What’s a Tree Worth?

A Critique of the Limitations of “Ecosystem Services” and “Natural Capital”

Mark Tercek knows a thing or two about money. For years he worked at the mega investment firm Goldman Sachs, where he headed the Corporate Finance and Equity Capital Markets divisions, and later went on to found the company’s Center for Environmental Markets. Since 2008, he’s been the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. Given his background as a Wall Street titan, it’s not surprising that Tercek has taken his market mentality to TNC and tried to focus its efforts on making an economic case for preserving wild places.

“The environmental movement needs to shift gears and try some other approaches,” Tercek said last week during a keynote address at the inaugural South by Southwest-Eco conference. “We need to talk about nature differently. Isn’t nature wonderful, yes. But isn’t nature also valuable. … We want to demonstrate the value of nature to companies.”

And how does Tercek’s organization do that? By explaining to corporate executives that “nature is capital. Nature is infrastructure. Nature is the underpinning of human well being.”

Promoting the idea of natural capital and demonstrating the importance of valuing “ecosystem services” was one of the leitmotifs of the three-day environmental convergence in Austin, TX. There was a panel titled “Economics of Nature,” a session on sustainability as a “Risk Management Framework,” a presentation on “Sustaining Success … Measuring Reputational Value.” The takeaway? If we can prove to people that natural systems have a measurable economic value, then we can make a stronger case against raping and pillaging the planet.

Part of me is sympathetic to the effort to quantify ecosystem services and, in doing so, attract the support of businesses and entrepreneurs to the environmental cause. As Tercek put it, “We’ve got to reach out to others.”

I agree. But much of the talk I heard at SXSW-Eco made me anxious. I worry that by focusing so much on the dismal science of economics some environmentalists risk surrendering the moral language of environmental protection — the kind of moral language we need to inspire people to become committed activists.

There are some real benefits to advancing the idea of ecosystem services. If nothing else, the concept illustrates the vital interdependence between humans and natural systems. Nature — whether in the form of breathable air or wetlands that protect cities from storm surges — provides the very basis of our civilization. As a part-time organic farmer, I get this. Natural capital is the prerequisite for practicing agriculture. Without healthy soils and good, clean water, I simply can’t grow food for other people.

By highlighting our reliance on nature, the concept of ecosystem services has provided a valuable correction to that strain of twentieth century conservationism that all-too-often suggested that wilderness was somehow separate and apart from humans. Natural capital and ecosystem services are antidotes to the overly romantic view of nature presented in, say, John Muir’s purple prose. It’s hard headed — “pragmatic” was the word Tercek used about a dozen times in his Austin talk — and that’s useful.

It’s easy, though, for a correction to become an overcorrection. Listening to a SXSW presentation from an environmental economist named Sabina Shaikh, it seemed the concept of ecosystem services risks going too far and overwhelming any other, non-economic valuations of nature. “As economists, we want to put a price on everything, and that’s what we’re trying to do [with ecosystem services],” Shaikh, a professor at the University of Chicago, said. “This isn’t reconsidering the economic model. This is employing the economic model.”

In a society besotted by market economics, it’s no surprise that environmentalists — just like everyone else — have internalized the idea that everything has a price to it. But make no mistake: There’s a real danger here. If we reduce nature’s worth to mere dollars and cents, we will lose sight of its intangible values. For starters, the intimate, even magical, relationship many of us have with wild places. Or the sense of enchantment we experience among other creatures, some of them so tiny (think: the snail darter) that they don’t have any real economic value to us. We could forget that nature is valuable beyond any utility to us.

Shaikh likely wouldn’t swallow any of that sentimentality. “We can’t rely on morals and values because everyone has different morals, and they are fleeting,” she said during her presentation. “So we need to provide economic incentives.”

This is bunk. Nevermind that the supposedly “neutral” moral system of economics has its own internal ethics. The argument against employing moral language to protect the environment fails a key logical test: It doesn’t consider the reasons for wanting to protect natural systems. Even if you plan to use economics as a tool to save the environment, you must have some kind of motivation for saving the environment in the first place. There must be some moral value that is driving the endeavor forward.

I was glad to hear exactly that case made by two philosophers during the last session of the SXSW. Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson have co-edited a book called Moral Ground that includes essays from more than 80 leading theologians, environmentalists, and writers who muse about the moral justification for sustainability. As Moore and Nelson see it, ideas like ecosystem services are worrisome because they fail to make the case that “we have an affirmative moral responsibility to leave the world as rich as we found it.”

Nelson, a professor at Michigan State University, was especially blunt: “The Nature Conservancy president says they are a science-driven organization. Fine. But what values does that science serve? There’s a dangerous lack of reflection there.”  

In short, climate change and other kinds of environmental devastation are moral issues and they demand a moral response that involves clear lines of right and wrong. Using the market to encourage a kinder, gentler environmental destruction is insufficient to lead us to the cultural transformation we need to achieve real sustainability. Moore made the case clearly: “If you look at history, whenever we’ve made big change — the American Revolution or the emancipation of the slaves — it came on a wave of moral affirmation.”

I’m know that will make many environmentalists uncomfortable. To talk about a moral right you also have to talk about moral wrongs — and that can make people feel bad, and alienated, and once again make greens seem like the worst kind of public scolds.

So forget for a minute the grand philosophical questions and just look at this as an issue of political tactics. The focus on natural capital and ecosystem services is tactically weak because almost inevitably those arguments — however useful in the context of a corporate boardroom — will fail to capture people’s hearts and their imaginations. And that’s what the environmental movement desperately needs to build a broad based movement.

No doubt you’ve heard the critique before: The environmental movement is too wonky, too science-driven, too focused on numbers and graphs. Environmental groups (and this is true for the progressive left in general) talk a lot about policy, and not enough about principles. I’m afraid the move toward environmental economics will only reinforce those problems. Environmental economics makes the work of environmental protection even more complicated than it already is. Suddenly, the conversation about whether to save a forest doesn’t center on whether the trees are precious, but also must include complex ideas like “avoided costs” and “replacement costs” and “willingness to pay.”

A few people might be moved by facts and figures. But the great majority of people aren’t. Most individuals’ political beliefs are influenced by emotions, not facts. The cost-benefit language of economists is unlikely to spur many people to take action. A moral argument — an emotional appeal — just might.

All of this reminds me of an article published last year in Orion in which the writer Ginger Strand explored the tensions surrounding ecosystem services. Strand traveled to Washington’s Skagit Delta, where TNC has a number of projects in the works, and after speaking to a variety of stakeholders involved in TNC efforts concluded that “emotion is the only language either farmers or Indians have to set against the inexorable logic of the market.” That is, even people who appreciate the economic incentives provided by TNC to conserve wetlands are often involved for emotional reasons, not just financial ones.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is finding a way to strike a balance between the instrumental value natures provides to us and the intrinsic value nature possesses independent of anything we receive from it. As Kathleen Dean Moore said, her daughter has a value onto herself beyond any utility she offers by, say, doing the dishes. Rebecca Solnit made this same point beautifully in an essay published last December in which she noted that the vast majority of the world’s work — child care, elder care, passions, hobbies — is done without any compensation other than love. We don’t tend to our children and our parents because they provide us with some “service”; we take care of them simply because it’s the right thing to do.

If only more of us could find that same sense of love and empathy for other creatures not of our species. If only we could tap into some of that ancient, traditional wisdom that says you don’t harm Mother Nature because, well, she’s your mother. Such wisdom would also tell us that you can’t put a price on her.

 

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