By Donella Meadows
–May 22, 1997–
Well, folks, now we know. Nature is worth $33 trillion dollars a year. That’s a medium estimate. The real value could be as low as $16 trillion or as high as $54 trillion.
To put those numbers in perspective, the value of the entire output of the world economy each year is $18 trillion. That comes to $3000 a year, on average, for each human on the planet. Nature provides goods and services worth somewhere between $2600 and $9000 per person per year. The calculation was made by a team of ecologists, economists, and geographers from twelve prestigious universities and laboratories in three countries. It was published this week in the journal Nature.
If something within you is uncomfortable at this exercise, if you are thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, there’s something wrong with the whole concept of putting a dollar value on all life,” good for you. You are a sane person in a crazy world.
The most obvious wrong is the reduction to money terms of something that is so clearly beyond value. It’s like valuing the Taj Mahal or St. Peter’s Cathedral by its yearly tourist revenues. It’s a confusion of value with price, beauty with numbers, the sacred with the profane.
Furthermore, the living biosphere is more than a magnificent creation (or outcome of 12 billion years of evolving wisdom) that many of us consider sacred. It’s also, quite pragmatically, our life-support system. Measuring it in dollars is like calculating the rent you owe your mother while you’re still in her womb. As ecologist David Ehrenfeld said to the New York Times, when asked to comment on the new nature-valuation, “I am afraid that I don’t see much hope for a civilization so stupid that it demands a quantitative estimate of the value of its own umbilical cord.”
Or, as E.F. Schumacher said two decades ago, “To press non-economic values into the framework of the economic calculus … is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price…. All it can do is lead to self deception or to the deception of others; for to undertake to measure the immeasurable is absurd…. What is worse and destructive of civilization is the pretense that everything has a price.”
There are, of course, plenty of people who are stupid or soulless enough to think that everything has a price. They are the ones who do cost-benefit analyses to prove that an old-growth forest is worth more as logs than it is standing and living. They can’t see why a billion-dollar gold mine should be stopped, just because it would poison waters for miles downstream. They look at soaring land values in San Diego County and have no trouble with the concept that condominiums are worth more than the creatures that still live in the remaining scraps of coastal sage scrub.
Let’s admit it, there’s some of that crassness in all of us, when it comes to building our homes, driving our cars, earning our livelihoods. We’re products of our civilization. We all succumb to the delusion that we live from dollars.
That’s why the scientists who tried to calculate nature’s value did it. They know they’re trying to measure something that is invaluable, and they are also well aware that scientifically their attempt is full of heroic assumptions. Their paper is full of caveats and cautions, the most important of which is that their estimate is certainly much too low.
They did the best they could. They divided the earth up into 16 categories, such as coastal ocean, open ocean, tropical forest, and grassland. For each they estimated the value of 17 kinds of “ecosystem services” supplied by that type of land- or sea-scape. That list of services is their most useful contribution, because it reminds us of what nature does for us without charge.
Pollination, for example. Imagine having to go out and brush, carefully, one by one, against the gazillions of apple blossoms opening this week in the orchards of New England. Waste treatment — what would happen if countless bacteria and other critters didn’t eagerly consume our sewage, whether in a treatment plant or a running stream? Soil formation — I suppose we could grind up rock and throw fertilizer into it, but that wouldn’t be living, self-perpetuating, re-nutrifying soil.
Here are some of the other ecosystem services on the list. Climate regulation. Nutrient cycling. Control of pest populations. Species protection. (Think of what it costs to keep an endangered animal alive in a zoo, compared to a native habitat). Food and raw materials, lumber, paper, fish, game. (That is one of the few items on the list that has established market values). Maintenance of the mind-boggling library of genetic resources. Then there’s the imponderable category the authors call “cultural” — the esthetic, artistic, educational, spiritual, and scientific value to us of our living world.
The number the scientists came out with for the value of these services is not even close to a good measure of their real value. It is, however, a clear measure of the desperation of the scientists. They have been trying to tell us for decades the value of what we are thoughtlessly destroying. Now they’re trying to speak in a language they think we can hear. They admit that their estimate is rough. It could be too low by a factor of ten or a hundred or a thousand or a million. But it’s much more accurate than the value the market gives to the natural systems that support us — zero.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997