What is an Ecosystem Worth?
There’s an entire scientific field of inquiry which has emerged to answer this question. Ecological Economics. They have a journal, an annual conference, and slews of papers regarding methodologies, technologies, and strategies for valuating ecosystems and the services they provide. What is desired is the ability to put a dollar value on ecosystems, so that conservation budgets can be established, or so they can be compared to the values of potential developments. In this way, ecological economists seek to put a price tag on nature, either to justify it’s conservation in the face of development, or, justify its development if the conservation value is not high enough. Often, this evaluation is determined by asking people how much they’d be willing to pay to preserve it. How much would you be willing to pay to preserve the Amazon?
The most famous ecological economics paper was written by a team of scientists let by Robert Costanza, then at the University of Maryland. This paper set the value of all of Earth’s ecosystems at $33 trillion/year. Whoa, that’s a lot!
But is there a problem with reducing Nature’s value into dollars? What are dollars? What other dimensions of value are worth evaluating in ecosystems?
Hmm, these are hard question. Let’s look at something a little smaller; a little easier to grasp. How about an acorn.
What’s an acorn worth?
Probably nothing. Oak trees produce acorns in abundance every year. No one really ever uses them. Squirrels eat them and tuck them away underground, but certainly no where near all of them. Deer fatten on them in the fall, but it’s not like they don’t have enough corn around to eat anyway. Anyone can walk outside any fall day and pick one up off the ground for free. But why would you want to do that? Although nutritious, tannins make them bitter. Leaching the tannins out of them is possible, but any rational cost-benefit analysis makes this practice not worth the effort. Yes, from any rational utilitarian perspective, the value of a single acorn is zero.
But let’s look at that acorn from another perspective. That acorn has the potential to
grow into an oak tree. If it’s lucky, or well-cared for, that tree may live 500 years. Each day of its life it will draw water from the ground and transpire it into the atmosphere, cooling the earth around it and creating a micro-climate desirable for grazing animals, humans, and certain plant communities. It will produce millions of acorns which will help feed hundreds or thousands of squirrels, deer, and turkey. A few of these acorns are likely to germinate and establish as trees themselves, providing all those services throughout their lives. As generations continue, these trees will have the capacity to adapt their DNA to changing environmental conditions. Who knows what their progeny will look like 5 million years from now. Regardless of their appearance, however, they are likely to still be feeding and providing services to surrounding plants and animals as they have continued to do throughout their 20 million year evolutionary history.
From this perspective, the value of one acorn is essentially infinite. It has infinite generative and adaptive capacity. Hmm, this is quite different from a value of zero.
So if the value of an acorn is infinite, how much more valuable is a functioning ecosystem as a context in which acorns can grow into oaks feeding animals, transpiring, reproducing, and evolving. What is the value to us, as humans, to be able to eat food produced in ecosystems functioning on their own, running on real-time solar energy, without fossil fuels, pesticides, or fertilizers? How much would you pay for that?
Is money the best way to try to value ecosystems? To value nature? To value life?
What do we hope to accomplish by putting a finite price tag on an infinitely-valuable ecosystem? Are we simply justifying and expediting its exploitation and destruction?