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Should We Attach A Price To ‘Ecosystem Services’?

Mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky

The UK’s move to attach a monetary value for its “ecosystem services” has sparked considerable debate amongst environmentalists. On the one hand, some argue that attaching a monetary value to the natural environment merely commodifies it and makes it more easily exploitable by corporations and elites. Others argue that a value must be assigned to nature if we are to properly account for the degradation of the environment in current business models.

In my opinion, both sides of the argument present important points for us to consider. It is true that commodification can often lead to increasing privatization and a slightly skewed conception of nature. But it is also true that present day businesses rely on cost analysis in order to conduct business.

But in my opinion, we must ground this debate within the Earth’s current environmental situation.

We are currently running out of time to avoid irreversible and detrimental environmental degradation. Carbon dioxide is being spewed into the atmosphere at unprecedented levels, biodiversity is dangerously low, and our oceans are the host of numerous toxins. We need to reverse these dangerous trends soon or we risk losing the future habitability of the planet.

While a change in how society views nature may ultimately be for the best, we don’t have time to embark on such a monumental task. And given the time frame we’re currently working with, such a change may not be possible anytime soon.

It is all well and good to make philosophical claims about how putting a price on nature merely commodifies it – but the reality is, the commodification of nature is at the very heart of economics. Whether we like it or not, the capitalist system is based on exploiting natural resources and turning them into a profit. Although we might not like that way of viewing nature, that is the way nature is viewed within the capitalist system.

And right now, we are living in a world where capitalism is the dominant system with which to carry out our livelihoods. The only way to account for nature in the capitalist system is through putting some form of price on it.

Capitalism is inherently flawed in its inability to account for the future consequence of present-day environmental degradation. Corporations will continue to pollute the rivers, spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and exploit finite resources if it generates them a profit today. If the consequences associated with such activities will not truly be felt for another 40+ years, corporations will not account for them in their business models.

We need to put a price on ecosystem services now to capture those costs in the present, so that business will incorporate those consequences in their current business models. This will force them to incorporate the costs associated with environmental degradation in their business practices.

For instance, a carbon tax (or carbon market) is essentially putting a cost on pollution. It is assigning a monetary value to the degradation of the atmosphere. And of course the atmosphere provides an ecosystem service: it regulates the Earth’s temperature.

In my opinion, we need to put a price on pollution if we are to curb CO2 emissions. Businesses certainly respond to increased costs in their business models, and if we want them to emit less CO2, we need to apply a cost to CO2 emissions.

Although viewing nature in such economic terms may be disheartening to some, it is necessary to force businesses onto a more sustainable trajectory of growth.

What are your thoughts on applying a monetary value to ecosystem services?

Image CC licensed by Doc Searls: Mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky

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