Natural capital: is translating nature into the language of economics the only way to make it count?

photoAlong with questions about the nature of the corporation – monster and psychopath or historically-contingent legal person capable of evolving? – Six Capitals was driven by the question of how to make nature count, so we don’t continue to destroy it in our endless pursuit of more GDP and profits. The accountants’ solution to this question of nature is to redefine it as natural capital.

I’ve been planning to write about natural capital here for some time, initially prompted by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s refusal to countenance the discussion of climate change at the G20 conference in Brisbane, a forum they wanted focused squarely on economic growth, as if the two were separate issues. But Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, Francois Hollande and other leaders scuppered that plan. Climate change became one of the G20’s talking points and was included in the G20 communique.

What I’m really interested in is the debate that continues to erupt around natural capital accounting in the UK. The concept of natural capital has been around at least since 1973 – when the term was first explicitly used by British economist EF Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful – but it only made its first formal appearance on the world stage in 2012. Here are some highlights in the recent history of natural capital:

in 2012 the United Nations gave natural capital equal status to the GDP, officially adopting a new statistical standard to account for natural capital. This was the first new UN standard since the advent of its GDP accounting standards in 1952.
the same year 40 financial institutions, including the National Australia Bank, signed the Natural Capital Declaration to promote the private sector’s use of natural capital accounting by 2020. At the launch the World Bank’s Rachel Kyte said: ‘Let’s look back in twenty years from now and remember that this was the time when we changed the way we accounted for nature.’
in 2012 at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development over 50 countries and 86 companies committed to valuing natural assets, including Walmart, Woolworths and Unilever.
in 2013 the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital was held. The second World Forum on Natural Capital is being held in Edinburgh in November 2015.

So, things are proceeding apace for natural capital.

What is natural capital? The World Forum on Natural Capital defines it as ‘the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things’. It continues:

‘It is from this Natural Capital that humans derive a wide range of services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible. The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicines. There are also many less visible ecosystem services such as the climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests, the billions of tonnes of carbon stored by peatlands, or the pollination of crops by insects. Even less visible are cultural ecosystem services such as the inspiration we take from wildlife and the natural environment.’

The problem with our current accounting systems – both national and corporate – is that they don’t account for natural capital, they don’t value living nature, and so it is invisible.

For many accountants (like Michael Peat), ecological economists (like Robert Costanza), bankers (like Pavan Sukhdev), ecologists (like Mark Everard) and environmentalists (like Tony Juniper), the best way to make nature visible is to translate it into the dominant global language: economics. In this language nature becomes ‘natural capital’.

It is exactly at this moment – the very conception of nature as capital – that journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot recoils from the new accounting paradigm. And it is also at this moment that I find myself torn between the two sides of the debate, which first erupted in 2012 with Monbiot’s article on biodiversity offsetting (an offshoot of natural capital accounting) and continues to blaze.

In April Lynn Crowe, Professor of Environmental Management at Sheffield Hallam University, responded to Monbiot’s article damning natural capital accounting ‘Can you put a price on the beauty of the natural world?‘ (published on 22 April 2014, Earth Day) and Tony Juniper’s reply ‘Framing natural capital: economy and ecology are not in competition‘.

She said: ‘As ever, I find my heart in complete agreement with George, but my head is wavering towards the Tony Juniper position.’

Although I wouldn’t express it in quite the same way (head versus heart as if they were so easily separable), I find myself similarly torn between the logic of these divergent views. Their range was well expressed by Lynn Crowe herself, Robert Costanza, Joss Tantram and Tony Juniper in ‘Is natural capital a neoliberal road to ruin?’, published by the Guardian on 1 August 2014 in response to Monbiot’s speech ‘Put a price on nature? We must stop this neoliberal road to ruin‘.

On her blog Crowe said of Monbiot’s ‘perceptive comments’: ‘I agree with many of his concerns about policies such as biodiversity off-setting and similar approaches which appear to ignore the intrinsic value of nature. But I don’t believe we can blame the tool for the way it is used by others. The powerful have always abused their position, and no doubt will sadly continue to do so. We can only continue to lobby and campaign to try to bring about change where necessary.

‘I believe an ecosystem approach is still a powerful technique for framing our decisions about the use of natural resources which reflects the integrated nature of our environment and society generally.’

The rapid rise of natural capital accounting is helped by the fact that it’s easier to gauge than the other new capitals (intellectual, human, and social and relationship capital). There are now rigorous metrics for carbon and measures for water usage are being developed. Its language is now spreading into the broader environmental conversation. For example, it makes possible the spectre of ‘stranded assets’ in relation to the stocks of carbon held by fossil fuel companies, an idea being used by financial analysts as well as by Bill McKibben’s 350.0rg to call for investors to pull out of fossil fuel companies.

Natural capital is on the agenda at the Accounting Frontiers Forum – ‘Beyond the financial: Re-thinking the capitals in practice and assurance’ – being held next Thursday 11 December 2014. Professor Roger Burritt and Michael Spencer will be speaking about natural capital accounting.

I also learnt (from Sally Hill of Wildwon, which hosted the B Lab meeting last week) about a conference being held by the Australian Institute of Environmental Accounting in Sydney’s Customs House next May. I’ll be writing about it when more information is available.

I think the question of how we value and account for nature – or, how we make nature count – will be the most important question of this century. And given the rapid rise of natural capital accounting, I think anyone who cares about the future of the planet should pay attention to it right now.

Litchfield National Park, west of Darwin

Litchfield National Park, west of Darwin



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24 Responses to Natural capital: is translating nature into the language of economics the only way to make it count?

  1. Inez Aponte says:

    Hi Jane,
    Interesting article and something very dear to my heart.
    For the last 5 years I have been exploring this conundrum of how we can make nature count, when for so many of us its value has become more or less invisible. Notice the words ‘count’ and ‘value’ which already frame the issue in economic terms. I believe that this framing is what needs to be challenged in order for real lasting change to happen. If we apply the current framing of economics to the natural world we won’t actually ‘win’ the argument as the value principles advocated by neo-liberal capitalism are insane and that insanity will seep through. But we can re-frame the notion of what an economy is and does and from that standpoint begin to produce our own indicators of success.
    I have just written a piece for the Degrowth Leipzig blog which explains where I belive we need to go with this, but I would love to join forces with you and others to think together on how those new measures of success can be formulated and seeded into the wider discourse.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

    • Hi Inez – thanks for your thoughts above. Yes, I agree with you that framing the natural world in economic terms is part of the problem. This is also Monbiot’s view. Incidentally, I deliberately used the word ‘count’ which, like account, has at least two meanings. One related to mathematics (rather than economics per se), the other meaning to have importance, or value (which again is not just an economic word but is also used by philosophers and other thinkers). I think one of the problems is that economics has co-opted these words and we’ve forgotten they have other meanings. An account is also a story. You are right, it’s extremely important that we’re aware of how we frame these debates, because they so easily slip into the grip or logic of neoliberal economics.

      Thanks so much for linking to your piece, which is extremely interesting to me. I will ponder it some more and comment later.
      Thanks again Inez, I agree so much that what’s required is an act of the imagination – and collaboration – more than anything else.
      cheers, Jane

  2. Economiser says:

    Jane, it’s good you raise the current debate around whether natural capital is a route to salvation or sell-out for the natural environment. However, I’d say the debate conflates two different issues around the use of natural capital and similar economistic terminology. A problem in economics is that nature has no apparent value in market-oriented economics, which has led to economists developing a number of alternative antidotes to make it count – environmental accounting, non-market valuation, ecosystems services and natural capital – most of which have had limited traction in the public consciousness. An observation here is whether the environmental outcome is better or worse with natural capital value taken into account, and I suspect it probably is – if it causes only one environmentally damaging project to be avoided as a result, the environment is still better off.
    Another issue is that value appears to come only from exchange transactions, which leads to George Monbiot’s view that natural capital is a thin end to the wedge of natural assets becoming completely fungible for money – which means if the price is high enough, the environment will be liquidated. Just calling something natural capital – recognising it has a worth that is not zero – does not necessitate it becoming viewed as fungible, but it does provide pause against the simplistic assessment that development=value, conservation does not. Monbiot’s caution, heightened by the UK’s recent weakening of environmental protections, is fed by the perception that involvement of bankers and accountants is aimed at creating value gain from transactions and fungibility, as they have no incentive for accounting for environment otherwise. The question is whether you can use the language of natural capital to shift the political debate, without opening it up to interest group capture by financial interests, the “natural capitalists”.
    Incidentally, as a practising economist who’s been consulting in this area for the past 25 years, I think it too early to conclude natural capital has finally reached the world stage in 2012. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2003, which publicised the idea of ecosystem services, has plentiful references to natural capital, and the concept is clearly foreshadowed in pioneering environmental accounting work in the 1980s and 90s, which led to the UNSNA recommending the use of satellite accounts to supplement the economic accounts. In a political atmosphere that is becoming more polarised and more acquiescent to increasing social inequality, it remains to be seen whether natural capital has any more lasting effect in improving environmental status than previous efforts.

    • Thanks very much for your expert thoughts, Economiser. I’m interested to hear you think the debate conflates two different issues. I can’t quite see from what you say above exactly what you mean by this, or where the distinction lies. Are you distinguishing the accounting term ‘natural capital’ from its use by economists?

      As for natural capital reaching the world stage in 2012, I only say that because it became a UN standard that year, first since SNA in 1952, so it seemed to gain a significance in the global conversation – as indicated by the Natural Capital Declaration signed the same year – when previously it had been discussed in more specialised forums. As I say, and as you discuss, it was first used explicitly long before then. In 1970s if not earlier. The post is a very abbreviated overview of something I discuss in more detail in my new book, including the development of the UN SEEA and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

      Would be very interested to hear more about your work. Thanks again so much for commenting. cheers, Jane

  3. josstantram says:

    Dear Jane,

    Thank you for this useful and comprehensive coverage of the issue. As you noted above, I had the pleasure of taking part in an online session on Guardian Sustainable Business to “respond” to George Monbiot’s piece.

    I am deeply equivocal about natural capital accounting and the idea of pricing nature – hence our production of a mildly playful animation on the subject – “How much is your Mother (Earth) worth?” which uses the metaphor of how you might get a good price when selling your Mother:

    Essentially there is a challenge in the difference between price and value – the focus of the market (and many policy processes) upon the former, yet a focus upon the latter in attempts to assess natural capital. My concern is that our current approaches to making use of a “value” figure is to immediately assume that it is really a “price” reference – which leads us to notions of fungibility, substitutability and choice, rather than a recognition of the fact that we need a functioning planet in order to have functioning markets – a fundamental dependency relationship.

    To me, the value of natural capital approaches will only be realised when we have economic approaches (and consequent markets), which are founded on the understanding that maintaining and growing the fabric of the place that we do business (our planet) is a precondition rather than an afterthought.

    Should you be interested, we have a somewhat ambitious idea to explore this notion – a thought experiment to conduct an “IPO for the Earth”:

    To address your meta-question – can accountants save the planet? I would say that they must be in the vanguard – accountants are the custodians of value, and accounting approaches are at the heart of defining, in social terms, what is valuable.
    The challenge that they (and all of us)face is that a recognition of value is nothing without the means for that to be translated into useful action, and our current systems of value are proving mighty hard to evolve.

    Should it be of interest, we have many ideas on this challenge and how we might overcome it:

    Best regards,


    • Dear Joss – many thanks for your thoughtful, generous and extremely helpful response to my overview on natural capital. And thanks too for the links which I’ll follow up with great interest. Yes, I agree with your view of accountants, as the custodians of value.

      I’m interested in your distinction between price and value, an important distinction to make, and wonder about the slippery terrain between the two, especially when trying to introduce the value of nature into an economic conversation or model. In relation to this, I’m especially interested in your paragraph which begins ‘To me, the value of natural capital approaches will only be realised when we have economic approaches (and consequent markets), which are founded on the understanding …’ Are you proposing here some sort of economic approach to the value of nature, which includes markets, which is not based on a monetary price but some other measure? Perhaps you explore this question in the websites you link to.

      And yes, I completely agree that we must understand that maintaining and growing the fabric of the planet is a precondition for commerce. And that we must introduce this understanding into our economic systems.

      Thanks again so much for your expert thoughts here, I really appreciate your taking the time, and look forward to following up your links.

      all best wishes, Jane

      • josstantram says:

        Dear Jane,

        Thank you too! I hope that some of the links are of interest and would appreciate any feedback you have.
        For me the distinction between price and value is critical. This difference is perhaps most simply illustrated by the following quote from the legendary investor Warren Buffett:

        “Price is what you pay, value is what you get”.

        An example of these two concepts being out of balance would be the availability of a £3 (or perhaps $5) tee-shirt. The garment is available at that extraordinary low price because, in part, its value has been subsidised by an un-priced externality. For a tee-shirt there are a number of such externalities, but perhaps the most significant is that of the labour that has gone into its manufacture. In order to make, supply and sell a tee shirt for that price, there is someone, somewhere, who has had to work at a rate of pay that is significantly lower than that available to those capable of buying the shirt. I see this as an improperly priced “quality of life” subsidy.
        This is not to say that the cost of living is the same in all parts of the world, and that commercial competitive advantage does or should not take advantage of this differential. The challenge for me in this case is one of valuing interdependence. Nothing happens in our modern world without the involvement of others. We need to recognise and re-balance this interdependence so that our quality of life is not bought at the expense of others and is not at risk if those we depend upon decide to withdraw their subsidy.

        This emphasises the challenge of capitals, in order for economic price to equal sustainable value that price needs to adequately reflect the externalities – the unpriced subsidies that have gone into producing the item in question.

        Whilst I believe that a capitals approach is valuable in starting us off on this journey it is by no means our destination – much more travel and discovery remains in front of us if we are to arrive safely!

        P.S – I am just writing a piece on the capitals – to reflect upon a conference I attended yesterday convened by ICAEW – where the challenge and opportunities of using a multi capitals model were explored from a number of dimensions (
        This conference also asked the question as to whether accountants could “save the planet”. Is it OK to reference and link to your piece above and the fantastic comments which you have received?

        Best regards,


      • Dear Joss – many thanks for your reply. Yes, I understand the difference between price and value, and the idea of externalities, which is really the concern of my new book ‘Six Capitals’.

        Rather, I was asking how you imagine taking an ‘economic approach’ to the value of natural capital that does not involve pricing nature or natural capital. It seems from what you say above that effectively you are proposing to price externalities in order to include these currently unpriced values in the market, which is just what George Monbiot so vehemently opposes. Or have I misunderstood you or failed to grasp some subtlety in your argument?

        Thanks so much for linking to the ICAEW conference, I will also follow that link. And yes, of course fine to link to this piece.

        all best wishes, Jane

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  5. josstantram says:

    Dear Jane,

    I am really sorry that I appeared to have tried to teach you to suck eggs (when you have much more to teach me). That was not my intention.

    The point I was trying and failing to make was that the dissonance between (current) methods of arriving at price, and necessary (but currently largely absent) methods of quantifying sustainable value must be resolved if we are to stand a chance of being sustainable given the current scale of humanity’s impact.

    That will not be achieved by pricing externalities as is currently conceived.

    Pricing externalities amidst our current economic and market realities is a squalid little post hoc half-attempt at doing what is needed to value a sustainable future.

    Externalities should not be priced, per se. However price must reflect them (they shouldn’t really be externalities at all, just a fundamental aspect of costs that should be naturally recognised) if any approach to building a sustainable economy is to succeed.

    I believe the way to do this is to reform the constitution of price. Mere supply and demand derivations produce perverse outcomes. We need to consider other aspects of value, ones more attuned to what works on this physical planet and what we, as humanity, might actually collectively want.

    I think that the idea of a point or purpose for capitalism, beyond the aggregation of an abstracted indicator, is also required.

    If there were a goal, something we might desire to achieve over the next 50 or so years, then we might value behaviour against its likelihood or ability to contribute to or undermine that goal, perhaps something as simple as:

    “A sustainable and equitable world for humanity.”

    We shouldn’t demand anything too prescriptive that would get in the way of creativity or entrepreneurial spirit, just something to indicate a clear direction and possible destination for the good of us all.

    Under this, admittedly far-fetched, scenario, value and price would be conceived from its relationship to things considered important to achieve the goal.
    However, it could be argued that some examples of this idea of valuing current industries against their role in a given future is being attempted now. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are saying that certain industries just aren’t valuable if we seek to stay within a 2degree rise.

    Since you can’t have 9 billion plus people being happy and capable under our current system of value, economics and enterprise would have to focus upon valuing and delivering quality of life in a way which works with rather than against the way the world works.

    I believe those characteristics which would be inherently valuable (and thus key components of a new conception of price) are:
    • Thermodynamic optimisation – valuing increased alignment of the use of energy and materials with the physical characteristics and limits of the planet with a focus upon ‘entropic efficiency’.
    • Valuing abundance rather than scarcity – prioritising technologies and behaviours which deliver either natural (e.g. biologically-based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship) abundance.
    • Enhanced natural vitality – valuing technologies and processes which make use of the planet’s natural rejuvenative and productive abilities, learning from and utilising natural production techniques as the basis for their technological and industrial models.
    • Balanced interdependence – recognising and balancing the web of social interdependencies they exist within, seeking mutual equity within all relationships.

    These are the things which would be truly valued in the path towards a sustainable future and which are reflected strongly in the multiple capitals approach.

    Of course this idea is rather ambitious and unlikely to catch on. But I believe we need to put ideas out in the world about how things might be different and better, as clearly, do you!

    I wrote a piece on some of the systemic and cultural challenges multiple capitals need to overcome, which expresses what I should have said more clearly above in my previous reply, and which gives some more context to this note. I hope it is of interest.

    Best regards,


    • Dear Joss – thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, and my apologies for the delay in mine (festive season). I never thought you were attempting to teach me to suck eggs – I was genuinely trying to understand the subtleties of the distinction you were making between price and value. And thank you so much for the link to your brilliant (and brilliantly titled, especially as I’ve just been reading Orwell) piece on the ICAEW’s Rethinking Capitals conference.

      Yes, now I begin to grasp what you’re talking about, especially where you talk about the use of the capitals as metaphor, that natural capital is a metaphor for understanding value not a mechanism for determining price. And isn’t the slippage you report in that section, made by the environment minister, exactly what Monbiot talks about and why he perceives danger in thinking of nature in terms of capital at all?

      Your whole blog was fascinating to me, thank you. I like your important distinction that accountants must be at the vanguard of saving OUR world, rather than THE world (which will continue without humans). Effectively you’re saying that the six capitals concept requires a new economics (and markets) that understands that the planet ‘is a precondition rather than an afterthought’ for business. I’m not sure I’d use that language – the planet is certainly a precondition but surely it’s also more dynamic than that, it’s actively involved in the process of business – but we agree here.

      Thanks again for this conversation and your links, all very thought provoking.

      all best wishes – and for the new year, Jane

      • josstantram says:

        Dear Jane,

        Thank you very much again for the kind words on my recent piece concerning capitals and a very happy New Year to you!

        I completely agree that the slippage I referred to reflects the challenge of entering into the capitals debate – as it concerns the extent to which either metaphor, or nuance, are able to travel far from their source without being simplified or abstracted beyond reason.
        Kate Raworth, the originator of the concept of Doughnut Economics, first highlighted to me a challenge with this issue which I subsequently referred to in the debate on the Guardian Sustainable Business that “Value implies price, price implies sales, and sales imply markets”.

        This contention directly conflicted with an assertion that Robert Constanza made in the same debate that “…expressing values in monetary units DOES NOT imply that these values came from market (or even pseudo-market) exchanges. The whole point is that most ecosystem services are outside the market – and should remain there.”

        I believe that Robert Constanza is right in principle but fear may be less right in practice. In our overwhelmingly market paradigm dominated world natural capital approaches will inevitably be seen as seeking to develop a comparable way of pricing nature, rather than an attempt to construct an overarching architecture of value – the challenge highlighted so powerfully by George Monbiot.

        However, I do believe that there is fruitful potential in exploring whether economics and markets built upon a presumption of ecosystem value might be a useful way for the true utility of the capitals approach to be explored – as we are seeking to do in our Earth IPO thought experiment.

        Thank you too for the fascinating conversation. I would welcome the chance for further exchanges as and when useful!

        Best regards,


      • Thanks, once more, for all your thoughts Joss. Yes, you pinpoint the conundrum we face (that Costanza is right in principle but who knows how the practice will pan out) which is, as you say, powerfully highlighted by Monbiot. Yes, I think we really have no choice but to extend our economic and accounting systems to value those parts of the natural world that are not currently accounted for … and suspect that to do so properly, so their intrinsic value is not subsumed by monetary value and financial markets, might require enormous act/s of imagination and more than a paradigm shift. It seems we’ve already embarked on this work.
        And likewise, re further exchanges as and when useful.
        cheers, Jane

  6. clarefeeneyspeaks says:

    Jane, I loved your interview with Kim Hill ( on your new book, which I’ll be buying this week. This is an area I’ve been fascinated with for many years and it was great to be opened up to the subtlety and applicability of the ideas in this blog and the conversation above. Strangely, apart from a post containing the key words “oil spill”, the blog that continues to be the most popular is an old one from June 2011 called “Why accountants are the new cool” ( One wonders what people are searching for! Thank you and Inez, Economiser and Joss – great stuff!

    • Hi Clare – great to hear from you and thank you so much for the link to your excellent, informative and succinct blog post! Great title too – yes, amazing that a post with accountants in the title is your most popular blog apart from an ‘oil spill’ one. Your work sounds fascinating and so important (I see you’ve written a book too), I look forward to learning more. I like your observation that most businesses employ 10 or fewer people and therefore that an accountant is most likely to be the one professional advisor – and closest thing to a sustainability adviser – they engage. You have such a wealth of experience in and knowledge of sustainability and business, training … I’ve just been reading as much of your blog (in general I mean, not just the link which you sent) as possible before replying to you here, but will continue to read it, I’m learning so much.
      Thanks again.
      cheers, Jane

      • clarefeeneyspeaks says:

        Hello, Jane – thank you for your lovely reply – I apologise for the delay in my response, but forgot to tick the comment notification box. I am looking forward to reading your book and have recently recommended it to some colleagues! All the very, very best from Clare

      • Thanks Clare. I’m planning to be in NZ in June, perhaps our paths will cross. all best wishes, Jane

  7. Jekabs Strikis says:

    Hi Jane
    I pursued and obtained 6 CAPITALS in an unusual Kris Kringle at Christmas. I believe in revolutions, but didn’t really think that accountants could save the planet (I am an engineer).
    Your writings and the concepts are new to me, and I think that you describe a direction that we probably need to take. Nevertheless, there was for me a feeling that something was not yet complete.
    I think I was waiting for the section in which you wrote briefly about values and growth. Maybe these areas can be developed in your next book.
    Here are my (not so well ordered) comments, for your consideration. They come from a Christian perspective, with an anticipation that Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God, which has not yet been fully established, but will be (after all, we pray, “Your Kingdom come”).
    Indeed, we need a universal value, and without it global systems fail, because man has a tendency to greed, power and tribalism etc. The value must be higher than the planet. Values are spiritual, and man’s spirit is designed to be in tune with God’s. The highest value cannot be the planet, for God gave us dominion over the planet. The highest value would be something like managing the planet the way God intended, or Jesus would.
    We need the cohesive, global value, because while ever the unifying factor is laws or standards (mandatory or not), the value will not be sustainable (laws beget more laws because the existing laws don’t account fully for man’s behaviours). What works is grace.
    And indeed, continuing growth, and our dependence on it, appear to be unsustainable. Someone has to pay (by lower living standards?) as growth stops. Who will be the first politician to promise to reduce growth and keep it reduced? Who will be the visionary that will postulate what such a world would look like. After all, as growth stops, many sustaining elements of our existence come under threat e.g. (randomly) retail industry, employment, taxation, defence, stability of governments, politician’s campaigning methods and promises. What is the middle, sustainable ground between the current growth-based model and a reversion to subsistence existence?

    • Many thanks for your thoughts on natural capital accounting, Jekabs. I also think it’s important to find ways of uniting the people of the earth beyond their spiritual creeds. The planet seems an obvious point of departure. A literal common ground. Many thanks again for your thoughts. best, Jane

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