IDEAS For Us | April 3, 2015

Big Idea: Nature is More Valuable than All Human Activity

Big Idea: Nature is More Valuable than All Human Activity
By Jonathan Pamplin

Upon reading that title, you may reflexively think of value in scientific, ecologic, or even poetic/spiritual terms, but when I say “value,” I’m thinking green – that is, money.

Recently, a segment on the NPR show Radio Lab discussed a 1997 study calculating the economic value of every ecosystem on the planet. Though we don’t always realize or acknowledge it, nature provides many services that benefit human industries and societies, from bats consuming agricultural pests to forests attracting tourism dollars from birdwatchers to coral reefs protecting coastal cities by serving as natural wave breaks during tropical storms. Various studies over the past few decades have determined the financial value of various ecosystems by rigorously tabulating nature’s activities, then adding up the costs of the labor and technology necessary for humans to accomplish the same work. In 1997, a team of researchers led by economic ecologist Robert Costanza synthesized many of these studies to calculate the final bill for all the services nature provides every year: $142,700,000,000,000 (adjusted for USD and inflation). That’s $142.7 trillion.

Nature scaleOne of the fascinating things about this study is how it compares with the wealth humans generate. Nature’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is higher than the Gross World Product (GWP), the sum of every country’s GDP, which in 2013 equaled US $87.25 trillion. But not only does nature produce more wealth than every nation on Earth combined, it produces more than the sum total of all wealth that currently exists on the planet. Economists use several measures to determine how much money exists within a given economy, from M0, the measure only of physical currency in circulation, up through M3, the measure of all types of financial wealth, including currency, savings deposits, time deposits, and large assets. The current M3 value for the plane, if everyone liquidated all of their assets simultaneously? US $75 trillion.

Of course, there are weaknesses with any attempt to put a price tag on nature. For starters, our incomplete knowledge of biology and ecology prevents us from fully accounting (in both senses of the word) for everything nature does of value. Secondly, these figures were tallied from the anthropocentric perspective that to be valuable, nature’s activities must ultimately be valuable to us, which is why things like malarial mosquitoes – which, from a malaria bacterium’s perspective, are extremely valuable, but from a human’s perspective are extremely dangerous – rate as economic negatives. And above all, natural assets should never be conflated with financial assets, lest short-sighted governments or private owners see these numbers and contemplate the value of “cashing out.”


But even if we quibble with some aspects of the study or with the comparison to human economics, one thing remains clear: the environment, when considered as a holistic engine of life and natural processes, is our planet’s most valuable asset, and the costs of damaging it – however you may calculate them – are greater than we may ever be able to pay.

Radiolab: How Do You Put A Price Tag On Nature?
Original 1997 paper: The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital
Gross World Product:
Vsauce: How Much Money is There on Earth? (more resources in the video description)
Intercon Green: Putting a Price on Nature

Author Bio:
Jonathan Pamplin is a writer and activist whose dream is to make others’ lives better, however that may be. A recent graduate from Rollins College with a major in English and a minor in women’s studies, Jonathan has been a volunteer at several local nonprofits and an editor of several local journals and zines. He is the founder of The Emperor’s New Prose, a community art group and the primary host of IDeclare, a performance, art, and reading series about identity.