The Market Value of Mother Nature

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NPR’s Marketplace radio show recently aired a news report that, in spite of its brevity, was quite interesting.  Called, “Paying nature to do it’s thing,” it touched upon the efforts of the Virginia Department of Forestry to restore some of the state’s farmland to forest by paying (in this instance) $1000/acre to the farmer who owns the property to allow his land to be taken out of farm production and planted with 1500 pine trees, because the forest would provide the valuable service of, “filtering out and preventing erosion and sedimentation; it also helps clean out the air.” The broadcast used the term “ecosystem service,” and I immediately became curious and decided do a bit of digging into the topic (no pun intended).  Here are a few interesting points:

1.  Susan Ruffo & Peter Kareiva concisely define the concept in an editorial called, “Using science to assign value to nature,” from the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment:

The idea of “ecosystem services” – identifying and quantifying the resources and processes that nature provides for people – gives us a framework to measure nature’s contribution to human well-being, and to understand the cost of its loss. It provides a credible way to link nature and people that goes beyond emotional arguments and points us toward practical solutions.”

2.  Other states are also taking notice and calculating what their natural resources are worth.  Case in point: New Jersey.  Written after a two-year study, a report called, “The Value of New Jersey’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital," determined the individual values of the state’s wetlands, marine ecosystem, forests, urban green space, beaches, agricultural land, and open fresh water and riparian buffers, and concluded that the combined services provided these systems totaled to roughly 19.4 billion per year in 2004 dollars.

3.  And on the global scale?  “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” published by a team of researchers in Nature in 1997, is arguably one of the foremost articles in this emergent crossroads where the ecologic/economic disciplines meet, and they concluded that- at a conservative estimate- the economic value of the entire biosphere averages out to $33 trillion per year.  Plug that number into any inflation calculator now, and by today’s dollar value we should write our planet a yearly rent check for over $45 trillion.

4.  Want to get in on the eco-calculating action? The Natural Capital Project is a patnership among a handful of prominent environmental institutions, and they have developed InVEST, a software that, "enables decision-makers to assess the tradeoffs associated with alternative choices and to identify areas where investment in natural capital can enhance human development and conservation in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems." E.g., "Corporations, such as bottling plants, timber companies, and water utilities, can use InVEST to decide how and where to make investments to protect their supply chains."

The more effort and green we invest toward maintaining our planet now, the more green our future ROI will be.  Literally.

Photo credit : (cc-by-nc-nd) Bruno Monginoux / www.Landscape-Photo.net : nature and urban photography, free stock photos