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Rethinking Natural Capital Amidst the US Infrastructure Bill

As the US Congress weighs passage of an infrastructure bill, Professor Amy Myers Jaffe urges conservation as a guidepost.

Amy Myers Jaffe is Research Professor and Managing Director of the Climate Policy Lab. She was formerly the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.


In 1862, American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau published an essay on “walking” in The Atlanticin which he prophetically declared, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau advised, “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way…”

The American conception of Nature has evolved over time. In recounting our early years as an American nation, historians often present a romantic imagery of pioneers taming the wilds of nature to make it yield to our human needs. Then, in the onset of the industrial age, natural resources were conceived as a means to an end – input to material aspirations. The voraciousness of that era spawned a conservation movement that segregated huge swatches of wilderness into preserves and national parks so that nature could be protected.

Today, our relationship with Nature is again transforming. New concepts of conservation aim to protect the natural bounty of “what’s left.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction due to global warming. Failure to address climate change increases the probability of massive erosion of coastlines, topsoil loss from flooding and drought in farm regions, and a deterioration in air and water quality.

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