‘Natural Capital’: Ontology or Analogy?

  • Jenneth ParkerEmail author


This critical review will initially consider questions of time lags in policy innovation with reference to sustainability. The cultural genealogy of the concept of ‘Natural Capital’ will then be provided, a key reference point being the ‘Five Capitals’ approach in Jonathon Porrit’s 2005 book. I will suggest that what we have in the Five Capitals approach is a series of analogies conceived as a piece of social marketing of sustainability, primarily aimed at the business sector. I then consider some of the consequences of utilising the concept of ‘capital’. Centrally, does this conceptual strategy illegitimately morph into an ideological ‘naturalisation’ of ‘capital’ as an essential feature of the world? Does this construction support ‘capital’ as an ontology that claims universal status rather than a time-bound construction tied to a particular mode of society and historical period? The final arguments concern the question of appropriate transitional concepts for our current situation. What criteria might we apply to consider if a concept or framing is a good one to assist in transition? I conclude that ‘natural capital’ and the other analogical uses of the term import serious problems. Use with care, if at all: move beyond wherever possible.

This review has greatly benefitted from discussions that took place at the concluding conference in the ‘Debating Nature’s Value’ project. This event was distinguished by much real debate and exchange and I thank the varied participants whose points enriched my understanding, including those of editor Victor Anderson.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Schumacher InstituteBristolUK

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