What tastes better a shawarma or a dollar?
Nature cannot be exchanged for an illusion. We cannot put a price on ecosystem services. Doing so is trying to suggest money which has no intrinsic value can be used to replace nature’s free gifts.
Let us imagine a hectare of land about to be cleared to plant oil palms is estimated to provide “$100 million” in ecosystem services. A regulatory agency forces this “cost” on the farmers who in turn add this sum to the cosmetics companies that buy their oil.
*Alohomora! In total disregard of the original idea behind money — a means to exchange things by and not things for a forest is now exchanged for a fictional artifice that changes with the price of oil, interest rate cuts, IMF recommendations and ultimately weakens via inflation.
An “even fairer trade” label on our soaps and shampoos tell us that $2 of “ecosystem services” are the inclusive costs of a morning shower and in germ size print a note says “we are still unable to calculate the time for the rain forest to re-emerge. Your money is now been invested in research to find new ways to grow forests faster, unfortunately science and engineering still can’t figure out a way to regrow a forest with destroying more forests!”
And whose responsibility is it to do the labelling; the farmers? the cosmetic company’s’? the regulatory agency?
Since nature will be more worthless in the future we shouldn’t worry about the river Jordan become more contentious or the river Nile leading a war between Ethiopia and Egypt. But we mustn’t forget to quickly make a full economic assessment of the entire Egyptian economy for 7000 years and promptly give this to the Ethiopian government.
Quantifying nature also suggests that nature can be partitioned with some parts made more valuable than others. The tropics are more obviously more “costly” than temperature regions. In “full cost economics” a square kilometre of the Congo is worth more than a square kilometer of the Saskatchewan (I wonder if a house in Saskatchewan costs less than one in the Congo?)
But does “full cost economics” consider the ecosystems services past and future? And that the value of these services become more expensive as more habitats are destroyed and our population increases (perhaps in geometric proportion to diminishing value of money).
How does “full cost economics” calculate the “value” of a forest to an indigenous community?, its undiscovered remedies?, its unearthed resources?, its eco-tourism potential?, its soil compaction properties?, its salinity stabilisation?, its wind break effect?, its cooling shade?, its tenancy to millions?
It has been emphasised that costing nature is not the same as putting price i.e. commodifiying nature. And that costing nature is a very necessary, as putting a “value” on life is the only way for our modern quantitative minds to digest and understand environmental opportunity costs. This valuing has been term PES (Payment for Ecosystem Services).
The fires that blazed across Australia and California in the recent past destroyed billions of dollars in property, now that the embers are smouldering, saplings of great Sequoia will have enough light from the reduced canopy to grow, non-invasive species, weeds and diseases have also been cleared out by these infernos and more nutrients have been added to the soil by the ashes of the logs and undergrowth. So is fire an ecosystem service? When computing the PES value of a forest do we add up the benefits, (oxygen, medicines) and then subtract the CEDS (Cost of Economic Disservices e.g. fire, disease) to arrive at a more palatable figure? But wait! The blazing inferno will create new life! No wait! Homes costing billions were burnt to ashes. Help! I getting confused!
Perhaps world governments should budget for annual forest fires.
Perhaps we should also prepare a thorough questionnaire to interrogate our relatives. We must ask camels the cost of water and bees the cost of flowers and then compare the cost of water from the camel (to whom water is scare) with its cost to fishes (to whom it is abundant) and then the cost of flower to a bee with its cost to a penguin.
In the pre-industrial era when craft industries still produced most of societies goods, nature was still the source of the all the artisan’s materials. We made furnishing, clothing, weaponry and toys with same nature that modern conglomerates do today. And yet the thought of computing the cost of natural services was unthinkable. It is not simply that one form of manufacturing was more sustainable and less carbon emitting than another it is also the idea that the current economic order can continue and we should try to heal our bruises on nature with currency as a plaster and never think of abandoning the same crafty manipulations that is suggested by the term techne, (the etymological roots of technology).
Our precarious approach to the ecological tipping point is the reason for a tipping in our thought process in the direction of more economic hubris.
We don’t want to cooperate but to co-opt.
We need to keep in mind that:
You cannot eat money.
Money is what we exchange goods by and not what we exchange goods for.
What is free is ultimately priceless.
Nature is also busy decomposing our dead loved ones so we must include the “cost” of past corpses and future corpses in any PES equation (perhaps in bitcoin to avoid governmental control of sentient life).
*Alohomora is a phrase from the Harry Potter universe and means “that which unlocks the door.” (the question is the door to…?)