[ The Note for February 2014 ]
Before we can get into the value of natural systems, we have to learn to see what is brought into being through processes prior to all human intervention, and we have to be honest about whether any part of those processes is really able to be replaced by human invention or intervention. To produce rainwater, for instance, across most of the world’s land area, would be so costly an experiment as to render the numbers we now assign to gross domestic product (or overall spending within a given economy) functionally obsolete.
We could not invent, develop, manufacture and deploy affordable replacements for the services provided by pollinating bees, flowering plants, forests or river systems. Given that, we must begin to quantify our relationship with what Nature provides by assessing whether or not we cooperate with, and harness, the efficiencies built into the fabric of animate and inanimate energy concentrates we like to call “The Environment” or “The Natural World.”
Just as the Sumerians might have liked to know that reliably less saline soil is of insuperable value, if one wants to maintain a robust, and long-lived farming economy, we need to focus on what irreplaceable riches inherent in the biosphere (on which we depend for all that we do) might be degraded by our activities. We may not be able to quantify them, but we can quantify their stability or their degradation. And we can start by recognizing them for what they are:
Those riches, those natural services of insuperable value, are efficiencies that human technology and science cannot invent or replace. In fact, they are so intricate, so organic, and so much a part of the web of energy transfers we think of collectively as “Nature”, that these efficiencies are part of everything that exists prior to human industry. When we seek to measure value, in monetary or economic terms, we tend to forget that we can arrive at those numbers only because we enjoy the benefit of superabundant natural efficiencies.
It is one of the hallmarks of standard economics that we create formulaic models to analyze specific factors that influence the unwieldy, unpredictable and nonlinear multidirectional matrix of human economy, and so we ignore those things over which we have little influence or which are difficult to quantify. The right approach to valuing and relating to superabundant natural efficiencies eludes us, because: 1) we take them for granted, 2) they are worth far more than anything we know how to quantify, and 3) we don’t know where to start.
So much of what occurs in Nature is complex, compounded, interdependent, and relational, that systemic values tend to overlap, and so a rainwater value theorist ends up facing an intractable chicken-and-egg quandary… What leads to what: surface water to evaporation to rain, or rain to surface water to evaporation? And even then, how do we account for the abundant coinciding of hydrogen and oxygen molecules? If life supports rely on nonlinear reinforcements, how do we measure them?
The planetary ecosystem, what some might call “the web of life” and others “the sum total of all value inherent in natural resources and natural life-support services” is of real value, whether we can state it in numbers or not. Behind the veiling effect of our stubbornly simplifying efforts to estimate value, the question: Could we, with all of our genius, ever determine the Gross Ecological Product of our planet? If so, could we clearly determine the boundaries of our role in shaping it? Probably not, but we can measure whether or not we leave natural systems on which we depend more resilient or less resilient, in the face of stresses both natural and human-caused.
We can and must begin to ask if we are building value by building strategies that will allow us to sustain a viable relationship with natural efficiencies that give us everything we value. Fact: for any assertion of value to have meaning, we must first sustain what sustains life.
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Originally published Feb. 17, 2014, at PoetEconomist.com