Valuing Nature

Carl Zimmer has written an excellent piece in the New York Times about a very important study by Robert Costanza et al. on “Changes in the global value of ecosystem services” – in other words, how to place economic value on some of the critical functions that nature provides us for free, and how to quantify the economic fallout when these functions are degraded.

Of course, it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the esthetic aspects of natural ecosystems. And many people see it is a moral imperative to preserve these natural systems for future generations, regardless of their monetary worth.

The Costanza study, though, is based on the fact that natural ecosystems provide us with economic benefits by performing important services that, when diminished, have very real monetary costs in terms of the resulting damages and replacing the services with human-engineered solutions. Alas, many of these ecosystems and services are being rapidly and severely degraded.

Here are three of the several conclusions from Costanza et al., which I’ve taken verbatim from the highlights at the beginning of their article:

  • “Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.”
  • “Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.”
  • “Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.”

That last conclusion reminds me of a similar point that was made by the theologian Philip Hefner in his book The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture and Religion.  Hefner says “… in the situation to which biocultural evolution has brought us … the life not only of the human species, but of the entire planetary ecosystem is made to depend on a great wager going well. This wager is that the cultural systems of information that the co-creator [REL: that’s us humans] fashions will interface with the natural systems and with the global human culture so as to promote survival and a wholesome future.”  Hefner then says “… the wager is not going well. The cultural systems of information are not meshing adequately enough with other systems, and calamity is the prospect.” To prevent calamity, Hefner says we need “… revitalization of our mythic and ritual systems [REL: that is, our religious institutions], in tandem with scientific understandings, so as to reorganize the necessary information. This may help us to put our world together …”

I previously posted that, as a scientist, I could not accept Dr. Hefner’s fusion of science and religion. However, I agree with both Dr. Costanza and Dr. Hefner that our political, cultural, and religious institutions must support the natural ecosystems that provide vital services and valuable public goods to ourselves and to future generations.

Link to Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times

Link to paper by Robert Costanza et al. in the journal Global Environmental Change

Link to my response to Philip Hefner’s Theological Theory of the Created Co-Creator

[The image below is a photomosaic produced by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.]

NASA image of Earth

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Valuing Nature

  1. Without even taking sides here, a couple of observations recommend themselves.

    1. Ideally, converting an argument to currency units creates a common denominator for comparison. However, few of us can deal rationally with numbers in the trillions. Invoking numbers so large (and effectively unfalsifiable, at that) is hard to see as anything other than a declaration of transcendent personal comprehension and (therefore) unique authority, which can be accepted or rejected only on faith. Creating a basis for comparison while demanding that an inconceivable result be accepted on faith as evidence seems paradoxical.

    2. Nobody alive today actually speaks for future generations, although folks on each side of various arguments often claim to. It’s simple ballot-box stuffing.

    • You raise important issues, but here are my thoughts:

      1. I don’t think the numbers need to be precise to recognize that the costs are very large and must be taken into account despite the uncertainties. (A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.)

      2. Having kids and grandkids provides perspective. So does thinking about whether I, personally, would want to be forced to deal with the costs and other problems that future generations will face as a consequence of the activities of previous generations.

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