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What is the natural world worth to you?

Most days, I travel to Utrecht for work. From Leiden, it’s only 42 minutes (according to NS) and for me, it’s not too bad. I get a chance to marvel every day at the freakish green flatness that characterises the Netherlands. I also get to think about how strange it must be to not need fences, as the fields are generally surrounded by water. It’s not like farming in Australia, that’s for sure. It also presents me with a great chance to read. I read newspapers (sometimes I even read De Spits), I read magazines, blogs and books too, from time to time. And this morning I came across this one, by George Monbiot.

It started off with a reference to Rousseau. Good start, I thought. “Civil society” doesn’t usually pop up as something with negative connotations, but there it was. And then he really started to get to work:

In many countries, especially the United Kingdom, nature is being valued and commodified so that it can be exchanged for cash.

The effort began in earnest under the last government. At a cost of £100,000, it commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported – with a certain understatement – that this exercise was “theoretically challenging to complete, and considered by some not to be a theoretically sound endeavour.” Some of the services provided by England’s ecosystems, it pointed out, “may in fact be infinite in value.”

George (I am confident he won’t mind if I call him George), like myself was swift to recognise the “rare flash of common sense” in the last quote there. Imagine, rain, and the benefit it has for growing things, having something close to infinite value! As I read on, I started thinking more and more about the value of public space, the natural environment (or, more accurately, the non-urban environment) and the ways landscape enriches society.

All of  a sudden, I found myself thinking of how the memory of some natural place can be worth so much in moments of stress and darkness that every day living in the modern world brings, how they lighten

the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world

So, what is the environment worth? How do you price rain, and sunshine, and wind?

It was pretty early in the morning to be thinking about Wordsworth, a poet I have always struggled to like, let alone love. Nevertheless, there I was, somewhere between Bodegraven and (volgende station) Woerden (eindbestemming Utrecht Centraal; reist u met een OV chipkaart, niet vergeten uit techecken) depressed that the UK is trying to price ecosystems, and thinking that Romantic poets really had it pretty good.

Monbiot sketched out the justification for pricing ecosystems:

Business currently treats the natural world as if it is worth nothing. Pricing nature and incorporating that price into the cost of goods and services creates an economic incentive for its protection. It certainly appeals to both business and the self-hating state. The Ecosystem Markets Task Force speaks of “substantial potential growth in nature-related markets – in the order of billions of pounds globally.”

As he says, “coherent and plausible”. A price on carbon works on the same premise. But as he goes on to finish, the real case starts to fall down. When you put a price on something, markets form around it. It’s harder to buy something when it isn’t priced. Much harder to sell it. The second you do, then suddenly there’s a potential to make some money and, as Monbiot puts it:

Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments.

Rare snails in the way of a coal mine? It’s okay, just move them. Beautiful field prevents oil drilling? It’s okay, pay for a new field somewhere else.

You get the idea.

Alongside of this, I was thinking too of the value people get from engaging with the world around them. Wordsworth, for all the boredom he inflicted on me at University, was thoroughly engaged with the world around him. In “Lines Composed…” he reflects on the view across the Wye, how this view sustained him in dark times, and how seeing the view again the scene is more valuable still as he shares it with his sister. He recognises the way he experiences the world around him has changed, just as much as the view itself changes.

If an engagement with the environment enables a work like this poem to be produced, and is indeed, a prerequisite for it, how can we price something like this into the model? Why would you even want to try? Better by far to try and recover some sense of “public good”, something that is just there. Rather than some epic struggle to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Despite all of these thoughts, this morning, at that particular moment as I read over the poem a second, and a third time, it was really just one small part which struck me in a way it never had before:

…that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

From this it occurred to me that whatever privations and difficulties we might experience, whatever abuses are heaped on us by politicians, businessmen and (sometimes) well-meaning bureaucrats, it is nevertheless important to remember that tiny acts of rebellion matter, that personal choices count, and that, however small, it’s always worth trying.

Names, unremembered acts of kindness and of love


Photo by CIA, above Rheinfall, Switzerland

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Those small acts of rebellion are a way of claiming and standing in our own power. A way of remembering that the “powers that be” have that power only because you and I have lent them ours. It’s time to remember that we can, and must, take it back. It is those small acts of rebellion that take the power back. Thanks for your thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, post!

    August 9, 2012
    • I’m always a little overwhelmed at such positive feedback! Your comment about lending our power makes me think still further – and of course, in this case, we have to be happy at least, to have the privilege of living in places where that remains true (let’s not let anything slip on that count!). Doubtless, there are more posts to come.

      August 16, 2012
      • My dear friend, with privilege comes responsibility. Even as we ARE privileged to live in places where we are free to voice our thoughts and challenge the status quo, it is just as much our responsibility to do just that: voice our thoughts – always respectfully – and challenge the status quo! Looking forward to more posts! All the best! xoM

        August 17, 2012
  2. Good point that the aesthetic value of the natural world is definitely something that we recognise, but struggle to translate into an economic value.

    Not that calculating the economic value of the environment is necessarily a bad thing. People have been making money from environmental services long before the term and prices were applied, but recognising their economic value can actually give incentives for protecting the environment.
    Wetlands prevent flooding downstream, so let’s protect and restore them rather than building huge walls that end up costing more. Native pollinators are quite effective for pollinating vegetable crops in New Zealand, so maybe we should be doing something to make sure their populations are stable
    Of course, it all depends on whether people/companies perceive these things as an advantage. Plus, it doesn’t get around the fact that we should be protecting the environment because it is beneficial for the environment and for us, whether there is moolah-based profiteering to be had or not.

    Do note that I am now going to assume that your internal thoughts are composed entirely of poetic verse.

    August 9, 2012
    • Your assumption is well received, if ill conceived.

      I will reply with substance to your other points. Though that would require more space, and deeper thought than is available to me here. To start with, I agree that pricing the environment can produce benefits. But I fear what happens when the profit of environmental destruction is higher than the costs implied by the price alone.

      August 16, 2012

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