The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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Monarch butterflies in Big Sur, California.
Image by Katy Langstaff.

Natural Capital

Globally, and within the bioregion, Natural Capital is being depleted through over-harvesting, development, poor agricultural practices, toxic contamination, and other causes.

Natural Capital includes the core and crust of the earth, the biosphere itself — teeming with forests, grasslands, wetlands, tundra, kelp forests, deserts, and other ecosystems — and the upper layers of the atmosphere. Its most critical and irreplaceable component is Biodiversity at the scale of populations, species, landscapes, and the entire biosphere.

Natural Capital provides a wide variety of valuable Ecosystem Services including flood control, climate stabilization, maintenance of soil fertility, and even Beauty and Play. Healthy ecosystems make very significant economic contributions, but often in ways that transcend conventional accounting.

In order to maintain Natural Capital and the services that it provides, the physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated. Overharvesting or direct forms of manipulation (paving, soil erosion, etc.) that deplete Natural Capital result in degraded ecosystem services. This gap in services may be experienced as the collapse of a fishery, diminished water quality from upstream deforestation, extreme weather events, or in dozens of other ways. Until True Cost Pricing that assigns prices based on actual social and environmental costs is achieved, there will be a scarcity of immediate economic incentives to maintain Natural Capital. Many efforts are underway to value both ecosystems and the stream of benefits they provide, and to establish a system of national Natural Capital accounts. Valuation techniques include estimating the cost of replacing lost ecosystem services or conducting surveys on the willingness of individuals to pay to protect ecosystems.

Because the human species co-evolved with the ecosystems of this planet, Natural Capital is inherently suited to equitably meet a broad range of Fundamental Needs. The challenge then must be to provide opportunities for investment in Natural Capital at all scales while making sure that its benefits continue to be distributed broadly and equitably. Natural Capital must be understood in its economic dimensions to avoid its destruction by markets that underestimate its value. At the same time, the wealth of nature cannot benefit only a few.

Natural Capital can be protected through careful application of Ecological Land-Use to maintain habitat quality and connectivity for all species. A connected system of wildlands can coexist with Productive Rural Areas and towns and cities, with each part of the landscape contributing to the stability of Natural Capital. Sustainable Materials Cycles prevent the systematic contamination of living systems. Social Capital contributes to a culture of sufficiency easing consumption pressures on Natural Capital.

Apply ecological land-use planning, implement sustainable materials cycles, seek a redefinition of social capital towards sufficiency rather than excess, and work towards a tax shift which fully values environmental costs and benefits. Seek new business models and ways of managing commons that broadly and equitably distribute responsibilities toward — and benefits from — Natural Capital.

Examples of this pattern in action:

Wetland Mitigation Bank - Willapa
Public entities — ports, counties, cities and states — help to consolidate wetland habitat in exchange for the wetlands impacted by infrastructure and development. What was once just swampland to be drained and filled, is now recognized as vital habitat to be protect and restore. Wetlands serve as habitat for waterfowl, juvenile fish and other creatures as well as working as natural filters for water. In Washington state, wetland banks have been slow to develop. In the past state regulators have instead emphasized mitigating on site for each impact. Excerpt taken from A Wetland to Bank On by Ed Hunt

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Oregon Climate Trust

Oregon Water Trust

Skytrust: The Common Assets Project


Daily, Gretchen C., ed. Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1997.

Jansson, AnnMari, et al. Investing in Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach to Sustainability. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1994.

van Dieren, Wouter. Taking Nature Into Account: A Report to the Club of Rome. Springer-Verlag. New York, NY. 1995.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees. Our Ecological Footrpint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. New Society Publishers. Gabriola, BC. 1996.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling