Do We Need to Value Nature?
Here’s something that we don’t talk about enough: all humans are biological beings. This fact is one that can never change, no matter how advanced we get in technological development or intergalactic travel. We can never escape our need for nature. Ever.
We inhale nature’s productions into our bodies every second of every day. We are fueled by biological material that we digest for nutrients, and then we produce “waste” that is actually the food for microorganisms to replenish the very systems we take from to gain sustenance. Our bodies are made from the exact same things that all of nature is made from; the entire planet is like one giant metabolism whereby matter is cycled through systems at different scales to enable all of life to flourish.
Despite this biophysical reality, we have created a culture that’s disassociated from the living systems that we are a part of on Earth, and this severing is one of the root causes of the many social and ecological crises that now existentially challenge humanity, such as the great global biological decline or the collective threat of climate change.
Be it our insatiable appetite for disposable things that’s led to microplastics ending up in our salt and sugar, passing through us and bioaccumulated into our bodies to then being excreted in our poop, or our archaic reliance on fossil fuels which contributes to 9 million people dying from air pollution every year, the reality is that we humans are deeply interconnected and interdependent with this planet, and what we do to it, we do to ourselves.
Why, when we are all biophysically entangled with nature, have we created a system that keeps us disconnected from its value, from cherishing its life-sustaining services, and instead incentivizes us to collectively destroy and devalue all that makes ourselves, the economy and the planet work?
Most of us alive today are deeply disconnected from what nature provides us and how we rely on it. We have been socialized to see nature as something we enjoy on the weekend, something we can marvel at, be scared of and that we humans must “protect”. This false narrative of nature makes it very easy for us to devalue, exploit and destroy it.
In this article, I will explore how we got here and which systems-level interventions would help rectify this massive market and cultural failure.
The Great Disconnection
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when we severed our sense of self-connection to the natural world, but certainly, religion, wealth, colonization, politics and power have all played into it.
Perhaps it lines up with our movement away from Agrarian living to a tech-centric society, whereby instead of going to the field to get food, we order it on UberEats or another one of the many food delivery apps? Around 68% of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and we have industrial food systems that make it very easy for us to have whatever we want, whenever we want it (all for a price, of course). This creates a facade of abundance, and without any sense of scarcity or fear that this year’s crops will fail, we are prone to waste. Waste by its very nature is the remnants of devaluing something. We don’t waste things we cherish; we discard that which is not desired.
Except this story of waste and abundance is very different for the hundreds of millions of people who still live off the land, those who viscerally understand how nature works because their survival literally relies on it. There is something profound that happens to you when you grow your own food, when you have to struggle to work within the systems to support the creation of life, for your own life depends on it. You can’t help but be interwoven with the seasons and cycles that dictate your safety (something I personally discovered when restoring and creating a farm in rural Portugal). When you have to rely on nature for your own survival, your perception of its value is deeply connected to your own value. When you rely on take-out or food delivery services, a supermarket and money for your sustenance, you learn to value very different things.
There is a strong argument that it was the 1950s when the severing cemented itself in society. The Great Acceleration graphics below show the upward tick of modernity coinciding with mass ecosystem destruction really taking off around 1950. This is the point in time that geologists are now arguing we entered into the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch, marked in the rock, soil and ice samples, whereby humans have had an obvious detrimental effect on the entire planet. Layers of coal ash, metal shards, nuclear isotopes and microplastics are now embedded in the geological time record thanks to us, wars and the increase in our pesky consumeristic desires.
1950 is also the time when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was put into play as the yardstick of economic successes adopted by nations. At this time, factories that had been built to win a war were redeployed to build mass-produced consumer goods to fuel post-war economies (for more on this, read my essay on how GDP led to the hyper-consumption loop which has led to massive systems failures). Striving for continuous linear economic growth allowed for planned obsolescence to be cemented into modern culture and caused many Western countries to decide that disposability was the way to keep the wheels of economic growth turning.
Despite the dominant ideology of growth being best, people have been ringing the alarm bells since the 1960s, warning of the dangers of taking so much from nature without giving back any value and arguing that our waste-based economy will lead to our decline. And in the last couple decades, humans have started to pay attention to these ringing alarm bells from nature. A rapidly changing climate, plastic waste pollution, depleted soils, deathly air pollution and now a global pandemic — these are all signs of a sick system.
Source: World Health Organisation
There is now so much research that shows the negative physical, psychological and developmental effects of being dissociated from nature (see here, here, here, here and here). But perhaps one of the most dangerous outcomes of this great societal disconnection from nature is the systemic devaluing of the planet, for it’s very easy to destroy that which we don’t value.
The Economic Incentive for Disconnection
Our entire GDP-based economic system is built on a false concept of growth at no cost. It externalises all natural services and ignores the consequences that destruction and exploitation have on the ability to regenerate the systems that we rely on for economic activity and our own survival.
Without accounting for nature in any way, we allow for extraction at no cost. Every producer requires forests to be cleared for paper and farming, minerals to be mined out of the Earth and crops to be harvested for the raw goods that feed the economy. Everything in your life has come from a natural system; even the most synthesised material you can think of has its roots in nature, be it oil dug out of the ground or blue blood from a horseshoe crab. Everything that is currently taken from nature is done so without any payment back to the system that provided the resource. It’s a bit like robbing a bank with bulldozers and dynamite, and this bank is filled with natural capital, the collective assets of all life on Earth.
Economists call these unaccounted for things externalities. Most externalities are negative, although some can be positive (such as an unaccounted-for benefit). And the issue with negative externalities (such as pollution, waste, slavery, etc.) is that the people who benefited from creating them are often not the ones who suffer the consequences of their negative effects. This means there are little to zero incentives for the actors who inflict them on the bigger system to take action to alleviate the negative impacts that they created (and economically benefited from) — hence the need for governments to create regulations that enforce responsibility for the negative actions. Or for the creators of externalities to acknowledge the impacts of their actions and then redesign how they do business to account for and alleviate them. This is the fundamental idea of impact assessment, which is a core part of a science-based approach to sustainability.
Our economy is riddled with perverse incentives that reinforce the exploitation of nature for the gains of a select few at the collective cost to the rest of us. Case in point, the fossil fuel industry. There has been zero incentive for them to stop extracting and pumping historical carbon into the atmosphere — until of course The Paris Agreement was made to rectify this externality, an agreement that is still being battled out and influenced by the industries that would be required to change their ways if put into full effect. As I write this, six months after COP26, the biggest oil and gas producers are still investing heavily in new production capacity, major banks are investing rather than divesting, and the stock market’s attempt at transparency through ESG is being lampooned for its overt greenwashing.
Take also, the plastics industry (deeply connected to the fossil fuel industry), which has no incentive to stop selling raw stock for single-use and disposable products, or to invest in systems that eliminate the waste products that end up polluting the environment. Right now, despite a global catastrophe with ocean plastic waste, the global plastics industry is expected to grow by 3.7% this decade, with the OECD reporting, “Global plastics production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes. Plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.”
Just like how we’ve severed ourselves from nature, many people find the concept of an externality as alien as not accepting a disposable cup for their morning coffee. We are not taught to think in systems, so we focus on the most obvious thing, the thing we desire and that which we are encouraged to acquire.
The externalities created by these industries are exactly the things that the sustainability and Circular Economy movements are trying to rectify; they are the very things that must be designed out of the system by ensuring that they are adequately accounted for by the systems of measurement we use — which right now is GDP, and which absolutely ignores all of nature. So if we change the system, then we will get different outcomes.
Perverse incentives are everywhere in our economy, and by economy I mean society. And by society, I mean cultural conventions which are built on the mental models or concepts that we are all inflicted with by our experiences in the world, the society we are immersed within and the collective condition of humanity. Change our perspectives, change what we value and we change the world.
We need a system that internalizes the externalities that our flawed economic system has enabled, incentivized and intentionally ignored.
Right now, our economic system does not value a single service provided by nature. Be it the air we breathe, the wood we cut, the minerals mined, the poop produced by a whale (which incidentally is critical to ocean health) — these are all assumed free and infinite by the economic system we created 75 years ago, and it is this fundamental flaw that we need to immediately rectify.
As arbitrary as it may seem, we need to put a price tag on nature, ensuring that the true value is represented in the systems we have created to manage society. Nature must be valued by accounting for the losses and internalizing its services into our economy, as well as into our collective understanding of its intrinsic value.
Bringing nature into the balance sheets of companies and governments creates an incentive to account for current externalities. Then we could also ensure companies and governments pay for not only the collective costs associated with nature’s loss, but also for the restoration and regeneration of the systems that they take from — like paying back a high-interest loan to a bank (instead of robbing it!). Or returning the proceeds of crime to the victims. We have legal systems for repaying monetary debts, but we ignore the debt we have to the planet.
In a system that assigns some economic value to nature, as consumers, we would then see the true cost of a good and alter our consumption practices to preference ecologically-benign products and services, as they would be cheaper — whereas right now, because we don’t value nature, all goods that destroy nature are cheaper!
The United Nations Environment Program’s report Becoming #GenerationRestoration found that half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, and every dollar invested in restoration creates up to 30 dollars in economic benefits.
Thankfully, there are movements around this already, like natural capital accounting, ecosystem services valuation, nature-based economy, SEEA Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA), a task force for nature-based financial disclosures, the natural capital protocol, and an extensive report on valuing nature produced by the UK Government.
Categorizing Ecosystem Services
It’s important to remember that humans created the concept of money and economic value. Perception of what is and isn’t valuable shifts as culture and populations do, while it’s primarily supply and demand that dictate the economic price tag that something is assigned (willingness to pay). But more so in our current Western-values-based society, value shifts often happen based on bizarre trends (such as hoarding or meme stock investing), and inflated value perceptions arise based on brand, status and celebrity. By assigning an economic value to a natural system, or even just a single part of a complex system, we then risk devaluing it by enabling the market to dictate the price tag. We actually don’t know the true value of any planetary services, just as it’s very hard to measure the true value of human life.
One thing for sure is that nature has intrinsic value (although some argue that it is instrumental value). Intrinsic value is the inherent right to exist outside of a value system prescribed by humans. The idea that something has inherent value regardless of economic definitions is a newer part of our collective thought. Since the Newtonian Revolution, nature and all its resources have mostly been seen as a machine that can be managed and that is there to serve human needs as the priority, rather than it having inherent value outside of what we’ve assigned it (I wrote more about this here).
The concept that nature has the right to exist has been tested in courts in New Zealand, with the movement for nature to be given personhood. The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted this status.
This is a big part of what the sustainability movement is seeking to normalize — nature having intrinsic worth that entitles it to exist without humans imposing arbitrary values upon it. But this then rubs up against our desires and demands for the materials that nature creates. Our entire economic system is based on processing natural materials into usable goods and then selling them in a growth-based marketplace.
We not only need nature for our own biophysical survival, to function, but also the entire economy as we know it needs nature for its natural capital.
So somehow, we need to calculate the actions of humans against the impacts they have on the natural world. This will require a realignment of economic measurement tools to incorporate different types of value, ones that we currently don’t account for. How it should be done is still a massive area of research and debate. Putting a price on carbon and ecosystem services is complex because the value provided will differ depending on who is making the value judgment. There are arguments against economically valuing nature, but these don’t seem to account for the fact that there is already a default value of zero, so the economy sees nature as worthless.
Our desire to pay for something is often connected to our perceived gain from the thing. This helps determine how we value it. So, to get started in assigning value to nature, we must first categorize how we benefit from it (the gain).
There are a few different categories of ecosystem services. Firstly, there are two use-based values.
Direct benefits: These are the immediate benefits we get from taking stuff from nature, such as materials extracted from the ecosystem. Recreational uses, such as hiking, would also be seen as direct benefits.
Indirect benefits: The willingness to pay for a service because of the utility we get out of the system staying intact. This would include things like bees being valued because we get indirect benefits from their pollination. Indirect uses are often not as appreciated as direct benefits because they are harder to see and not as well understood.
Next, there are non-use values, which are less tangible:
Bequest values: These are the long-term benefits that nature offers future generations if we keep the systems intact. This is about the cultural and long-term benefits that come from not using up resources today.
Existence values: This refers to the satisfaction that you get from knowing something continues to exist — for example, knowing that whales exist, even if you will never see one in person.
Option values: These exist in some markets where there is an option to potentially use something in the future. The idea that you may one day need access to nature increases your willingness to pay for its preservation today.
This is all an emerging field. There are other proposed methods of measuring ecosystem services, along with several recently developed databases. The UN offers guidance on how to measure services, and this review provides context for the diversity of approaches.
Alternative Economic Systems
For many years there have been detailed conversations about alternative models to GDP, such as the UN’s Human Development Index, Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI), Gross Happiness Index, Gross Ecosystem Services, and Happy Planet Index. Alternatives to GDP are desperately needed, whereby human and natural capital is accounted for by the measurement tool for growth.
The underlying issue here is that we value the wrong things, since we’ve engineered a system that values and demands growth at all costs, in which an oil spill is calculated not as a collective loss but an economic gain due to all the economic activity generated from having to clean it up. This absurdity follows through to the clean-ups after hurricanes and wars. Yes, wars register as economic gains for many countries involved in them directly or indirectly. The bombs, clean-ups and coffins all show up as growth. As disgusting as this is, it shows just how perverse GDP is and how fundamentally flawed our center of value is.
Green Taxation Model
To rectify our collective ills, we have to redesign the economic system of value and reorient it toward valuing collective “goods” and accounting for the currently invisible aspects of our society.
Like many of the discussions of today, this is not a new idea. An English economist, Arthur Pigou was one of the main contributors to the idea of externalities, and he proposed a model for rectifying this market failure called a Pigovian or ‘Green tax’. This is an alternative system of taxation that accounts for adverse side effects of society by taxing “bads” and rewarding “goods”. This plays out as taxation because this is a major mechanism used by governments to influence actors in society. Taxes are added on to environmentally-negative activities, like extracting from nature, creating pollution or any other activity that is negative for society — for example, carbon emissions or even junk food.
This additional cost of goods and services that these taxes create is offset by reducing income tax significantly. Right now, most people lose between 20–50% of their income to government taxation, which decreases their buying power and thus limits their ability to make personally-informed choices about what to invest in. But under a Pigovian tax system, individuals would have a lower income tax, increasing their personal agency to make decisions about what to invest in their daily lives. Since polluting goods and services would cost more due to the increased taxes on them, people would be incentivized to invest in less polluting options, thus creating a market mechanism to rectify the issue. It would, however, over time, decrease the earnings of the government, assuming that people would opt for lower taxes on better goods. But taxation is a tool that can be changed to benefit the collective good.
This idea was born out of Pigou’s work in social welfare; in 1921, he wrote The Economics of Welfare, whereby he argued that industrialists (producers) are incentivised to seek their own marginal private interest, which disincentivises them to internalise the cost to society for their actions. Likewise, if an industry creates marginal social benefits, society has no incentive to pay for that benefit. Thus the goal of using taxation would be to rectify this inherent failure of human action played out in response to economic incentives. Sorry for the nerdy economic stuff, but this is super important in understanding how we got into the mess we are in, and how it’s perpetuated by the system that we are seeped in!
Despite this obviously more rational approach to taxation, this is often a hard sell for governments, even the more Libertarian ones, who you would think would be championing such an approach. People tend to be conditioned to see all taxes as bad, so they fight against them. The idea of reorienting an entire taxation system away from taxing income to taxing ills such as pollution and waste would require a very articulate economic model that many Western governments are just not very skilled in. They are too focused on winning short-term election cycles to invest in the long-term changes that will benefit their country’s citizens and actually create a more egalitarian society, one in which people are enabled to make more informed and personal choices about what they spend their earned incomes on and whereby we reiterate our financial incentives to rectify the market failure of externalities.
There are green taxes put into play in many countries as ad hoc preventive measures, like taxes on plastic bags, waste generation or polluting, for example. But unless there is a systemic restructuring of our value system, be it insofar as how we value nature and account for externalities, along with what we value as a collective society, any ad hoc policy changes will not create the structural changes needed to rectify the existential externalities we all face.
In systems thinking there are many systems archetypes that play out, such as the tragedy of the commons. I have written about these before and also provided some examples of positive systems archetypes that many of the original theorists didn’t account for. So, let’s explore the potential for transforming a status-quo systems dynamic to a positively disruptive one.
The goal of any system should be collective positive outcomes, as a system that benefits a few at the expense of the others ends up being unevenly weighted and topples over on itself. In nature, systems collapse when there is an explosion of one species that dominates the rest and then essentially kills itself off by gobbling up all the resources. So, when it comes to global economic systems and the way that they influence and affect society, we should be looking to redesign the current system to account for perverse incentives and externalities. The solution is to tax the rich, a solution that many of the world’s wealthiest are now calling for, as they continue to make profits from the exploitation of nature, and then we could redirect these collected funds to the restoration of the natural resources that they had exploited. This would help rectify past externalities, and combined with the accounting for natural capital in all economic activities now, we could start to redirect the economy away from exploitation and extraction to restoration and regeneration.
I don’t see how we can achieve full-systems sustainability without redesigning the economy to ensure that we account for all inputs and outputs, that we measure all that we take and that we assign a true cost to all that we create.
We can’t continue to hope for change — we have to design it. The future is made up of our actions today, and the kind of transformation we need is to collectively value nature, in all forms, and to adopt the deep understanding that whatever we do to the planet, we also do to ourselves.
We live on the only known life-sustaining planet in the universe, but we take for granted all the incredible natural things that make life possible. We are at a critical point in the evolution of our species, whereby we have enough science and technology to truly understand the errors of our ways, yet we have not the will or imagination to overcome the challenges that plague us. This is the point in the story where we come out of the valley of despair and take action to rectify the ills of the past, where we take these challenges and transform them into incredible opportunities for change. We can relearn to value nature, we can change our economic incentives and redirect our journey toward a sustainable and regenerative future. You, me and everything we love depends on it.
I have many courses and classes on systems thinking, environmental sustainability, the circular economy and tools for making change. If you are an individual, then check out the UnSchool courses; for organizations, we are building a new green skills platform called Swivel Skills. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about our organizational training packages.