Brother Can You Spare a Dime or Some Time for Mother Nature
When I discuss the environmental activities of the Sierra Club with people who are not familiar with our organization or with what we like to do, a common question often arises: “Why do you want to protect nature, what good is it anyway?” This question can be answered several ways and I will offer to you a few attempts to explain why we work so hard to help out Mother Nature.
Some groups of people have determined that nature is a great monetary or instrumental investment, even a better investment than gold (Merchant 2009). A recent study, “ The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,” (TEEB) found that investing funds in protecting wetlands, swamps, coral reefs, forests, etc… was the most productive financial investment you could make. They found that when you pay to preserve the things that nature does for free, such as making arable soil, clean air, or pure water the benefits outweigh the costs between 25 and 100 percent (TEEB 2009). In one example they concluded that the yearly cost of global deforestation was $2-3 trillion and all the benefits of healthy forests, sustainably managed are still not entirely known. Other specific studies included in the TEEB were just as impressive. For example:
- A Costa Rican study showing that areas of intact forest increase the yield of coffee farms by 20% because they shelter pollinating insects.
- A grassland conservation area in New Zealand that supplies the Otago region with free water that would cost $100 million per year to bring in from elsewhere.
- In Vietnam, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost the government $1.1 million but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of $7.3 million (TEEB 2009).
However, a major problem with trying to quantify these services or processes is there are no real markets where these natural ecosystem services are priced and sold. As a consequence our current global economic system fails to provide an accurate value for nature and this is called a market failure.
The lack of market prices for ecosystem services and biodiversity means that the benefits we derive from these goods (often public in nature) are usually neglected or undervalued in decision-making. This in turn leads to actions that not only result in biodiversity loss, but also impact on human well-being. The scale of current losses is imposing (TEEB 2009, 2).
The bottom line here is that “natural capital - our ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources – underpins economies, societies, and individual well-being” (TEEB 2009, 4) and we have no accurate process/market for determining the overall instrumental value of natural capital. Consequently, we should make instrumental decisions about nature very carefully and conservatively. In addition to an instrumental value that we artificially place on natural services or processes there is an intrinsic or aesthetic value that is even harder to quantify or measure.
How much should we spend to preserve or protect nature just for the sake of nature? Do living creatures and their habitats warrant protection because we love to explore them or because we enjoy their beauty and wildness? Author Henry David Thoreau answered this inquiry with: “In Wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Also, former President Lyndon B. Johnson was perhaps on to something when he stated, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” Clearly, the intrinsic value of a raccoon, plankton, clean air or fertile soil is up to you but it is also part of the legacy that we will leave to our children and should not be hastily underestimated or undervalued.
As we look forward to the New Year remember the people that you love and care for and remember the natural things that you also love and care for. If you value Mother Nature for the instrumental things that are produced or you value Mother Nature for the intrinsic things produced then you should be prepared to act on these concerns. Find a cause that spurs your passions or touches your wallet but find a reason to get out there and help. Be prepared to protect and preserve what you love to explore and more importantly, this coming year lead, follow or get out of the way! Be prepared to spend a dime on or some time in Mother Nature!!
Merchant, Brian. “Study Shows Investing in Nature More Valuable than Gold (Literally),” 2009. Accessed at http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/11/investing-nature-conservation-bring-100-capital-returns.php.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). TEEB – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for National and International Policy Makers – Summary: Responding to the Value of Nature 2009. UNEP, Wesseling Germany, 2009.