Many believe nature’s value cannot be put into dollars and cents. That is, they value the natural world for its own sake, regardless of what services or benefits it provides. Yet this notion is fundamentally at odds with the economic system we’ve created.
We live in a world that’s increasingly dominated by a global economy, where it’s assumed everything of value has a price tag attached. If something can’t be quantified and sold, it’s considered worthless. The CEO of a forest company once told me “A tree has no value until it’s cut down. Then it adds value to the economy.”
So how do we reconcile our economy with ecology? The Earth provides us with essential natural services like air and water purification and climate stability, but these aren’t part of our economy because we’ve always assumed such things are free.
But natural services are only free when the ecosystems maintaining them are healthy. Today, with our growing population and increasing demands, they’re degrading fast. Unfortunately, products like air filters, bottled water and other things we need to deal with the effects of the degrading environment all add to the GDP, which economists call growth. Something is terribly wrong with our economic system when poor environmental health and reduced quality of life are actually good for the economy!
But what if we did put a price tag on things like clean air and water? If we assigned a monetary value to natural systems and functions, would we be more inclined to conserve them? Yes, according to an international group of ecologists writing in a 2000 edition of the journal Science.
The group argues humanity will continue to degrade natural systems until we realize the true costs to repair or replace them, so we must find a way to put a dollar value on all ecosystem assets, including natural resources like fish and timber, life-support processes such as water purification and pollination, and life-enriching conditions like beauty and recreation.
Most of these assets, with the exception of natural resources, we already exploit but do not trade in the marketplace because they are difficult to price. This is changing, however. In 2000 an Australian organization named Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd. became the first conservation group to be listed on a stock exchange. The company buys land to restore its native wildlife and vegetation while earning income from tourism, wildlife sales and consulting.
In New York City, officials decided to buy land around watersheds and let the forest and soil organisms filter water instead of building a massive new filtration plant. Until recently, this potential to use natural services rather than technology to solve problems has been largely overlooked, even though natural approaches may provide greater benefits to communities, such as lower costs, reduced flooding, soil erosion and aesthetic benefits.
In Canada, forests are valued primarily for the timber they provide, leading to conflicts. For instance, a report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that logging roads in BC continue to devastate fish-bearing streams, even though legislation is supposed to protect them. Forests provide many services, including habitat for plants and animals, recreation, and others that, if assigned a monetary value, could completely change the way we use them. In Australia, the CEO of State Forests of New South Wales now promotes the future of forests as being tied to ecosystem services, with timber considered a “by-product.”
As just one species out of perhaps 15 million, the notion of assigning value to everything on Earth solely for its utility to humans may seem like an act of incredible hubris. But the harsh reality of today’s world is money talks and economies are a central preoccupation. At the very least, assigning monetary value to ecosystem services may force us to take a hard look at all that nature provides. Maybe then we’ll stop taking it for granted.