How much is your ecosystem worth?

In 1997, a paper published in the journal Nature tried to estimate the financial value of all the services performed by Earth’s ecosystems (for instance, pollinators contribute to agricultural yields, beaches to tourism, wetlands to water quality improvement). The figure its authors (Robert Costanza of the University of Maryland in the lead) came up with was $33 trillion — roughly twice the value of the entire global economy at the time. Since its debut, the paper, “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” has been criticized at almost every level. Even its authors acknowledged that their analysis was crude and their methods questionable. But the paper was not published as an example of analytical precision. Rather, the point was to call attention to something that is too often overlooked: the economic importance of a healthy biosphere.

According to this relatively new school of thinking, we may put commodity prices on goods such as food products, game, and timber, and services such as water purification, but we fail to take into account (economically) the complex and interrelated natural systems that make the provision of these goods and services possible. For instance, we pay money for a fruit crop, but place no monetary value on the animals that pollinate the plants that produce this fruit, or the soil microbes that provide the plants with nutrients, etc. As Pavan Sukhdev says in his TED talk, “When was the last time a bee gave you an invoice?” Sukhdev believes that we treat natural systems so cavalierly because we are not confronted with their true value in terms we would understand — a problem he refers to as “the economic invisibility of nature.” He argues that we must therefore integrate the value of ecosystems into world markets. If people start to view ecosystem destruction as a bad idea financially, similar to walking into a Swarovski store and smashing all the crystal-ware with a hammer, they may be more motivated to preserve these systems.

Some environmentalists have embraced this idea. Personally, I think commoditization and consumerism are two of the basic reasons why the balance of the global ecosystem has gotten so screwed up lately, and I’m skeptical about the market’s ability to solve a problem it helped create. But I’m learning a great deal more about the “ecosystem services” school of thought now… We’ll see if pragmatism can win me over.

Stay tuned. Or whatever.

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About Katie

Living in Philadelphia

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