‘Not everything that counts can be counted…’


Few nations, if any, keep records of the vast array of ecosystem services and biodiversity assets. UNDP Photo

‘And not everything that can be counted counts.’ So goes the oft-quoted adage by Albert Einstein. Wise words no doubt and, despite their overuse, I make no apology for repeating them. Indeed every time I hear them, either verbatim, or paraphrased, as someone working to conserve ecosystems and biodiversity, I feel encouraged.

So often, they apply to our work, to the multitude of threats that have been wrecking the natural world driven by dollars rather than sense and, most importantly to the many potential solutions that lie within our reach.

Here is another quote. Rather less celebrated. Never before in print, in fact. It came from the lips of a friend, watching something small and furry, and fearing the worst upon its discovery in her lavender beds.  “What a precious vole!” she said, caring, delighted surprise all too apparent both in her face and voice.

While scientists might deride the emotion when used to describe a species, we’d still agree with “precious” as appropriate, given that in terms of food chains and ecological balance, the vole is an essential piece in the complex jigsaw that comprises a viable ecosystem.  Other people might see nothing particularly precious, at all.

The UNDP, practically speaking, cannot come to a modern business, economic or political table with the word ‘precious’ in its repertoire of reasoning for biodiversity conservation. But the word ‘value’ is an entirely different matter.

It is an unfortunate human tendency to perceive anything that is free as being without worth and only something paid for as valuable. For many years natural capital has been no exception. Indeed free has meant a free-for-all, warranting no investments to safeguard it.

Happily, things are changing. Natural resource economists have been busy gauging how much nature is worth, and UNDP projects have also been systematically supporting economic studies on biodiversity and ecosystem values. Fight fire with fire, economics with economics. Here are some recent examples.

“Forest ecosystem services to the national economy of Myanmar is more than US$ 7 billion a year.”  This is from timber and wood provision, insect pollination (which actually accounts for the largest percentage of value with over 17 per cent!) to watershed and coastal protection carbon sequestration. 

“In Mongolia, the potential loss of tourism revenue opportunities in the next 10 years ’s will be US$ 57.6 million including loss of many employment opportunities, if investment is insufficient to sustain the natural quality of national parks and to develop ecotourism.”

“In [the] Maldives, biodiversity generates 98% of export, 88 % of GDP and 71% of jobs in the country.” This is because the Maldivian economy is predominantly dependent upon tourism and fisheries: an impressive 88 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Mind you, GDP is a strange creation.  Although it was supposed to gauge economic performance of nations, it has somehow in the last 70 odd years, evolved to be used as a measure of nations’ development and welfare.  Yet, data that goes into GDP calculation does not include the area of natural forests left or lost, fisheries or water stock, and few nations, if any, keep records of the vast array of ecosystem services and biodiversity assets.  Because they are free. Only physical and financial capital and goods and services for which actual cash is paid for, are counted, and count. The current rethink is still in its infancy but is already overdue for a serious growth spurt if we treasure our wellbeing and sustainable future.

We are learning that “not counting what counts” is much more serious than a mere oversight.  It has been the driver behind massive biodiversity loss, and ecosystem compensation payouts in forms of increased intensity of natural disasters, water scarcity, food insecurity, fisheries collapse etc.  For the world to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, you cannot keep not counting!

This year, on the International Day for Biological Diversity, we need to place renewed emphasis on balancing our natural books, reassessing and gauging changes in natural capital. Putting into place, a system to count what needs to be counted. 

Blog post Ecosystems and biodiversity Environment Asia & the Pacific

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Asia and the Pacific 
Go to UNDP Global