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article imageOp-Ed: Natural price tags — Explaining environmental values with dollars

By Paul Wallis     Jun 7, 2014 in Environment
Sydney - It’s either a reflection of the times, or a reflection of human ignorance- A group of scientists have attempted to explain the value of natural ecosystems with a pricing methodology.
The Australian-led study has raised some eyebrows, as well as controversy.
The New York Times:
Protection from storms is just one of many services that ecosystems provide us — services that we’d otherwise have to pay for. In 1997, a team of scientists decided to estimate how much they are actually worth. Worldwide, they concluded, the price tag was $33 trillion — equivalent to $48.7 trillion in today’s dollars. Put another way, the services ecosystems provide us — whether shielding us from storms, preventing soil erosion or soaking up the greenhouse gases that lead to global warming — were twice as valuable as the gross national product of every country on Earth in 1997.
“We basically said, ‘It’s an imprecise estimate, but it’s almost definitely a pretty big number, and we’ve got to start paying attention,'” said Robert Costanza, a professor at Australian National University who led the study.
That study proved to be hugely influential. Many governments, from Costa Rica to the United Kingdom, started to take the value of ecosystem services into account when they planned environmental policies. But the study also set off a lot of controversy. Some economists argued that it was based on bad economics, while some conservation biologists argued that price tags were the wrong way to save ecosystems.
As you can see, in some ways this approach hasn’t yet escaped from kindergarten level. The idea of free services, even from rocks and trees, is probably an ideological anathema to some people. From the infallible ivory towers of User Pays, (from contented elephants) which have done nothing but raise prices for no good reason for 40 years, the idea of anything being free, particularly people or environments, is probably heresy.
Economists should know better than to leap to insupportable conclusions, too. How do you put an economic value on the mechanisms which allow people to breathe, for example? Is that “bad economics”, or just another human value economics will never be able to measure?
The more likely value of nature with price tags is the fact that these numbers, right or wrong, create a spreadsheet value for people who no longer understand anything but spreadsheets. One of the most annoying things about environmental advocacy is having to discuss the glaringly obvious with people who don’t understand anything at all – Or those who deliberately and selectively don’t understand certain things.
This infantile approach to absolute fundamental needs is very popular in the US Congress, various lunatic associations known ironically as think tanks, and involves having missed everything anyone has ever been taught in high school.
Debate? What debate?
There is no “environmental debate”. It’s a yelling match between the educated and the uneducated. The uneducated get elected, so the educated have to regress their arguments to pre-school level to make a case for people having something to breathe and drink. That’s been the case for the last 60 years, and it’s trundling along nicely, thanks for asking.
Environmental ignorance is the equivalent of not knowing the times table, or one of those endearing battles of wits between people and their acceptance of ridiculous prices, and about as productive. The “debate” becomes more vacuous, as well as more dangerous, with each generation. The fact that current generations are generally sick, suffering from plagues of mental and physical problems is no coincidence.
Price tags are about as straightforward as you can get in explaining to anyone the value of environmental assets. It’s a balance sheet, kiddies. If you lose all your assets, your business dies, and you die with it. Now have your milk and cookies and go back to your selfies, Auntie Ritalin will kiss it better for you while you run your global corporations.
The trouble with valuations
Whether or not the price tag approach will work is highly debatable. Some people believe they’re good valuers. They can debate the value of the Rhine River, for example, using depreciation accounts. At some point, this type of valuation usually involves write-offs. That’s already happened with the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Crash the systems, lose the values, and then bitch about not having any fish and coast to coast garbage floating around. Net action? Nil.
What they can’t do is write off the productivity. Nature, despite being lumbered with a species of smugly insane, stupid, know-it-all chimpanzees as caretakers, continues to out-produce humanity on scales which are barely calculable.
It’s no thanks to humanity that there’s any oxygen to breathe, for example. Quite the opposite. Humans show all the symptoms of oxygen deprivation- lack of focus, irritability, slow thinking, slow reactions. You really want to do a valuation, or would you prefer to think that some things are free?
I’m sorry, if you prefer to think some things are free, you’re an environmental advocate. Report to your nearest nutcase for re-brainwashing immediately, and remember that you can always breathe phone bills.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Robert Costanza, Australian national university, environmental values, Environmental protection
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