In a world shamelessly obsessed with economic value, the reasons for protecting the environment still make economic sense. When you factor in the value-added services, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide, it is calculated that we lose $2 to $5 trillion annually through forest loss. And that’s just forests. Then there’s climate change, which could risk reducing global GDP by 20% according to the Stern Review, along with marine issues, pollution, water shortages and desertification, to name a few. According to some reports, the annual – yes, annual – loss in ecosystem services from biodiversity loss could exceed €14 trillion by 2050.
It’s hard to comprehend fully the value of our natural resources. After all, it’s rather difficult to pay off your credit-card bills in stag beetles, or take a redwood down to your local store. Yet we must be mindful of exactly what’s in Mother Nature’s store. Most of us can put a price on a pint of milk or a jar of honey because these natural products have woven their way into our consumer cycles. But what of the value of poison ivy, jellyfish and slugs? Even if an acre of rainforest is worth more to us intact rather than in flat-pack boxes, how do we make that value apparent to would-be loggers? Do we need governments to determine that, regardless of localised pressures? Not only might it take years for a responsibly managed forest to release the same value that might be captured in a day’s logging, but that value might be almost impossible to perceive, such as in the case of absorbing carbon dioxide.
Yet perceptions of value are changing. We’ve begun to try to quantify and value some of the wider externalities of our actions, such as considering ‘triple-bottom-line’ impacts, measuring ‘ecosystem services’, or studying cradle-to-cradle models. Economists such as Lord Stern have tried, with some success, to influence climate-change policy at a global level by examining the holistic economics – despite the costs involved, the few immediate benefits and the ownership issues – or lack of them – that might provoke a ‘tragedy of commons’. A more comprehensive valuation process is emerging, which represents a return to wisdom.
Wisdom is defined in the dictionary as ‘the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment’. Wikipedia states it as ‘an ideal that has been celebrated since antiquity as the knowledge needed to live a good life’. True wisdom implies understanding Nature’s interconnectedness and, most importantly, making decisions based on deep, ancient experience, rather than acting, or reacting, in the short term. By utilising greater wisdom, we’ll start to maximise true value.
For example, if the marine life in an ecosystem grows by 10% per year and the catch expands by 15% per year, the system will eventually collapse. From that estimate, it’s fairly easy to determine a ‘wise’ course of action. When we do the sums and look at the immediate value realised from catching the 15%, versus the compound growth that would occur with, say, a 5% yearly catch, it’s even easier to make a decision that incorporates ‘experience, knowledge and good judgment’. Or take a forest that supports a community that would otherwise be displaced, and attracts sustainable, long-lasting income through tourism or careful resource use. If that value is many times greater, and employs and sustains more people than the immediate value gained through logging, once again it’s easy to be wise. Yet there are too many intelligent people who continue to make irrational decisions.
We should look more closely too at what constitutes economic ‘development’ and ‘progress’. The book Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge details changes in the Ladakhi culture, whose people lived until recently, in almost perfect symbiosis with their surroundings. Westernisation, under the cloak of development, has resulted in a higher GDP, but it has also led to rapid social and environmental deterioration in Ladakh. If a holistic economic study was conducted, assessing the true social and environmental costs of development, I wonder whether the deterioration in ancient wisdom has caused a reduction in overall value in the region. For example, a diesel-powered mill in Ladakh brings with it economic value that displaces subsistence farming, which has no apparent value. But when we realise that diesel must be bought and parts replaced, that pollution is caused and people are put out of work, then the overall value contributed might be negative, even if more money is traded.
It seems that, in our relentless drive to develop our world according to the latest fad, we continually overlook ecosystems that are far more developed than anything we can create, and often destroy things of yet more value.
It’s time for each of us – from presidents to farmers, executives to village elders – to follow our internal compass and exercise our wisdom. If you face a tough decision, take a walk in Nature as the seasons change, as they have for millions of years, and bring yourself back to act on the real crisis at hand.