You Can Put a Price on Nature

(And not just at fancy downtown succulent and smoothie shops)

One of my 3,292 NY resolutions was to acquire a plant a month. (Running to plant shop as soon as I post this).

Sometimes the same ideas come at me like so many jets in an annoyingly fancy hotel shower. This week, those jets were all shooting this idea: price tags for nature. There are many things we don’t put a price on. The things we do put a price on reflect what we prioritize as a society. 

A few weeks ago I was at a social commons conference where a panelist eloquently made the case for putting a price on the unwaged work in society—things like childcare, things like...all the stuff that women tend to do. 

Yesterday, my husband sent me an article about another group who don’t get paid for their hard work: whales. Indeed, over a whale’s life, it’ll perform two million dollars worth of important environmental work. The study of this value creation is called natural capital economics. Of course, the idea of price-is-righting the value of nature is by no means new, and by no means universally loved. Wrote George Monbiot, rather wonderfully, about the more than slightly fuzzy nature numbers put forth by a UK Government panel appointed to study natural capital:

These figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened ... and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish.

But at the same time, if we show people the trillions of dollars of value we’re destroying, might we not reevaluate said destruction as we spread the numbers on our toast? While it is a bit reductive to slap a price tag on whales, natural capital is evolving to neater and more resonant metrics. As Tim McDonnell and Amanda Shendruk write in Quartz: 

Natural capital scientists are increasingly interested in moving beyond dollar figures toward other, more tangible metrics, like the number of lives saved by clean air and water, or projections of how crop yields might be affected by pollution and climate change.

The armchair behaviour scientist in me says duh. Quantifiable, emotive stats! Yes! Here in Ontario, closing the coal plants ended smog days and measurably prevented deaths. Using dollars or yen or zloty to share salient data points like numbers of lives saved, or lakes cleaned, or homes heated is a much more vivid way of illustrating value. Just as the reverse is true: putting amount of CO2 expended per plane trip or car fill-up is no different than displaying the calorie count of a Big Mac. If my husband had a zloty for every time I mentioned wishing food products would have carbon labels! So while it may be crass to think of nature in terms of numbers, the alternative asks us to ascribe value in a vacuum. It’s easy to get behind pricing nature when you see the astronomical value of an ecosystem. 140 trillion is so mind-bogglingly huge a number it rather aptly illustrates that nature is priceless. I feel a Mastercard parody coming on.

Visualizing value can also make an issue come alive. Telling people income inequality is a huge issue doesn’t seem to do much. They nod their heads and move on with their day. Using pie to illustrate the disparity = on-the-nose genius.

This week

Do you think about quantifying the value of nature? Let me know!

This and that

Welcome new readers, come by way of this interesting Huffington Post piece about what climate change will mean for Toronto. I had a really good chat with the reporter, but one of my key fears is that without much-needed explanation of what temperature rise will actually mean, climate change can be read favourably, as if there are winners and losers. A cursory read would lead you to believe that Toronto’s winters will just get comfortably milder, but there’s so much more to it than that. Our trees and natural ecosystem don’t just magically adapt to this new warmth. Our increasingly impermeable concrete city doesn’t just absorb the huge amounts of rainwater that will cause flash floods. I hope to devote a subsequent issue to the pitfalls of this winners and losers narrative. 

If this is all too dire, take amusement in the form of fave climate writer Emily Atkin’s recent revelation. I didn’t believe that Barron Cashdollar could be a real name. Reader, it is!

Emily’s been doing ace work on exposing the ridonkulousness of Exxon PR. Like this:

Have a wonderful weekend!

Sarah