How much, in dollars and cents, is the environment really worth?
No, this isn't an article about some bean counter who has found a
clever way to put a price tag on sea otters or redwoods. Nor, for
that matter, is it a tree-hugger's essay on the ineffable value of
spaceship earth. Rather, it's about the pioneering efforts of some
practical ecologists who are eager to make common cause with
economists to create self-sustaining markets for "environmental
The idea, explains Gretchen Daily, a biologist at Stanford
University and the editor of Nature's Services (Island Press), is
assess what we know about the tangible value of environmental
resources" like watersheds and pollinating insect species. That, she
argues, should set the stage for creating revenue-producing
institutions -- public or private -- that make it profitable to
invest in environmental resources, much the way one invests in
Ask your typical environmental activist how much a first-growth
forest should sell for and you're asking for a fight. After all,
there's much more to a stand of ancient trees than their value for
recreation and lumber.
But the reflexive answer, that first-growth forests (or endangered
species or pristine air over the Grand Canyon) have value beyond
measure, is no answer at all.
"Whether we know it or not," Daily argues, "we set implicit
values" by choosing to preserve some portions of the environment and
letting others disappear through neglect or economic development. So
Daily, who has hugged a tree or two in her day, favors a less
The authors of Nature's Services, which was largely underwritten
by the Packard and W. Alton Jones Foundations and the Pew Charitable
Trusts, lay out the basics of how big ecological systems protect
everyday human activities and, in particular, how relatively small
changes can cause devastating losses.
"There are big-time non-linearities here," confirms Donald
Kennedy, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration
and a contributor to the book.
But the nitty-gritty of Nature's Services consists of a dozen
overview essays on the tangible value of services from various sorts
of environmental capital.
Gary Nabham of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and Stephen
Buchmann of the Department of Agriculture survey research on insect
pollination, finding that the substitution of domesticated
pollinators for wild pollinators would reduce the value of 62 crops
in America by $1. …