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Putting a Price on Nature

We’ve seen nature as property for so long. Something we can buy, sell and consume. We mine and log, fish and farm, without a second thought for the larger ecosystem we are affecting.

This has been our mentality for hundreds of years. But now, the consequences of our actions have come to haunt us with glaciers threatening our coastlines across the globe, and forest fires affecting the most vulnerable of us. We are now seeing the consequences of our actions as our environmental damage is impacting every inch of our biosphere. Yet, our attitudes haven’t changed with this impending threat. Instead, many governments want to maintain these ideas of growth and consumption, while putting a dollar sign on the environmental damage caused. But this is not an attitude that can get us out of the climate crisis.

The Problem

Let’s say the government wants to expand a local highway, but right beside the highway is a forest. Hundreds of trees will get logged in order to make room for the asphalt and cars. Understanding the uproar this will cause, they might try to compensate for the environmental destruction by planting new trees somewhere else. This is common to see in biodiversity markets, where biodiversity loss is offset by paying for conservation efforts. The goal is to have no net loss of biodiversity, while still encouraging economic growth. So, when a highway needs expanding, we can justify this by planting trees somewhere else, under the assumption that no biodiversity is lost. We’re still commodifying nature, but now we’re putting a dollar sign on conservation.

The major problem here is that this system does not properly value nature. Simply put, a tree is not just a tree. It’s one part of a complex tapestry that makes up a forest and gives life to all things. This is what the philosopher Arild Vatn called the functional value of nature. It describes the ways trees, mushrooms, bacteria, birds, rivers and rocks contribute to making a habitable ecosystem for life to thrive. This doesn’t just apply to a single forest, but the entire earth as well. Take one element away, and you disrupt the potential for that life to thrive. As Arild Vatn says, “each element of a system plays a distinctive role for the dynamics and the continuation of the entire structure”. This is something that biodiversity markets can’t account for.

When we rely on these markets, we simply put a dollar sign on the individual parts of nature. It’s something that can be consumed and replaced. But when you log a hundred trees and plant new ones in their place, you forget the birds that used those trees to nest. You can’t account for the mushrooms that grew on the fallen logs. We neglect the complexity of nature. Instead, we try to put a price on this destruction and compensate for it elsewhere. We still see nature as a resource, rather than something that provides us with life.

When this happens to a forest it is destructive to local ecosystems. But this mentality is applied to our entire biosphere. Governments and institutions try to offset their environmental impact through conservation schemes, while causing destruction to our environment for the sake of economic growth. But all of this ignores the functional value of nature that provides us with life. This is because the issue of climate change is so much greater than any of us can imagine. Even well-informed experts on the matter struggle to grasp the scale of the threat. Perhaps this is why we think it’s okay to value nature like this. But trying to put a dollar sign on this is foolish at best and dooming at worst. When taken to its extreme, we are trying to put a price on the life-sustaining function of earth.

Valuing Nature

We can’t properly compensate for our environmental damage this way. We need to treat nature as more than just a resource, and instead in a way that is independent of its usefulness to us as humans. That involves reorienting our relationship with nature towards one of respect. We need to move away from exploitation and strive for reciprocity. Since this can’t be done through biodiversity markets, we have to look for alternatives.

This can occur at a local level by valuing both human and non-human beings in organisational decision making. There are also organisations trying to give nature fundamental rights as an entity. These efforts can do what our governmental institutions will not. They ensure that nature is protected in a fundamental way that respects the functional value that it gives to all life on earth. We can no longer continue exploiting nature for the sake of economic growth. We must begin to rethink every aspect of how we interact with the natural world.

This involves fundamentally challenging the norms of our society. We need a cultural shift that prioritises nature. No longer as something to consume, but something that we are a part of. Something that gives life to us and all those beings around us – human or otherwise. We have the potential to act as stewards to this word, not destroyers. We have to be courageous enough to imagine what that looks like. Because the way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. We need to treat the earth as the complex tapestry that it is. Not as a pile of resources to collect and replenish.



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