What is Nature Worth?

What do you value? A healthy family? A good job that is satisfying and that provides sufficient resources to live comfortably? Time to enjoy a good book or a long walk in the mountains with family? These are all respectable values. What you value guides your decisions and actions, where you invest your money and time, and what you choose to save in an emergency.

Do you value clean air and water or a vibrant ecosystem filled with diverse life? What would you pay to keep that air and water clean, to keep the pollutants from contaminating that ecosystem?

These are difficult questions, yet they are very important for our future. Our livelihood, our industry, our health, and even our recreation are dependant upon the resources of the world in which we live. For many centuries, we have easily placed value on the product of our efforts, our constructs, the built world, and our social organizations. What we have not easily determined value for has been the resources used to build our societies and produce our goods and services, our natural capital.

The Forum for the Future Project defines natural capital as “any stock or flow of energy and material that produces goods and services.” Natural resources, both the renewable materials and living creatures and non-renewable materials we use for manufacture of products and energy, are obvious sources of capital. Other aspects of natural capital that may be less obvious, but no less valuable, are natural processes, environments, or species that “absorb, neutralize, or recycle wastes” such as carbon sequestration from plants, wetlands and watersheds or the multitude of species that are vital to nutrient cycling in forests and waterways.

“The concept of natural capital has the potential to reconcile economic and environmental interests by integrating the value of natural capital in decision-making,” says the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “The Natural Capital Approach (NCA) is a means for identifying, quantifying and valuing ecosystem services leading to better decision-making for managing, preserving and restoring natural environments.”

Earth Economics of Tacoma is actually setting out to put real dollar values to natural capital resources in our region. In their 2010 report, Valuing The Puget Sound Basin, they note “the value of natural systems in the Puget Sound Basin is enormous. Yet this wealth is being lost. As the ecological health of the region deteriorates, benefits once provided for free and potentially in perpetuity are deteriorating or disappearing.” These lost resources include, among others, natural water filtration systems we rely on for clean drinking water, natural retention systems that help stop or slow water intrusion or flooding, and natural habitats for the fish, fowl, and our fellow creatures of the land.

“To reduce damage, new expensive engineered infrastructure is developed to replace nature’s lost and previously free services,” Earth Economics tell us in their report. “Currently natural capital is not recognized as a capital asset that is measurable within standard accounting systems. As a result, these assets are undervalued and investment in the form of capital improvements, maintenance and operations are insufficient. Washington State and the counties of the Puget Sound Basin should lead the way initiating changes in national accounting rules to accommodate the economic value that natural capital provides.”

As a society, we need to acknowledge that culture and our economy would be lost without the robust and abundant environment from which it is created. As Gaylord Nelson said, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.” As such, when the environment fails, so will our economy.

We threaten our environment at our own peril. Polluting our natural resources, our water and air, the fertile ground upon which we grow our crops, and the very creatures we rely on for food, products, and services, can no longer be a simple by-product of doing business as usual. A healthy economy produces a healthy society, and only by maintaining a healthy Earth can we hope to provide for a healthy future for our children and their children. In addition to investing in the infrastructure of our future society, we must include a robust investment in maintaining and rebuilding a healthy environment with clean water, clear air, stable land, and dynamic life, both plant and animal.

Earth Economics suggests “Shifting investment requires accounting that includes the value of natural capital, improved jobs analysis, better cost/benefit analysis and economic incentives that reward green investment.”

Gaylord Nelson reminds us in his book Beyond Earth Day, Fulfilling the Promise, “All economic activity is dependent upon that environment and its underlying resource base of forests, water, air, soil, and minerals. When the environment is finally forced to file for bankruptcy because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, and irretrievably compromised, the economy goes into bankruptcy with it.”

It’s only good business to take care of the environment.

By Sheldon W O’dahl

“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”
—Gaylord Nelson, former U.S. senator, governor of Wisconsin, and founder of Earth Day

“You show me pollution and I will show you people who are not paying their own way, people who are stealing from the public, people who are getting the public to pay their costs of production. All environmental pollution is a subsidy.”
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

(Note: this article was originally published in the Sustainable Living Guide 2014, in Seattle Natural Awakenings, February 2014)

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