Posted by on July 23, 2017

About 30 years ago a group of brilliant and insightful group of ecological economists worked out that the services provided by ecosystems should be described with a monetary value for what they contribute to the healthy function of the biosphere. Their intention was that damage to these services would have a reciprocal cost. I was first introduced to this concept by Herman Daly and John Cobb in 1995 in their book For the Common Good: Redirecting the economy towards community, the environment, and a sustainable future. By then the book was already in its second edition, having first been released in the eighties. Their partnership– an economist and–produced a profound thesis that opened a generation of activists’ minds to the flaws of the current economic order. A philosophical thread about community and connection ran through the pages–about how much we needed the natural world but have failed to value it for what it provides us. It was inspiring to read then, and it still is now.

Old growth European Beech forest in Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro, by Snežana Trifunović

Old growth European Beech forest in Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro, by Snežana Trifunović

In 1997, another published piece of work from Robert Costanza and a large group of his colleagues crunched the numbers about what ‘natural capital’ was worth. They revealed what the market was doing to the world and estimated the economic value of the Earth’s biosphere to be in the range of US $16–54 trillion (recalling this was 20 years ago), most of which sat outside of the market system.

There was much more than raw number crunching in this collective work. They were trying to make a point–one that has sadly been lost as time has moved on. The economic system should not be allowed to ‘externalise’ the costs of their impact. The cost of a degraded a natural system should be factored into their cost of production. For instance, a mine that proposes to use the ‘ecosystem services’ of a river to dispose of its tailing waste should factor the impact costs to the river and the ecosystem and the communities it supports, all the way down to the wetland and the river that flows out to sea, where the freshwater and salt water mix to feed the marine spawning ground for coastal fisheries. Rather than the cost to the mine being focused on a few pipes and a media blackout campaign about the impact of the tailings, the company should have to ‘internalise’ the economic value of their damage to the ecosystem services the entire way through. It doesn’t take too much imagination to build a picture of what the cost of the mining commodity would truly be–should truly be.

With scholarly clarity and care, they made the case that if the ecosystem damages were actually paid for, regarding their value and contributions to the global economy, the price of commodities using or damaging these services would be much greater.

As time has moved on, the foundation work of these ecological economists has been rolled into something very different. Big business has invested heavily in ensuring its reinterpretation, and the vision of the market internalising the cost of the damage it causes has not come to fruition. Instead, what we have now is a focus on retaining a few landscape level systems as intact, by making payment to governments, and sometimes communities, for the ecosystem service they provide.

This is played out most visibly in market-based Payment for Ecosystem Service or carbon trading schemes. These schemes along with conservation marketing and conservation finance mechanisms such as biodiversity derivatives and species banking are just some of the market mechanisms that have soared in popularity in recent decades. They are built on market economics to determine a fair price for the ecosystem services in formal Wall Street-type exchanges, where services go to the highest bidder. Ecosystems have been turned into a commodity.

I believe, local and indigenous communities have a different, more legitimate, perspective–that ecosystem services are co-produced by nature and communities and that their value is not derived from market prices for  their services but instead from their intrinsic value to biodiversity, communities and livelihoods, food production, and wider social benefits that cannot be quantified or sold.

Nunavut land and seascape, by Nunavut Community Aquatic Monitoring Program (N-CAMP)

I am not alone. Within the first months of 2017, the world celebrated something special. Rights were granted rivers in New Zealand, India, and Colombia, because of their intrinsic value.  In the Himalayas, the Gangotri and Yamunotri Glaciers were given the status of a living entity.  Laws were established to enshrine these rights and for ingenuous community spokespeople to be able to defend these rights in court.

A few days ago, the Supreme Court of Canada quashed plans for oil and gas exploration in Nunavut, delivering a major victory to Inuit who argued they were inadequately consulted before the National Energy Board gave oil companies the green light to conduct the disruptive activity that would harm the way of life of the Inuit peoples–their hunting and gathering culture and the ecosystem that supports it. The company had failed to reveal the extent of impact it would have. It externalised it.

Bolivia and Ecuador have even enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions. Push against the commodification of nature is possible. We just have to shift the way we see the world, and to understand that ecosystems can be recognised for deep values that are far more than the sum of their monetized parts.

Posted in: Commentary