Looking at Brazil through natural capital economics

Gross primary productivity (GPP) is a measurement that shows the cumulative output generated by water, light, and air. Natural capital economics highlights opportunities and risks for Brazil.


The world map adjusted to reflect gross primary productivity (GPP) bears little resemblance to a traditional map. Brazil appears a dominant presence, especially in comparison to North America, which lacks considerable form and size. GPP is a measurement that shows the cumulative output generated by water, light, and air. In other words, the capacity to generate life. For centuries, frequently used maps have prioritized size over the quality of a landmass, a decision that is emblematic of the ways in which resources and drivers of economic growth have been misunderstood since the birth of economics. Countering this sort of prioritization is central to the fight against climate change and, for Brazil, it may just represent the economic and social opportunity of the century.    

The Portuguese colonizers called the land of “abundant foliage” Brazil, derived from “pau-brasil” (translating to “brazilwood,”) a tree that was driven to near-extinction due to excessive extraction in the 16th century. To date, 90% of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest is estimated to have been lost; 17 percent of the Amazon has been lost, and if that number rises to 20-25 percent, the biome risks becoming a savannah. The past 500 years have been marked by significant economic development, but the environmental devastation has been almost absolute.

Understandably so, when one considers the foundations of socio-economic morality that were laid by Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th Century. One hundred years later, it would allow people like Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham to develop theories that removed nature from economic calculus. Bacon defined man “as the minister and interpreter of nature”—regarding humans as both superior to, and separate from, nature. This view depicted nature as a violent and unpredictable force that required taming by the ‘God-given’ forces of knowledge and industry; forces only bestowed upon humans. Extractive industries formed the foundation of Bacon’s “Empire of Man” and they have been notable drivers of economic growth for the last 300 years. In Brazil, brazilwood extraction was followed by sugar-cane, coffee, minerals, beef, and soy among others. The GPP map, would have arguably served an indicator of abundant resources—without an understanding that in depleting them, countries grow ever smaller in terms of primary productivity.

With the rise of coal in the 19th century, more fervent debates began over nature’s role in the fields of energy and economics. Coal had already demonstrated its potential to be a strong resource in the growth of an economy, as it had helped propel the United Kingdom to a status of great power. Richard T. Ely, founder of the American Economics Association, became increasingly preoccupied with questions concerning the depletion of natural resources. Ely believed that economics was to be a study “not of the laws of markets but of material flows and resources.”

Despite the efforts of people like Richard Ely, the approach of price-theorists prevailed. Old practices of evaluating economic growth by the physical expansion of cities were then replaced with measurements of the velocity and frequency that money was exchanged. Economics emancipated itself from the constraints of physical world.    

This framework was also propped up by the oil industry, which promoted the idea that “black gold” was an infinite resource. In the first decades after its discovery, oil flowed so abundantly that its prices remained low, and industrialists gave it little consideration as they estimated their total costs. Growth could, according to economic models, be infinite. The negative effects of air pollution and climate change would begin to take noticeable form nearly a century later.               

The current environmental reality is a direct consequence of our (false) liberation from the constraints of the physical world. Calculations resting solely on economic understandings of the human experience, that do not include the variable of nature, are incomplete, if not entirely erroneous. Thereby, our structure for global economic theory is as misleading as a traditional world map is to our understanding of life on earth.    

Considering this central element of our current economic and social structures and the challenges of climate change, an understanding of the world based on the overarching idea of gross primary productivity is valuable. Contrary to Bacon’s beliefs, man is subject to and deeply interconnected with nature, a conclusion Brazilian indigenous tribes reached long ago. In one of French explorer Jean de Lery’s accounts of his 16th century voyage to Brazil, he speaks of an exchange with a Tupinamba leader regarding the extraction of wood by the Europeans. The leader asks, “why do you French and Portuguese come so far to take wood?” Lery responded that his country needed more resources in order to develop and pass riches down to their children. The leader then asserts, “you have all gone mad. You will cross oceans and suffer greatly to pass riches down to your children. Should not the earth do this? Wouldn’t it be far more efficient to take care of nature and let her riches nourish your children?”

Of the G-20, Brazil is ranked first for its natural capital of arable land, forest area, species of bird and reptiles, and renewable water sources. In the same ways that coal and oil production helped England and the United States emerge as a powerful nations, Brazil, in the face of a future of green economies, has never been so well positioned to become a great power. Looking to a future where access to water, clean air, and arable land will be a matter of survival, the world has never been more dependent on Brazil and its biomes.

Brazil already has the one of the cleanest electricity matrixes in the world; one that, due to the region’s exposure to diverse natural conditions, could host global renewable-energy industries. If biomes like the Amazon and the Pantanal are preserved, they could serve as the largest carbon-sink sources, generating a new front for Brazilian economic growth as carbon markets develop and prosper. Good economics turns out to be good environmentalism.

The costs of not preserving the natural capital in Brazil would be drastic, if not insurmountable. Brazil’s dominant presence in terms of primary productivity, will gradually shrink as climate-change related tragedies become more frequent and costlier. Between 2013 and 2017, more than half of Brazilian municipalities declared a state of emergency due to droughts, floods, or landslides. Between 1995 and 2017, USD $33 billion was disbursed for disaster response and recovery activities.

Answers may have been in the “abundant foliage” all along. A new socio-economic morality should look to emulate the approach of Brazilian indigenous populations rather than that of European settlers who failed to recognize the earth’s natural potential and the ways in which this could be good business too. If Brazil chooses a path of protecting its natural capital and cultural heritage, it may also give birth to a new economics, and the beginning of a new, more prosperous, economic reality for its people, and emerge from the 21st century as a great power.  

Julia Marisa Sekula is coordinator of the Climate and Security Program at the Igarapé Institute and co-author of the book “Brasil: Paraiso Restaurável”  (Brazil: Restoring Paradise). The book defends a new narrative for Brazil, and places it at the heart of discussions of “new economics”, the development of green industries and the fight against climate change. Julia is also the founder of FinanSOS, a financial advisory platform for small business owners affected by COVID-19. 

More Commentary

Scroll to Top