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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


What the Earth Is Worth

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: economics, climate change, ecosystem services, GDP, United Nations, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Yakushima Island stream 

The accounting experts have crunched the numbers, and the results are in: We are undervaluing the earth. A new United Nations report says nations had better start incorporating nature’s value into their balance sheets, in both the assets and losses columns, if they’re to reflect what’s really happening in our warming world. Writes Reuters:

Damage to natural capital including forests, wetlands and grasslands is valued at $2-4.5 trillion annually, the United Nations estimates, but the figure is not included in economic data such as GDP, nor in corporate accounts.

The report, “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature” (pdf), released by the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), details in cold, hard numbers exactly how much ecosystems such as tropical forests and coral reefs contribute to countries’ bottom lines—and how much those nations stand to lose should these ecosystems falter or collapse. 

I’ve often had conflicting reactions to this increasingly common practice of applying accounting principles to natural systems, or “ecosytem services” as they’re sometimes called (an approach Utne Reader covered in the article “Hiring Mother Earth to Do Her Thing”). On the one hand, putting a value on nature will indeed lead to better measurements of true prosperity than pure GDP, with its blindness to these “externalities,” and speaking in dollars is often the only way to “sell” environmental protection in a capitalist-driven world. But isn’t trying to put a number on the worth of creation a somewhat futile and hubristic exercise? Perhaps the earth is priceless.

Fortunately, the man who’s the driving force behind the UNEP report, German banker Pavan Sukhdev, is making no claims to hanging a price tag on the planet. The Environment News Service reports:

Sukhdev emphasized that the TEEB [The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity] study, which has involved hundreds of experts from around the world, is not a cost-benefit analysis of the Earth.

TEEB recognizes that biodiversity has many different types of values, not all of which can be given a price tag, he said, adding that market solutions represent but a small fraction of the economic solutions available to value biodiversity.

Both India and Brazil have said they’ll use the findings as a guide in forming policy. And the United States? As is usual in environmental matters these days, they’re not exactly leading the way. As the Washington Post reports: 

The idea of incorporating ecosystem benefits into policymaking has yet to gain the same level of traction in the United States, where a proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions collapsed this year after critics said it would damage the nation’s economy.

“I’m not seeing, as of yet, anything firm coming from the North American continent, but I’m hoping it’s a matter of time,” Sukhdev said.

Sources: Reuters, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, Environment News Service, Washington Post 

Image by caseyyee, licensed under Creative Commons. 

rosalinda sanquiche
10/27/2010 3:09:11 PM

Lots of work has been done in this area. See the European Unions Beyond GDP at www.beyond-gdp.eu. And, watch for the new survey from Ethical Markets Media and Globescan on what individuals believe should be true measures of a nation's wealth at www.ethicalmarket.com Beyond GDP.


kathairein magdalena
10/27/2010 9:37:05 AM

This is one small step for humankind in the right direction, because money talks and because as we all know in our hearts, money is still the god before whom we bow, even when we do not want to do it. I recommend DEFENDING SACRED GROUND, by Alex Collier, plus his YouTube videos. There you will learn outrageous things about the VALUE of TERRA, which is the off-planet name for this planet. Apparently very few inhabited planets are OXYGEN based. Oxygen, Water,and Climate Controls give this planet its unique capacity for so many lifeforms. Civilized humans on Terra can RECALL the Original Instructions about how to live in harmony and reciprocity with all of these CONSCIOUS living BEINGS, including the minerals we mine with impunity. These relationships are all encoded in our DNA and in our sensuality. Nearly everyone has had a favorite rock or enjoyed watching Nature or enjoyed a bath. How many of us clapped to save Tinkerbell's life in PETER PAN? That's the spirit! We instinctively know the value of the Planet, and we know it is not measured in money. Eventually we can put money in its proper place and still live well.


tim gieseke
10/27/2010 8:42:41 AM

Although the man-made economic system is a subset of the ecological system, it is the man-made economic system that must be used to allocate value or resources toward maintaining or improving the ecosystems. This is accomplished by adding an ecological dimension to the economy via EcoCommerce. www.ecocommerce101.com