Valuing where we live

Two items.

First, the concept of natural capital, which seems to finally be getting some serious attention. Putting a price tag on nature. Not because of how much you can earn from harvesting and selling parts of it (extracting oil, cutting down trees, whatever), but how much economic value there is to be gained by leaving it alone.

Historically, this has not been done. The only value in a forest is how much money can be made from logging it. The only value of a wetlands is how much you can sell the land for to build a tract of suburban houses and big box stores.

But this limited view ignores what it costs to lose the natural systems. Remove forests, ruin wetlands, and you lose really great flood control and carbon sequestration. How expensive is it to recover from a flood? How much would it cost to build a flood control system to replace the natural one that is gone? And will the engineered system work as well?

Maybe you’ll come out ahead, economically, by leaving the forest alone – or by managing it in such a way that you replace the trees as you log them.

It seems sometimes like the only way to encourage large corporations and government entities to leave natural systems alone is to focus only on the economic side.

Many hotels put out little cards in the rooms encouraging people to “be green!” by using their towels more than once. Of course, the fewer towels the hotel has to launder, the more money it saves in laundry fees. Maybe the management is doing this purely out of their respect for Mother Nature, but more cynical people see the “be green!” cards as an attempt to guilt trip the guests into doing something for nothing other than the hotel’s financial gain.

And it’s hard to put a numeric value on other aspects of the environment. How much is the beauty of nature worth? Shouldn’t we value it just for itself?

I think the answer to the latter is yes, but I also know that if you can find a way to easily compare two things, it’s easier to make choices about them. And it’s easier to put a dollar sign next to “flood control services” than “it’s nice to look at.” And if the only thing that will force large organizations to do the right thing is to give them an economic incentive, well, so be it. In 100 years, they’ll be speaking glowingly of the forethought of their predecessors, not to mention the love their predecessors have for the earth, and yes of course it was a nice side effect to make a few bucks.

Having said that, here are some striking numbers from a U.N.-sponsored study called TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (source: Cash for corals (or why a piece of pristine coral is like a $20 bill):

  • $2 trillion – the minimum amount of natural capital removed from the global budget every year, without recourse, just by the world’s 3,000 largest corporations
  • $3.7 trillion – the total value in carbon sequestration that would be provided by the unfelled trees left standing if we merely reduced the global rate of deforestation by 50 percent over the next 20 years
  • $45 billion – the estimated investment in preserving biodiversity that would be required to generate $5 trillion every year in “ecosystem services”

Here is another article, from the Boston Globe, with the irritating tagline “A bold new idea for protecting nature: Put a price tag on it.” This is only a “new” idea if you think anything that happened in the last 30 years is new.


Bolivia is poised to pass a law that gives nature the same rights as humans. Ecuador did a similar thing in 2008, in their new constitution.

Bolivia is establishing the Law of Mother Earth during a process of re-shuffling the government following revisions to the constitution in 2009.  The Law of Mother Earth will grant the natural environment eleven legally defendable rights.  According to the UK Guardian these include the right of other life forms to exist, to continue natural cycles, to be free of pollution, to maintain the integrity of their genetic makeup, and not to be damaged by giant infrastructure projects.  The intent of the Law of Mother Earth is to re-define the relationship between humans and nature, and ensure development does not proceed at the expense of natural ecosystems. (source: Bolivia Grants Rights to Nature)

And it is urging the United Nations to adopt a similar convention. Bolivia’s received some angry responses from the United States and the Unites Kingdom during climate talks at the UN, for having the nerve to demand steep carbon emission cuts, so who knows how this will go (Guardian).

Maybe they should put a price tag on it.

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