Stanford University environmental science professor Gretchen Daily.
Stanford University environmental science professor Gretchen Daily. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press / Courtesy / Trinity University Press

In the future, Gretchen Daily said, people may one day view environmental destruction the way Americans currently view slavery.

“In the 19th century, we had many people who felt that slavery was an essential part of an economic system,” said the Stanford University environmental science professor who has won multiple prizes for making an economic case for nature. “In the 20th century, we’ve certainly had a dominant view that, however unfortunate, environmental destruction is also an essential part of an economic system.”

“We’re really trying to transform that in the 21st century,” Daily continued.

A director for Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology and senior fellow of its Woods Institute for the Environment, the 54-year-old Daily has been at the forefront of that transformation throughout her career.

In 2006, she co-founded the Natural Capital Project, whose partners now include The Nature Conservancy, Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Minnesota, and the World Wildlife Fund. The group has developed software that has helped guide the wise use of natural resources in more than 185 countries, Daily said.

Daily will give a free talk Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University. Her visit follows her latest book, One Tree / Un arbol unico, published by Trinity University Press.

In a phone interview with the Rivard Report, Daily said her work centers around helping people learn to see forests, prairies, wetlands, and other ecosystems as assets on the same level as financial investments or education and health.

“We’ve come a long way in thinking about all that, but we’re ignoring the massive destruction of our natural capital,” she said.

Daily’s talk will focus in part on her work on One Tree with photographer Charles Katz, Jr., a former businessman and lawyer with ties to San Antonio. The book is 55 pages of short meditation on a single ceiba tree near the Costa Rican town of Sabalito.

Daily and Katz explain, using photos and English and Spanish text, why locals in Sabalito repeatedly preserved the tree from axes and chainsaws because of all the benefits it brought them. Daily said they wanted “to show, in a more aesthetic and emotional way, what’s possible.”

The happy ending for the tree locals called La Ceiba is all too rare. Around the world, the resources that Daily calls “natural capital assets” are often in the hands of people who deplete them in a short-term focus on profit or simply to make ends meet.

“It shouldn’t be a cost to landowners to help maintain all these economically and otherwise vital benefits from nature,” Daily said. “Just like we pay farmers and ranchers for food production, we ought to have a way of aligning all the incentives.”

Instead, an ideal system would center on what Daily calls “inclusive green growth.” It would involve paying people not only for commodities like crops, energy, wood, and fiber, but also for providing clean air, clean water, and climate stability for the rest of society.

To help appraise these services that seem so intangible, the Natural Capital Project developed InVEST, a suite of free, open source software that can help governments, banks, corporations, or nonprofits map and place a value on the services nature provides.

For some, this could mean water filtration and flood protection provided by forests growing alongside rivers and streams. It could mean protection from storm surges offered by a natural wall of coastal sand dunes or a mangrove forest. It also could mean the climate stability offered by healthy soils and plants that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Daily said she’s seen these ideas become more mainstream in recent years. She talked excitedly about examples of innovative, win-win approaches to conservation blossom around the world.

One is Costa Rica, where Daily has worked extensively. Before the 1990s, the country was the “poster child for planetary destruction,” Daily said. Costa Rica had the highest rate of deforestation of any country in the world, she said, losing most of the forests that covered the country before colonization.

Daily explained that in the late 1990s, Costa Rica’s government started a huge cultural shift. Officials implemented new taxes and economic partnerships that allowed it to begin paying people across the country to regenerate the country’s forests.

Today, Daily said Costa Rica has a relatively thriving economy and a high rates of reforestation. She called it “a case of the win-win we’re looking for.”

She said another payment system on a more massive scale is underway in China. There, catastrophic flooding along the Yangtze River in 1998 alerted the central government to the need to preserve forests in the upper parts of the watershed.

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Since then, the Chinese government’s reforestation programs have become the largest of their kind in the world, with payments made to 120 million households, Daily said.

“They’re going further and further with it to bring about what they call an ecological civilization,” she said.

The U.S. has long had programs intended to encourage farmers and ranchers to give marginal land back to nature. Many national programs were enacted in the wake of the Dust Bowl when drought and destructive farming practices created severe dust storms across the Great Plains.

Others have happened on a local scale. One example Daily mentioned was San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program that centers on a sales tax to pay landowners not to develop property over the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone.

Daily said ideas like these are promising but need to become more widespread – and quickly.

“We’re in kind of a race to save the planet before further massive impacts like [Hurricane Harvey] in Houston,” she said.  “But if we could scale up across the country, we could also solve problems of revitalizing rural communities and livelihoods [and] bringing people together.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.