The Cost of Nature
By Grant Brown, Founder, Happy Eco News
The light is still low this early in the morning. It is October in the Northern hemisphere and in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia there is a chill, but it is not truly cold. The day is overcast and while it is not raining, we won’t really see the sun.
Standing in the darkness at the boat ramp, the sounds of my father readying the boat are amplified in the darkness, even though I can tell he is being as quiet as he can. He starts the outboard motor and I hear it come alive. I can smell the exhaust and feel the cool wind on my face, as we smoothly idle out of the backwater into the main stem of the river, headed upstream for a day of salmon or maybe trout fishing. I am about 12 years old and from the moment we set foot in the boat, we are free. No school, no work, no roads, few rules. Just us and the river, the salmon and the eagles.
This memory is not of a particular day, more likely an amalgamation of many similar days. Sometimes we’d fish all day, other days we’d explore the river or the lands surrounding it. On one memorable day my dad and I parked the boat in a remote spot and hiked up rocky escarpment that was covered in wild strawberries. Our timing was perfect; they were ripe, fat and succulent. We gorged on the tiny sweet strawberries until we had enough, taking only a few to share that evening at home. Other days the whole family would spend time on the river together; my grandparents in their boat, maybe with my sister riding along, my parents and I in dad’s boat. We would find a nice beach to relax, some of us would fish, some would swim or play, others would simply read and enjoy the surroundings.
I am very grateful to have spent those times in nature with my family, and even more grateful to know that the areas where we spent those days are still mostly in their natural state.
I’m extremely fortunate to have grown up in a place like the coastal region of British Columbia. We have easy access to the most amazing natural resources. If not wild strawberries, we also have wild blackberries, many types of mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and my favourite of all, red huckleberries. The Fraser River itself is an amazing resource. All 5 species of Pacific salmon reside here as well as the 100-year-old white sturgeon that are commonly caught up to 10-12 feet long. We also have the steelhead trout, highly prized by sports fishers; a steelhead is a type of rainbow trout that migrates to the Pacific Ocean before returning to its home river to spawn, having since grown to the size of a salmon.
The river has provided for indigenous people for thousands of years. Early European settlers must have been amazed at the endless supply of food and resources it provided. Today, the descendants of these same settlers still live along its banks, but they don’t seem to revere it in the same way. It has been dyked, mined for gold and stripped of gravel for construction projects. Islands in the river have been logged and cash crops grown, then when the mighty river tries to wash it all away with the spring freshet, more dykes are built to further constrict its flow.
The modern world doesn’t seem to place as much value on nature as I have. The memories of my childhood with my family are important to me, but it is impossible to assign a monetary value to them. This makes me wonder what is the actual value of nature, of a free-flowing river, of a single tree? Well, it turns out there is more value than just the intangibles that I find so appealing.
What then is the dollar value of intact nature compared to an area that has been developed? A few years ago, I stumbled upon an estimate of the value of a tree. The assessment, done by Michigan State University, assessed the value of single tree living for 50 years at around $193,000. In board feet of lumber, that same tree would fetch just a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, depending on species.
This week, a work colleague sent me a link to a TED talk where Environmental Economist Pavan Sukhdev (a markets banker by training) discusses the true value of nature in economic terms. In his talk, he shows that using standard accounting and basic mathematics, anyone can see very simply that the cost of destroying nature is extremely high, compared to the savings (and tangible benefits) of keeping it intact.
The research program he led from 2007 to 2011 was called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). An international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, TEEB’s objective was to highlight the cost of biodiversity and ecosystem loss and to gather expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions. While the research portion of TEEB is now complete, it finds that for an annual investment of US$45 billion into protected areas, the delivery of ecosystem services worth some US$5 trillion a year could be secured. This is not rocket science. Big money is at stake and the global financial leaders have taken notice.
In 2012, Mr. Pavan launched a global campaign called “Corporation 2020”. This campaign focusses global attention to the challenge of re-designing the Corporation through critical changes in four key areas of corporate performance to deliver a ‘green economy’ in order to achieve the goals of sustainable development.
With economists like Pavan Sukhdev finally understanding and promoting the idea that a healthy environment saves a lot of money, it is inevitable that others in positions of power will also take notice. Maybe the economists will be the next group to begin to push for a green economy. I personally don’t really care why the green shift occurs, I just know it is coming.
I never thought I would type these words, but maybe, just maybe, the bankers will save the planet. We shall see.