Two little words sum up the philosophy of environment economist Pavan Sukhdev. Value nature, says this year’s winner of the prestigious Tyler Prize, often described as the “Nobel Prize for Environment”, which was announced today.

The former banker’s environmental activism has been marked by transformative ideas combining economics, policy and a personal passion for sustainable development to make people, businesses and governments understand the worth of nature.

The Tyler Prize, administered by the University of Southern California, US, is also an acknowledgement of Sukhdev’s path-breaking work in leading the global initiative The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) — and its 2008 interim report, which found that the world was losing between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion of natural capital each year, comparable to the $2.5 trillion lost during the global financial crisis the same year.

The TEEB report alerted the world to the enormous cost of depletion of natural capital — assets such as soil, air, water and all living things. These losses, the report said, were usually overlooked because they “defy capture in markets, escape pricing, and remain un-reflected in the accounts of society”.

The losses, in other words, are invisible because there are no costs attached to them.

“Ask a farmer who now has to rent beehives to pollinate his crops, because there are no longer enough bees in wild nature to do the job for free,” Sukhdev tells BL ink . “But bees don’t send invoices, so the value of their services is not recognised,” he says.

He adds that the award is an acknowledgement of all that TEEB stands for — “the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity, which is a holistic approach for recognising, demonstrating, measuring, and, on occasion, even capturing the value of nature’s services, instead of just losing them because we don’t value them.”

Sukhdev is the third Indian to receive the award in the last decade — after Madhav Gadgil in 2015 and Partha S Dasgupta in 2016. Born in Delhi in 1960, Sukhdev worked for 25 years in international banking before he was called upon by Germany’s environment ministry to lead the TEEB study. He also led the ‘Green Economy Initiative’, one of nine Joint Crisis Initiatives launched in 2009 by the United Nations.

He has also been working to convince Indian policymakers of the economic benefits of growth aligned with environment protection through his Green Accounting for Indian States (GIST) project. GIST, an NGO that seeks to promote sustainable development in India, was set up in July 2004.

India, he stresses, cannot continue to grow at the cost of its environment and its poor. He points out that his frequent visits to villages and work with nonprofits gave him a sense of how important nature was to the poor.

“Development is not about making the rich richer but helping raise the income of the poor, empowering them with rights and responsibilities,” says Sukhdev, a member of several Reserve Bank of India committees for the development of India’s financial markets.

For sustainable growth, India will have to shift its focus back to the village economy, he adds. “No one person or organisation in India can do this alone. Our whole culture has to go back to its roots and recognise the importance of nature,” he says. “Unfortunately today, the average person on the street knows a lot about WhatsApp and Twitter and Facebook but they don’t seem to know anything about nature.”

In a 2011 TED Talk, Sukhdev had stressed on the need to recognise natural capital. “When we measure GDP [Gross Domestic Product] as a measure of economic performance at the national level, we don’t include our biggest asset at the country level. When we measure corporate performances, we don’t include our impacts on nature and what our business costs society. That has to stop,” he had said.

Sukhdev is still trying to make the world take nature more seriously. Even as the environment prize jury was deciding on its recipient this year, he was busy equipping businesses to manage their environmental impact. On January 22, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he launched two digital platforms to help companies and investors evaluate their environmental impact.

“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to care about protecting the environment,” he says.

Sukhdev will receive the award along with Gretchen Daily, a conservation biologist, in New York City on May 1.

“The Tyler Prize Executive Committee is honoured to recognise two outstanding individuals who have pioneered the valuing of natural capital — in rigorous scientific and economic terms,” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Tyler Prize Chair.

Sukhdev is the president and chairman of the board of World Wild Fund (WWF) for Nature. He is also a member of the TEEB Advisory Board, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

nilanjana bhowmick is an independent journalist based in Delhi