There are a couple of questions I want to address here:
1) Can We Replace Natural Capital With Manufactured Capital?
I would say that we can replace natural services but not natural capital. A human heart is a form of natural capital, and it can be replaced with a manufactured object. This artificial heart performs some of the services of a natural heart (pumping blood) but doesn’t perform all of them (healing, etc.) Similarly we can use manufactured goods to replace some of the services of a forest (shade, beauty, animal habitat, carbon sequestration) but usually not all of them and usually not all at once. We will also spend a LOT more energy achieving those results than the forest would. Still, the fact that we can replace natural services is important when you start asking…
2) Can We Manufacture Natural Capital?
Sure! We’re just not that good at it. Natural capital (soil) renews itself through natural services (from microorganisms, moisture, fungi, etc.) If we understand and respect the system that renews soil then we can use services from manufactured and human capital to help it along. From an traditional economic standpoint we can manufacture dirt (even if nature is doing most of the real work), which means that there can be big economic incentives to manufacturing natural capital:
This still raises some pretty hairy questions. Should natural capital (ie fresh water) really be created and distributed according to the rules of our economic system? What impact will that have on other stocks of human and natural capital?