What is nature worth? Priceless!

John Turnbull, Past President, National Parks Association of NSW
Anne Dickson, Sustainability facilitator and consultant and sessional lecturer in sustainability

As I sat on the rocky ledge just south of Jibbon Head in the Royal National Park, I couldn’t find the words. In front of me – a pod of dolphins, migrating humpback whales, and just to my right, an Australian fur seal feeding in the shallows. Behind me – an echidna, black cockatoos, finches and early spring wildflowers. And the value of all this? Nothing short of priceless.

In today’s society, we seem to need to put a price tag on everything. Of course, some things can be valued in monetary terms – anything which has a market, which is bought and sold. Even then, the price paid may not be a true reflection of the value or cost – hence the need for carbon pricing, for example.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

– Albert Einstein (attributed)

Value is a complex concept which has been grappled with for millennia. “Value” often implies monetary, yet “values” are something different – they are our deeply-held beliefs of what is good or important in life. And the values of nature are diverse and multi-dimensional. Much has been written on this subject, and we refer readers to the work of Shalom Schwarz, Stephen Kellert, Gregory Brown and O’Neill, Holland and Light (2008).

O’Neill et al remind us that as well as living from the world, we also live in the world and with the world. Places, processes and things matter for us, for good or bad. Schwarz describes ten basic human values including benevolence, tradition and universalism – appreciation and protection of people and nature. Kellert describes a typology of ten nature-related values, such as aesthetic, utilitarian and spiritual values. Brown’s framework describes thirteen nature values, of which “economic” is one. Others include recreation, learning, biodiversity and intrinsic value.

For simplicity, we will group values of nature into four categories;

  • Direct use, non-consumptive – humans experiencing nature without taking anything
  • Direct use, consumptive – taking “resources” from nature
  • Indirect use – humans benefiting from nature indirectly and
  • Non-use – the value of nature independent of humans

We experience direct use, non-consumptive values continuously. Looking up to a beautiful sunset, feeling a warm breeze on our faces, going for a walk, paddling down a stream, taking comfort from a sense of place, enjoying natural beauty, experiencing the health and well-being benefits and appreciating wilderness all fall into this category. Our everyday experience of the world, our cultural or spiritual connections with nature, its symbolism as part of our way of life, and our sense of discovery, learning in nature, and scientific research are all part of this value category too. All of these clearly have value to us personally and to society generally as an integral part of our everyday existence. Yet how they count for me is difficult to articulate, cannot be counted and is impossible to place a monetary value on.

Our human existence also depends entirely on direct use, consumptive values. Nature has provided our food, air, materials and fresh water for as long as we’ve existed. The consumption value of these resources is easier to quantify, as the extracted resources can be measured by weight, or volume. And where resource markets are in place, a monetary value is simply assigned. However, this monetary value is constrained. It may cover the cost of extraction and represent a willingness to pay, but it often fails to include many of the costs involved. The price of coal for example generally covers the cost of mining and transport but fails to include the cost of climate change from the subsequent greenhouse gas emissions. Resource prices also undervalue the inescapable issue of sustainability of resource usage – on a finite planet, we can’t keep extracting at a growing rate.

Indirect use values are where we start to find things which many people don’t think of. Nature provides the ecosystems on which we depend; it is our source of oxygen, nutrient cycling and other “ecosystem services”. It sustains life as we know it – and whilst we may put a figure on some of the services, survival of humans and all the other species on earth are once again beyond a price.

Finally, non-use values focus on the intrinsic value of nature. Nature existed before we did – so clearly has value in itself, independent of humans. The right of an animal or plant species to not become extinct; the preservation of living things because we inherently know it’s ethical to do so indicate the intrinsic value of nature. When we express our concern for nature in and of itself we are extending the boundaries of moral consideration beyond humans. We are conveying deeply held beliefs regarding what it is for natural things to flourish. Intrinsic values are unquantifiable and clearly priceless.

Assessing natural values is something we constantly do.  This might happen when a sunset gives us pleasure or a wilderness gives us a sense of awe. It also happens in our everyday actions when for instance we choose the more scenic route to get to our destination placing beauty ahead of travel time efficiency, or when we join the local land care group to help clean up the local creek, placing the flourishing of our local environment above other calls on our time. We also appraise these values when we speak of our dismay at the destruction of trees for roads or the cruelty to marine life from shark nets.  Additionally, we also make use of more formal concepts such as biodiversity or ecosystem integrity to assess these values. Indeed, our ways of assessing natural values are as plural and multidimensional as the values themselves. Our evaluations of nature are both guided by and expressed in our feelings, our actions, our words and our formal assessment methods. This rich complexity cannot be distilled to a single dimension, whether it be money or anything else. To do so risks dramatically undervaluing something which is essentially priceless. Putting a value on nature is something which we may do where we need to, but we must never pretend that this figure is anything short of a small fraction of the true, multi-dimensional value of nature.

As I completed my walk through the Royal, I thought about the value to me. Yes, I paid something to come here, I bought a coffee and I used some equipment. These can all be valued in monetary terms – but the dollar figure they amount to cannot be compared to the richness and complexity of what is there, and the value of an experience like that.

O’Neill, J.,  Holland, A. and Light, A. 2008, Environmental Values, Rutledge, Oxon.
Brown and Reed (2000). “Validation of a Forest Values Typology for Use in National Forest Planning.” Forest Science 46(2): 240-247
Kellert, S. R. 1996. The value of life: biological diversity and human society. Island, Washington, D.C., USA.
Schwartz, S. H. (1994). “Are There Universal Aspects in the Structure and Contents of Human Values?” Journal of Social Issues 50(4): 19-45

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