

For information about the 1999 book Natural Capitalism (which explores the concept of natural capital) written by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins visit or

Suggested by: Philipp Muessig
Added: 02/5/01
Updated: 07/27/11