HOW MUCH IS NATURE WORTH? WHO SAYS? WHO CARES?
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
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.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at
The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC)
is advertising the position of
Local Office and Outreach Officer
REC is an independent, not-for-profit, regional organisation. The
REC's mission is to promote co-operation among diverse environmental
groups and interests in central and eastern Europe. The REC is active
in 15 countries of the central and eastern European region, from the
Baltic States to Albania.
The position is based at the REC's head office in Szentendre, Hungary,
very close to Budapest. The position is within the Local Office and
Outreach Department, which is responsible in the REC for administering
and co-ordinating the REC local offices.
The Local Office and Outreach Officer will work closely together with
REC Local Offices and supervises their activities. The officer is
responsible for 5 of the REC's 15 local offices and has to ensure
proper information flow between REC Head Office and Local Offices. The
applicant would be expected to have excellent administrative,
managerial and communications skills. The position also requires
extensive travel, including out-of-office hours.
n Supervise and assist the Local Offices with regards to: budgeting
and finance; personnel management, office operations, information
exchange n Assist Local Offices in developing and implementation of
local projects n Develop relations with non-governmental organisations
and other constituent groups
The following qualifications are essential:
n Personnel management skills
n Project management and teamwork experience
n Office administration skills
n Knowledge of environmental issues in central and eastern Europe n
Computer literacy n Planning skills n Multicultural communication
skills n Ability to travel freely n Good English language skills, and
knowledge of one regional language
The following qualifications would be an advantage:
n University degree or equivalent
n Experience in fund-raising
n Financial management skills
Send your application, including cover letter and curriculum vitae
should be sent to Mr Mozes Kiss, Personnel Department, The Regional
Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary, H-2000
Szentendre, Ady Endre ut 9-11. F: +36-26 311 294, e-mail:
. Submissions are acceptable by letter, fax or e-mail.
The application deadline is 13th June 1997.
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Grants for Grass-Roots Organizations
Approximately 10 grants of up to $1,000 will
be awarded in Fall 1997 by the Cottonwood Foundation,
a small foundation that provides grants to grass
roots organizations internationally that combine
activities in all of the following four areas:
(1) protecting the environment,
(2) promoting cultural diversity,
(3) empowering people to meet their basic needs, and
(4) relying on volunteer efforts.
If your organization is interested in applying for
one of these grants or would like to nominate
another group for consideration, please visit our
World Wide Web site at
for application instructions, or contact us at:
White Bear Lake MN 55110
Completed applications are due on August 12, 1997
for consideration in Fall 1997.