Many years ago now I was blessed with great fortune. Alone, I stood less than 50 feet from a wild African elephant and watched as she calmly consumed the leaves of some bauhinia bushes.
I had no phone or camera to capture the image but I can see her now in every detail. Strangely it only takes a moment of contemplation to also feel what I felt then — awe, respect and humility in equal waves.
Not everyone can sidle up to elephants but there is evidence from around the world that nature is a part of people’s sense of self and an integral part of what constitutes well-being.
This is not so easy to feel in our increasingly virtual world where success is a synonym for well-being and measures of progress are mostly economic.
We report the monetary economy and use its growth as a core indicator for doing well individually and collectively. As Judith Schleicher and Bhaskar Vira recently point out, even the alternative measures of poverty and well-being still ignore the environment and there is growing evidence that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.
The rhetoric here is that it is the poor who suffer most from this failure to account for nature, especially those who depended on nature for a living. And the implication is that this is somehow immoral or at the very least unfair.
We have also tried the valuation and commodification of nature in an attempt to squeeze nature into the economic metrics — capture the externalities and we can balance the books.
But both of these arguments miss the point.
The solution is to reconnect the billion or so people who are doing well out of capitalism, particularly the tiny percentage of these people who are appropriating most of the economic wealth, to what I felt on that sunny afternoon in the Zambezi valley when the elephant connected me to the truth.
Only then will nature matter.