The dollar cost: is pricing losing?

Putting a price on something ... usually, the first step to selling it off, or compensating for its loss. Pricing nature is on the agenda in Wellington this week.

Think about the things that are everything to you: a child, love, the air you breathe, your life.

What price would you put on those things? How do you value them? Could you express the value in dollar terms? And the answer’s pretty obvious.

If “valuing nature” is our goal, putting a price on it is not the same thing. “Valuing nature” is a well-meant, superficially seductive argument which promises better, clearer decision-making, and recognition of nature’s hidden worth. But it also devalues some more elusive yet profound ideas which - like the air you breathe, or sunlight on a spring morning, or the joy of an encounter with a wild bird - are everything.

This week in Wellington, a Valuing Nature conference convenes, led by the government’s Natural Resources Sector (primary industries, energy and resources, DOC), the Sustainable Business Council, and scientist Professor Charles Daugherty.

This is an idea gaining currency - in the international work of TEEB, for example, which stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. TEEB considers the often overlooked or invisible economic values of ecosystems, and is working out a methodology, so these values can be factored into decision-making.

In May, New Zealand’s own NZIER put out a public discussion document. Supported by a DOC grant, this says immediately in its title that “Valuing natural assets – essential for decision-making”. We need “a less ad hoc approach”, says the NZIER, because:

“doubts are being expressed in resource management cases whether economics has much to add when considering environmental effects.

To remove this barrier [my emphasis], valuations need to be cheaper and easier to compare. A standardised technique could provide relative values for different types of natural asset or service. This would make economic value estimates from across a range of natural asset settings more consistent ... Decision-makers need to understand how and where economic valuation can support their decisions ...

It is important to make progress. There is currently a gap in the knowledge about the full contribution of natural assets to New Zealand’s economic well-being. This creates a risk that natural assets will be undervalued. Ecosystems and the valuable services they provide may be lost or damaged.”

The paper seems a starting point towards NZ work along TEEB lines, where there’s undoubtedly been a local gap.

The “risk” that the NZIER refers to, of natural assets being under-valued, is less of a “risk” than a reality. Ecosystem services' values are hard to quantify; we discount how much of our economic activity depends upon them.

But right there, embedded in the framing, is another whopping discount, which cheapens nature - they’re “natural assets” now, not nature and ecosystems and living things, implying that nature is only worth something, when it does something dollar-related for us; and can only be properly (and quite literally) “taken into account” when we can sum up and negotiate about the relative values - as Gerry Brownlee tried in 2010 when he asked New Zealanders: would we sell Mt Aspiring for 30 pieces of silver?

And yet: is there any harm, and might there be some good, in better understanding the dollar value that nature does bring to our lives? Since it is, in fact, our entire economic and social foundation; without the environment, both other pillars will soon collapse.

In a paper commissioned in 2012 by Forest & Bird from Simon Terry Associates, the authors were invited to address the TEEB work.

In response, the paper’s main author Geoff Bertram reviews the economic literature, showing that markets’ limits are well understood and accepted, by some fairly dry authorities:

“The monetary values of the market sphere comprise only one part of a complex social whole, and the reduction of all human life to the single metric of money turns out to be impossible without losing essential elements of what it means to be human.”

Within our whole society we make other structural and institutional arrangements, knowing that the market can’t fully provide. Each sphere has its own practices and disciplines. When there’s a clash of values in hard cases of policy or resource management, we adjudicate and debate them.

That, argues Bertram, is how a democracy works. We don't need to all be speaking the language of the market.

But Bertram also argues - as he had in earlier work for Forest & Bird, relating to mining in our national parks - for the economic orthodoxy and efficiency of ‘blocked exchanges’ and environmental bottom lines. When the issue is justice, morality, family values, and human rights - we know that some things can’t be bought, and some lines can’t be crossed. When it comes to the environment, this conviction seems to have deserted us; that’s the debate we’re having right now.

Dame Anne Salmond is also joining the debate, offering thoughts on the importance of each of us, remembering our place. That is: on science not echoing the language of the market; and human beings, secular or not, still living by Genesis' creation myth.

In a very beautiful and thought-provoking speech delivered recently to the Plant Conservation Network, she offers a glimpse into the mind of Joseph Banks the young naturalist, as the Endeavour approached New Zealand’s shores:

"Now do I wish that our freinds in England could by the assistance of some magical spying glass take a peep at our situation: Dr. Solander setts at the Cabbin table describing, myself at my Bureau Journalizing, between us hangs a large bunch of sea wood, upon the table lays the wood and barnacles; they would see that notwithstanding our different occupations our lips move very often, and without being conjurors might guess that we were talking about what we should see upon the land which there is now no doubt we shall see very soon."

The scientists went ashore, to collect, observe and document what they found - and Anne Salmond describes how they did their task comprehensively: as interested in people, their carvings and their gardens, as the plants and creatures they collected; drawing living things in their place in the landscape, as well as classifying them; giving an insight, she argues, into the functioning of the whole ecosystem, and people’s part within it. Nature and the culture were documented together: “In the Endeavour scientific accounts, the local people were understood as one more life form in the harbours that they visited.”

Nevertheless, we know how that story then went: “Many of the settlers assumed that as civilised people, they were superior to Maori and entitled to take control of the land in New Zealand...”.

“After Banks and Solander classified the plants under the Linnaean system, they were pressed and dried for preservation between sheets of Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

We may congratulate ourselves, on having come a long way. But we run the risk here still, in 2013, of not knowing how much we don’t know, of great ignorance and hubris - hastening forward into a terrain that we fail fully to understand - reducing it all down to $, the thing that preoccupies us and that our culture understands - insisting that all must be quantifiable, fully understood, or is worth less.

For both our nature and our culture, this path can only end in great loss if we fail to tread here with some humility and care.