How do we value nature?
Some people balk at the idea of putting a price tag on nature. How can we assign a dollar value to a majestic view of Mount Hood, or healthy salmon running up their home stream?
Yet failing to account for these seemingly invaluable assets of nature can mean losing them permanently, according to Dave Batker of Earth Economics, who spoke this week as part of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions seminar series at Portland State.
Often nature does a better job of providing us with vital services than anything humans can build. In cities like Portland and Seattle, pure forest-filtered water pours out of the tap. We could spend hundreds of millions on a waterfiltration plant, or invest perhaps tens of millions to protect a healthy forest that provides the same service. The result is a tremendous cost savings, without even accounting for the intrinsic value of leaving a forest intact.
The list of nature’s benefits goes on. Solar energy that makes plants grow. Bees that pollinate staple crops. Trees that filter the air we breathe.
“Every economy is set within a landscape, not the other way around,” Batker said. If we don’t put a value on nature’s services, we risk losing them at tremendous costs.
A loss of ecosystem services was illustrated tragically in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana lost more than a million acres of wetlands, which for millennia acted as a natural buffer against flooding and storms. Following the hurricane, 80 percent of the city flooded, 1,800 people lost their lives, and more than 100 billion dollars in damage was done.
Today, New Orleans is investing in solutions that include more than just human-built structures like levees, but also ecosystem services like conserving healthy wetlands, floodplain forests, and other areas that soak up floodwaters.
“More and more, there are significant and real problems that can only be addressed by ecosystem service analysis,” Batker said.
Environmentalists are recognizing that greenbacks sometimes speak louder than green. Batker says the conservation movement is gaining traction by talking about dollars saved, rather than trees planted. For instance, every dollar invested in watershed conservation has shown to yield around six dollars in benefits to the economy.
“We cannot value all of the ecosystem services, but we can value some. And that’s better than zero.”
photo: Flickr/Sam Beebe/Ecotrust