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How Do You Put a Price Tag On Nature?

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Back in 1997, a team of scientists slapped a giant price tag on the earth. They calculated the dollar value of every ecosystem on the planet, and tallied it all up: 142.7 trillion dollars. It's a powerful form of sticker shock — one that could give environmentalists ammunition to protect wetlands and save forests. But some people argue it actually devalues something that should be seen as priceless. Then the apple farmers of Mao county in central China turn this whole debate upside down and make us question the value of understanding nature in terms of dollars and cents.

Produced by:

Simon Adler

Comments [10]

Dane Stevens from Boise

I like to grow apples as a hobby and just couldn't resist commenting on an important technical aspect that got over looked regarding apple pollination and has a big implication for the China story.

When growing apples in a location with sufficient natural pollinators it is a widespread and very commonplace practice that apple growers actually thin young apples off of the tree, because of something called over pollination. The idea is this, an apple tree has a finite amount of surplus energy to put into growing it's fruit each season and will put that energy into whatever number of fruit are growing on the tree. Therefore if the tree has the ability to grow 100 lbs of apples in year X, and pollination leads to 200 successfully pollinated blossoms in year X there will be 200 half pound apples harvested in year X. However in this example people prefer 1 pound apples, therefore the apple grower will thin the number of young apples as they grow to 100 leading to a final production of 100 one pound apples in year X. Of course this is a very simplified version of what happens in the real world, but It gets the point across.

Now the reason I feel this is important to the story about Chinese apples growers, the loss of bees and the value of nature is this. The story notes that apple production increased and farmers bottom lines improved after the bees died off and hand pollination began because they were getting better pollination rates than before and thus more apples. However the problem assumption is that the natural pollination system crashed suddenly from fully functioning system to fully non-functioning. If this were the case the Chinese apple farmers should have been experiencing over pollination of their trees in at least some of the years leading up to the present situation. Therefore the natural pollination system in this area of China was likely impaired for many years leading up to the bee die off, and thus the bees were likely worth a lot more than we thought in this case.

May. 04 2015 08:48 AM
Larry Chang from United States

Interesting story, as i've been working on an idea to measure everything using a Planetary Index. Encouraged to know it's not so far-fetched. Everyone counts. Everything is counted (including bees, and mosquitoes which have some evolutionary value we may not now apprehend). http://netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com

Feb. 22 2015 01:06 PM
Jessie Henshaw from United States

There actually is a published and fully scientific method of "pooling" all our information on the "pool value" of the economic creativity of nature. What makes it possible, and makes it a sound measure of cost, is how it's constructed. It's constructed to a) add up the total known economic opportunity costs of present impacts to our future economy, and to b) assign responsibility for them to the money decisions actually paying for them...

Yes, it does take some advanced systems science to discover the simple assumptions you need to start from, but it also would be a complete accounting of all we know about how money decisions for immediate profits or values are eating ever deeper into our future values and profits.

I do hope you look at it. It's presently the definitive science on how to answer that most important question "what are my dollars costing us", organized in a way to be improved with new studies as fast as our knowledge advances. What that corrects is the "wishy washy" feature of all other estimate methods, in that what it collects is all the information we have that is not. The results, once you "grok" the question, are really impressive and would be really useful...

Check it out, follow it up, make it work. This is stuff we NEED to know yesterday!

http://synapse9.com/signals/2014/02/03/a-world-sdg/

Feb. 21 2015 07:13 PM
Andrew L from Madison, WI

Interesting piece and several of the other commenters have brought up good points and valid criticisms. Overall, this is a good introduction to people that haven't ever really thought about the "value" of the natural world and "ecosystem services".

One thing that really irked me though is Jad's offhand comment about "Conservationists" (Jad: "You can't just say 'Don't do that', I mean that's the thing that, like, conservationists say: 'Don't Don't Don't'). I think maybe you're confused about the meaning of conservation. If you actually believe that statement, you've bought into a simplified myth about environmentalism and "old" conservation. "Conservationists" have been talking about the value of nature to humans for more than a century. For a more eloquent explanation than I can write here, check out the 2014 essay, What's So New about the “New Conservation”? by environmental historian Curt Meine in, "Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth". Or go back and re-read (Conservationist) Aldo Leopold's, 1949 Sand County Almanac:

"I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land."

Jan. 30 2015 12:39 PM
William

I'm a scientist, physicist, hobby ecologist, and I am getting my PhD in Computational Social Science. I believe I can weigh in on this without betraying any of those fields or values. You can't put a price on life. Well, you can, but it will be wrong, morally wrong, economically wrong, and scientifically wrong. Notice I separate the economic and scientific. Firstly, the process of monetizing a public good often is deleterious. It frequently only makes the process of exploitation, crash, and extinction more efficient. Markets have requirements to produce efficient results and typically the fail to produce positive results with public goods and end up cannibalizing the productive capacity of the resource. Secondly, markets work with scarce resources. They cannot manage abundant resources like air for instance. If we just presumed markets will magically figure it out then we will be doomed to ruin everything and drive it to scarcity, paucity, and pollution before we start to manage it correctly. A world where everything that matters is scarce and costs money and can therefore be denied to people without it is not a world I care to inhabit.Thirdly, any attempt to come up with a correct value for all the anthropo and eco services around is doomed to failure. For three reasons. One, we cannot produce even one working bio-dome without catastrophic collapse. We do not know all the processes and services required to sustain a human life or a human habitat without hidden essential eco-services. Simply put it has always been underestimated because of our insufficient knowledge on the subject. For goodness sakes we just now figured out that the biota in our gut are required for proper immune system functioning. Meanwhile we've been trying to kill them all with antibiotics for at least 50 years. Two, our (humans) personal values of the environment and what constitutes an eco-service changes. In general it increases with time as we find more uses for things: new natural chemicals to fight disease, new genes that produce compounds that are useful. We discover new ways to use the bounty and diversity of nature all the time. It is a moving target. Three, diversity of life itself is the engine of evolution. Take out twenty kinds of trees in a forest and plant one kind and a pest will evolve and adapt to wipe it out in a generation. I imagine the same thing will happen to people the more we remove other life and substitute it with ourselves. Diversity within our species helps to insure our survival under new circumstances. Diversity outside of our species protects us from an onslaught of plagues that have adapted just to us. We don't want to be the last remaining big target. Long story short: We are too foolish and short-sighted to decide who or what lives or dies based on a value we cannot possibly now contemplate with any wisdom therefore we should be cautions and presume it has value before assuming it is guilty of being worthless.

Jan. 27 2015 01:43 PM
Pat from Indiana

Susanne:

Good point, but I think not acting a bit shortsighted is beyond the scope of a single radio show. There's just not enough time to go through all the many ways bees may be valuable and costly (let's not forget costly too, as Michael pointed out). They did briefly discuss, however, that you could "act like an accountant" by tallying up all the many ways an organism or system is "valuable", which I think is what you wanted them to do. Maybe they could have been more clear about that.

Jan. 26 2015 10:36 AM
Susanne from Austria

I think you forgot something when you talked about the bees and human pollination: For us, it may be most apparent, that apple trees are not pollinated, and we can solve this problem by human pollination. But for the ecosystem as a whole, you can't just put a number on the worth of bees by thinking about how much it costs to pollinate the trees manually. I guess it just wouldn't be possible to pollinate all plants in the system that need it manually. So we don't really know what happens to the system if one factor - in this case bees - is missing. This of course applies to all kinds of complicated (eco)systems. So it seems kind of shortsighted to just measure the immediate economical damage a missing factor does, because we don't know if there are problems that might be cascading from one missing factor like bees.

Jan. 16 2015 08:06 AM
Kurt Johansen from United States

There is a financial analogy that could be made in regards to nature which reflects the reality that if nature's services are eliminated one can't simply build it back.

Think of the ecosystem as a bank account. The $142,000,000,000 we get yearly is the *interest* we make on the bank account. Living sustainably means that we live on the replenished interest each year but don't dip into the principle. If we cut into the principle (say chop down and sell a rainforest) we'll get a large amount in one fell swoop, but will lose the yearly interest we otherwise would have received.

It took millions of years to build it to what it is today. And once the principle gets cut it could take millions of years to bring it back to what it was. I think once we start colonizing Mars, this analogy will sink in and we will appreciate the compounded bank account annuity that we have inherited.

Taking the analogy further, I would suspect that the more biodiverse the ecosystem is, the higher the rate of interest we make each year --- similar to the way the more industry diverse a city is the more innovation and technological advances it outputs.

Jan. 14 2015 04:30 PM
Michael from South Carolina

Cool story, but I wonder if a negative value was placed upon the mosquitoes that cause malaria, etc... The reason the insecticides were sprayed on the apples in the first place were due to pests that were eating them. This is a very complicated subject to truly study impartially, though I found it very interesting. Lastly,did you assign a cost to those blasted verroa mites and small hive beetles that are destroying populations of bees around the world?

Jan. 12 2015 08:35 AM
Alex from NYC

An addendum to this would be useful with reporting about the concept of tragedy of the commons, first thought about in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, and expanded upon greatly since. Recent examples that I have read about induce the collapse of fisheries, and many pollution stories.

Thank you for the well done and informative reporting.

Dec. 29 2014 09:36 PM

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