Pavan Sukhdev

"We still have a lot to learn about the nature of value and the value of nature"

Debating the Value of Nature in ‘The Economist’

This is in essence a debate about valuation, in particular, about how people should value nature. Whether we call it “wildness” as Thoreau did, “untouched wilderness” as this motion does, “wild nature” as do some nature valuation experts, or the more prosaic “ecosystems and biodiversity” is perhaps less important than addressing what the institution of valuation means and does.

Following Douglass North, if we see institutions as “rules of the road” in an economy (laws, taxation, market regulations, as well as informal norms such as habits, conventions and ideologies), then valuation is another important human institution. Valuation can help us rethink our relationship with nature, alerting us to the consequences of our choices and behaviours. Valuation raises fundamental questions such as what influences our relationship with nature? How does nature shape social and personal identities? What are the social and environmental consequences of different ways of relating to and using nature? Such questions are a form of self-reflection. Indeed, valuation is a tool for self-reflection, and can be an important feedback mechanism for a society that has increasingly distanced itself from the natural world from which it derives identity, culture and vital resources.

Norms and conventions are part of every culture, and each culture may give a different answer to why and how we should value nature. Judaeo-Christian culture and beliefs see humans as inheritors of the Earth, owners or custodians of the wilds for their use. This underlies a utilitarian view of “valuation” as economic valuation, albeit in the broad sense of including both use values (such as consuming fisheries, wild foods, fuelwood, etc, and non-consumptive uses such as regulating water and soil quality, etc) as well as non-use values (such as the satisfaction of holding nature as a bequest for future generations or for its own sake). Intrinsic value is acknowledged, outside this utilitarian frame, as value independent of its usefulness. However, this view contrasts with naturist views, such as those of tribes in Amazonian rainforests. The rainforest defines who they are. It forms a communal home, a place of ceremony and worship, a source of livelihood, as well as a safety net for daily needs—food, water, fuel and shelter.

Another dimension of valuation is its socioeconomic context. Fuelwood from forests may be of little relevance to the average reader of The Economist, but to two-fifths of humanity it is cooking fuel. Ecosystem services may be quantified as a few invisible percentage points of national income in countries such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, but they comprise an estimated 45-90% of the household incomes of rural farmers and forest dwellers.

As this piece is meant to inform a debate, let me also comment on two interesting implications of the title of the motion being debated.

First, are there any “untouched wildernesses”? The world’s forests provide sustenance to over 1 billion people around the world—fuelwood, bush-foods and forest products—for which they stray into those wildernesses. Wetlands, coastlines and coral reefs are fished by locals everywhere. The high seas might have been the ultimate “untouched wilderness”, but they are instead our protein hunting grounds. Of late, they are even the final dumping grounds of plastic waste: the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the North Pacific Ocean is over twice as large as Texas. And if we include indirect human impacts on “untouched wildernesses”, climate risks from anthropogenic emissions count among the largest threats to biodiversity.

Human intervention, whether intentional or not, whether for conservation or conversion, seems to be the destiny of wildernesses: they are all touched by human hand. The question is how are we touching wild nature? As planetary locusts or as planetary stewards? If we are behaving as locusts, might that be due to an error of valuation? Perhaps we are discounting future benefits and insurance against disasters too deeply as a society, compared with current utilities. Perhaps we are confusing social discount rates (which ought to determine societal choices for public assets) with market discount rates (which determine market prices for private assets). And if we are trying to be planetary stewards, what rules of engagement, restraint, valuation and discounting are we employing as we pursue this stewardship and make our choices and trade-offs? The key issues in either scenario revert to what this debate is about: valuing nature.

Second, in economics, is there any such thing as “value beyond resources and other utility”? So by the very framing of this motion, we are being invited to a debate beyond the remit of economics, straying into moral philosophy. This thought sits oddly with our times, but it is perhaps appropriate. After all, that venerable Scotsman who taught at Glasgow University, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy.

First published in The Economist on 12 October 2011

October 20th, 2011 Posted by | 4 comments