Can You Put a Price on Nature? Governments Are Trying But the Results May Be Catastrophic
Love, economists have discovered, is depreciating rapidly. On current trends, it is expected to fall by £1.78 per passion-hour between now and 2030. The opportunity cost of a kiss foregone has declined by £0.36 since 1988. By 2050 the net present value of a night under the stars could be as little as £56.13. This reduction in the true value of love, they warn, could inflict serious economic damage.
None of that is true, but it’s not far off. Love is one of the few natural blessings which has yet to be fully costed and commodified. They’re probably working on it now.
Under the last government, the Department for Transport announced that it had discovered “the real value of time”. Here’s the surreal sentence in which this bombshell was dropped: “Forecast growth in the real value of time is shown in Table 3.”(1) Last week the Department for Environment announced the results of its National Ecosystem Assessment, a massive exercise involving 500 experts. The assessment, it tells us, establishes “the true value of nature … for the very first time.”(2) If you thought the true value of nature was the wonder and delight it invoked, you’re wrong. It turns out that it’s a figure with a pound sign on the front. All that remains is for the Cabinet Office to tell us the true value of love and the price of society, and we’ll have a single figure for the meaning of life.
The government has not yet produced one number for “the true value of nature”, but its scientists have costed some of the assets that will one day enable this magical synthesis to be achieved. The assessment has produced figures, for example, for the value of green spaces to human well-being. If we look after them well, our parks and greens will enhance our well-being to the tune of £290 per household per year in 2060(3).
How do they calculate these values? The report tells us that the “ecosystem services” it assesses include “recreation, health and solace”, and natural spaces “in which our culture finds its roots and sense of place” (4). These must be taken into account when costing “shared social value”. Shared social value arises from developing “a sense of purpose”, and being “able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society.” It is enhanced by “supportive personal relationships” and “strong and inclusive communities.”(5) These are among the benefits which the experts claim to be costing.
The exercise is well-intentioned. The environment department rightly points out that businesses and politicians ignore the uncosted damage their decisions might inflict on the natural world and human welfare. It seeks to address this oversight by showing that “there are real economic reasons for looking after nature.”(6) But there are two big problems.
The first is that this assessment is total nonsense, pure reductionist gobbledegook, dressed up in the language of objectivity and reason, but ascribing prices to emotional responses: prices, which, for all the high-falutin’ language it uses, can only be arbitrary. It has been constructed by people who feel safe only with numbers, who must drag the whole world into their comfort zone in order to feel that they have it under control. The graphics used by the assessment are telling: they portray the connections between people and nature as interlocking cogs(7). It’s as clear a warning as we could take that this is an almost-comical attempt to force both nature and human emotion into a linear, mechanistic vision.
The second problem is that it delivers the natural world into the hands of those who would destroy it. Picture, for example, a planning enquiry for an opencast coal mine. The public benefits arising from the forests and meadows it will destroy have been costed at £1m per year. The income from opening the mine will be £10m per year. No further argument needs to be made. The coal mine’s barrister, presenting these figures to the enquiry, has an indefeasible case: public objections have already been addressed by the pricing exercise; there is nothing more to be discussed. When you turn nature into an accounting exercise, its destruction can be justified as soon as the business case comes out right. It almost always comes out right.
Cost-benefit analysis is systematically rigged in favour of business. Take, for example, the decision-making process for transport infrastructure. The last government developed an appraisal method which almost guaranteed that new roads, railways and runways would be built, regardless of the damage they might do or the paltry benefits they might deliver(8). The method costs people’s time according to how much they earn, and uses this cost to create a value for the development. So, for example, it says the market price of an hour spent travelling in a taxi is £45, but the price of an hour spent travelling by bicycle is just £17, because cyclists tend to be poorer than taxi passengers(9).
Its assumptions are utterly illogical. For example, commuters are deemed to use all the time saved by a new high speed rail link to get to work earlier, rather than to live further away. Rich rail passengers are expected to do no useful work on trains, but to twiddle their thumbs and stare vacantly out of the window throughout the journey. This costing system explains why successive governments want to invest in high-speed rail rather than cycle lanes, and why multi-billon pound road schemes which cut two minutes off your journey are deemed to offer value for money(10). None of this is accidental: the cost-benefit models governments use excite intense interest from business lobbyists. Civil servants with an eye on lucrative directorships in their retirement ensure that the decision-making process is rigged in favour of over-development.
This is the machine into which nature must now be fed. The National Ecosystem Assessment hands the biosphere on a plate to the construction industry.
It’s the definitive neoliberal triumph: the monetisation and marketisation of nature, its reduction to a tradeable asset. Once you have surrendered it to the realm of Pareto optimisation and Kaldor-Hicks compensation, everything is up for grabs. These well-intentioned dolts, the fellows of the Grand Academy of Lagado who produced the government’s assessment, have crushed the natural world into a column of figures. Now it can be swapped for money.