The benefits of green spaces and natural settings are becoming more apparent all the time: reduced stress, depression and feelings of aggressiveness; an increase in overall happiness; faster post-operative recovery; a decline in ADHD symptoms in children — all of these outcomes have been verified when people spend time in nature. The outdoors make us happier, cause us to be kinder and can even give us bigger brains.
While you could say these kinds of benefits are priceless, there’s a new trend afoot. By assigning a monetary value to natural elements in a healthy environment, it is hoped that governments, businesses and others in positions of power will come to see that protecting nature makes good financial sense.
This concept of pricing ecosystem services and natural features — and allowing them to be bought and sold — is gaining wide acceptance among conservationists. But could this approach end up obscuring the unquantifiable, soul-restoring advantages of natural places and put them at even greater risk?
Getting nature on the balance sheets
The phrase that ecologists use to describe the lands, waters and biodiversity that contribute to national and international economies is “natural capital.” The Natural Capital Project (also known as NatCap), a partnership of conservation groups, the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, is a central developer of this concept. Working off the premise that the things we pay for are usually what we believe have value, NatCap aims to enter nature’s contributions onto the balance sheets of businesses, corporations and governments.
The idea of natural capital gained significant attention in 2005, when the United Nations published the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Synthesizing information from the scientific literature and knowledge practiced by the private sector, local communities and indigenous peoples, the report concluded that “human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” We cannot continue to undercut ecosystem services by ill-advised development.
A case in point was New York City during the 1990s. At that time, the city’s drinking water was violating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality standards due to sewage, pesticides and other pollutants in its upstate watershed. The city considered building a new, $7 billion, downstream water-filtration plant. In addition to the construction cost, the plant would have required $300 million a year to operate. Instead, however, the city opted to use rural land acquisitions and other measures to restore the natural watershed, which filtered out pollutants for less than a quarter of the cost of building a new plant.
Today, the conservation group American Forests points out that the 2.8 million trees growing in Baltimore, Maryland, streets and parks store 527 tons of carbon every year, remove 269 tons of ground-level ozone and help cut air-conditioning bills by $3.3 million a year. In Eastern and Southern Africa, it has been shown that lions generate billions of tourist dollars, spurring governments in those regions to invest in their protection. The hope is that West Africa will begin to see this economical value in their own lions and initiate conservation measures there.
Natural capital proponents say that the old-style messages of protecting nature for its own sake have failed to stop habitat destruction and the dwindling of species. Philosophical arguments, they state, rarely trump profits and the promise of jobs. Now, by pointing out the marketplace value of ecosystem services — such as flood control, water filtration, carbon sequestration and species habitat — we can save the natural world and turn a profit at the same time.
Taking stock of our souls
Critics of the nature capital idea say that it’s not possible to put a price tag on nature. Traditional conservationists sought to protect certain landscapes primarily for their intrinsic value — something likely to carry less weight when thought about in economic terms. Not all ecosystem goods and services are easy to quantify.
Opponents also argue that old-style conservation methods haven’t necessarily failed. Protected areas now cover 40 percent of the landmass in Belize, 27 percent in Guatemala and in the United States, 26 percent in Costa Rica, and 25 percent in Tanzania.
Allowing ecosystem services to be bought and sold risks creating more harm to the environment, as well. If governments pay landowners to bank carbon, for example, they may plant nonnative species or genetically modified trees that bank carbon faster. Or if a quarry company wants to destroy a rare meadow, it can buy absolution by paying someone to make a meadow somewhere else.
Still, those in the natural capital camp see their approach as not about reducing nature to a bottom-line amount but as a way for environmentalists to find common ground with economists. Arguing about how much scenic beauty we need or how important it is to save a particular animal before it’s gone isn’t as effective as calculating the costs by various methods of maintaining clean drinking water or bringing in tourism dollars.
Nature capitalists could be right. Let’s just hope, though, that in the midst of assigning dollar amounts to natural resources, we don’t lose sight of how restorative nature can be to our souls.
Do you think that describing nature in terms of capital assets is the right step for environmentalists to take, especially when funds for conservation are dwindling?
Feature photo: Numerous studies have shown that natural settings reduce your stress, make you feel happier and help you recover faster after an operation. Is it possible to put a price on that? ©John T. Andrews