Nature for nothing?

Nature provides everything that humanity needs for living, and it provides it all for free. Now economists are calculating how much money we save by having nature around. By giving nature a price tag, more people might consider protecting it. But is such thinking really what the value system of our „civilized“ society has boiled down to?

Nature is extremely useful to humanity. It provides air and water, energy, medicine, erosion control, food, shelter, recreation, and absorbs large amounts of CO2; all for free. Dire Straits could have composed a song on human’s free use of nature, not only on the free use of music videos (Money for nothing). These „ecosystem services“ of nature are being degraded by overpopulation, habitat destruction, pollution, mis-management, overhunting and overfishing, and climate change. And even though we know about the extremely worrisome developments of nature degradation and species loss, we still do not act upon it effectively enough to avoid further degradation and loss of ecosystem services that we need for our own survival.

It seems that the one factor that makes most people act is their personal well-being. That is natural, as people, like any other animal, evolved under circumstances in which it was essential to maximize one’s own chances of survival and that of one’s immediate social group. So what do most people see as an improvement of their well-being? Earning money and saving expenses. Financial incentives are thus the most effective way to get people to act.

To help protect ecosystems it thus makes sense to express ecosystem services in terms of their economic value, as it is done in the study of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). As it says on the webpage of TEEB: „The study will evaluate the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the associated decline in ecosystem services worldwide, and compare them with the costs of effective conservation and sustainable use. It is intended that it will sharpen awareness of the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services and facilitate the development of cost-effective policy responses, notably by preparing a ‚valuation toolkit‘.“

Clearly, if not protecting ecosystems means that all of us need to pay the bill for losing ecosystem functions, then protecting ecosystem services means that we will save money in the long run. That is quite an easy argument and should definitely help people understand what we are up against.

But are we really so detached from our natural surroundings that we need economic calculations to get us to act upon our long-term survival? Would it not be more important to help people truly understand what we are about to lose? Would it not be more important to take children on walks into the forests and explore the rich soils crawling with monsters under the microscope, hiking up mountains and pretending to be an eagle flying across the mountain tops, diving into the lakes and exploring the nooks between the stones for worms and fish, crawling through caves to discover the beauty of light when finally blinking into the sun again, putting your head under a small waterfall on a hot summer’s day, or just lying in the grass listening to the humming of the insects around you?

By putting a price tag on all of the things we see and smell and feel in nature, don’t we demystify nature and actually decrease its intrinsic value to us? By putting a price on nature don’t we pretend that we can replace nature’s services to us  if we just had enough money? What did our society develop into when we need to put a price tag on nature in order to make us protect the fundamental basis of our survival? Shouldn’t the mere fact that people feel the need to put a price on nature stop us dead in our tracks to seriously consider where in the world we are heading?

Maybe, hopefully, the obsurdness of putting a price tag on nature will wake us up and will help us change our path to head towards a sustainable, just life in which we can enjoy nature for what its worth intrinsically, not for its economic value.

Maiken Winter

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