Pricing Nature?

As thought-provoking as ever, George Monbiot voiced his concerns in his Guardian column yesterday on attempts by environmentalists to put a price on the value of the natural world. He contends that “those who seek to reduce nature to a column of figures play to an agenda that ignores its inherent value – and seeks to destroy it“. He criticises people who he describes as essentially well-meaning, but mis-guided, in seeking to monetise nature so that nothing is valued for its own sake, and “place and past and love and enchantment will have no meaning“.

Another respected campaigner, Tony Juniper, answered some of George’s concerns, arguing that “keeping nature out of the economic argument presents more dangers than benefits“. As ever, I find my heart in complete agreement with George, but my head is wavering towards the Tony Juniper position.

George passionately and cleverly pulls apart the notion of applying any financial value to ecosystem services (he doesn’t even like that phrase), but he leaves us nothing in its place to support our arguments and battles with the forces seeking to destroy the natural environment purely for economic gain. I also have concerns that he conflates several different issues. The battle to protect Smithy Wood in Sheffield from the development of a motorway service station is a worthy one – and local people and supporting groups such as the CPRE (of whom I am a member) have my full support. They are fighting this battle by drawing the attention of the local planning authority to the value of this ancient woodland to local people and to wildlife – the enjoyment and the wonder – the sense of local distinctiveness and local history embedded in the place. Thus far, I haven’t noticed any campaigner attempting to put a financial value on these features – it would clearly be nonsensical. But the local developer has offered to plant many 1000s of trees nearby in an effort to replace the felled ancient woodland – and George sees this as a form of `biodiversity offsetting` – a concept this government seems particularly interested in, although has yet to fully endorse.

I completely agree with George’s fears about biodiversity offsetting. We have yet to see any evidence in this country – even from the government’s own pilot studies – that this process could help to protect the natural environment. And there are concerns from other countries that it is enabling damaging development to proceed (see this review for example). I keep hearing that the concept itself is not at fault – there might be good offsetting projects and there might be bad offsetting projects. But on every occasion the process has been raised thus far in this country, we see only the ancient and precious being replaced by the mundane and ephemeral. I have yet to be won over.

But although I agree that biodiversity offsetting is yet to demonstrate any benefits in our efforts to protect the natural environment, I do not agree that this reinforces the argument that attempting to value the benefits which the natural environment brings to individuals and to society generally is misguided. How else can we address the challenge of convincing those who do not share the same values as ourselves of our case?

George suggests that environmentalists who advocate placing a price on nature are adopting the same value framework of those we oppose – and that this way leads to ruin. But equally, can we expect those we oppose to embrace our values in this debate? Those of us who believe in the instrinsic value of the natural world, separate from the human race, cannot expect those who see the natural world only as a series of separate functions or services to support humanity to share their values or principles. In fact, utilitarian conservation has been a cornerstone of the environmental movement for centuries – and can of course be quite benign – promising a sort of protective stewardship of all things natural. I was much struck in a recent BBC Countryfile interview when HRH Princess Anne was asked “what is the countryside for?”, and she took only a second or so to respond “For our survival – of course“. Very much a view of the natural environment in keeping with the ecosystem services approach.

The excellent Roger Sidaway has explored conflict resolution and consensus building in his 2005 text Resolving Environmental Disputes: From Conflict to Consensus (2005, Earthscan). In this text, Sidaway emphasises that values and beliefs reflecting personal and group identity are often non-negotiable. It is often a forlorn experience to persuade others to change their personal values. But if we can frame our arguments in ways which chime with their own belief systems, then maybe we have a chance.

In this, I am as pragmatic as Tony Juniper. We are winning only a few of the battles, and we are certainly not winning the war. If using the same debateable economic techniques that others use in their arguments about economic growth can help convince people of the value of `natural capital`, then it is a useful technique.

Dismissing the ecosystems services approach as purely a financial tool is not helpful either. The ecosystems services approach is a framework to tease out the essential question of the benefits of a diverse, healthy and functioning natural environment for all of us. Attaching a monetary value to these services is an additional step which is likely to be reduced to the absurd at the local scale. But George’s own `love and enchantment` derived from his personal engagement with the natural world are as relevant to the ecosystem services approach as any financial gain. Rather than relying on the Defra definition of this approach – have a look at the Ecosystems Knowledge Network for a more rounded summary.

George Monbiot is speaking about all of these issues in a public lecture in Sheffield on 29 April – he could yet change my mind. I will be listening carefully!

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2 thoughts on “Pricing Nature?

  1. Pingback: Natural capital: is translating nature into the language of economics the only way to make it count? | bookish girl

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