A Lacandon teenager gazing at the Metzabok lake, which has since gone dry // Alexa Firmenich

The Price of Putting a Price on Nature

“Our oceans are worth at least $24 trillion, according to the new WWF report, Reviving the Ocean Economy”

“The economic benefit of the rainforest, if it’s conserved, is $8.2 billion a year”

Headlines that tout the economic value of nature should be a glaring red flag. This is how far we have gone in needing to protect and regenerate the planet — economic appeals to rational calculation. The translatability necessary to divert financial flows away from the most destructive of outputs does nothing to repair our broken relationship with nature.

Consider how this information lands in you. Does knowing the billions of dollars the oceans are worth evoke genuine care in you? Does it make you want to dive into the ocean and learn more about the forms of life inside of it? It doesn’t for me. When I “care”, I feel warmth, vitality, excitement, connection, potential. Authentic care does not arise from an economic calculation of trade-offs.

The moment that my care has a price tag on it, I can be bought. What happens if someone changes the equation and suddenly fish are worth more dead than alive? How would that change our care? What actions could it then justify?

If our civilisation and our leaders depend on the above metrics to convince us to protect the oceans — if we are even asking whether a forest is worth more alive or cut down — we are asking the wrong question in the first place.

In these figures is an unexplored interpretation that our highest potential is an economic one; that we can master the ability to keep a forest on life support, so that we can keep harvesting its organs. The forest thrives insofar as it is complicit in and useful for human thriving.

At the core of our current breakdown is not a faulty cost benefit analysis that has left out natural capital on the balance sheet. It is not about shareholder versus stakeholder value, Business for Good, or the social license to operate. What is hurting lies a few layers underneath, and it is in simple terms our visceral disconnect with the more than human world.

The real question needs to ask whether humans have the right to put a price, a cap and trade, a bond or a derivative, on Nature and other sentient beings in the first place. Do we place a price on the joy of our children, their faces lighting up in rapture as a wave crashes on the beach or as we spy a fox slinking through the trees?

I want to live in a world where our highest potential is to ask how we can live in right relationship with a forest. Our directing questions will be centered on how we can enable the forest itself to thrive and evolve, independent of economic needs, and that our care is tied to its well-being.

The outcome may look the same on the surface — trees don’t get cut down and ecosystems are protected— but the guiding intention and energy behind both actions are very different.

I’ll state it simply. Nature never has been and never will be ours to own, and as long as we continue do so, we will pay a steep price. The world that exists ‘out’ there, right out there where the concrete breaks away, right there where the wet earth and vines tumble out, ‘out’ there, that world is of such exquisite and beautific complexity that it will forever defy measurement. To reduce Nature’s complexity is to enter into dangerous territory, no matter how well-intentioned our attempts to quantify it.

We must rediscover our intrinsic care for the living world. Life is waiting to pounce, aching to to pour through our veins again. I believe that every single person on the planet knows this care. The reduction of everything to objectified measurement is only part of our story. The question is not carbon credits or fossil fuel mitigation. Even if we succeed in staying under two degrees of global warming, we could still live in a deadened world.

Some might say that over time, utilitarian values crystallise into core life values. I don’t necessarily agree and history shows us otherwise. I am heartbreakingly in love with our planet and I will be doing my part to make sure you are too.

Learning Journeys | Ecological Literacy | Author, poet, wilderness guide | Investor | Co-founder Atlas Unbound, Ground Effect (alexafirmenich.com)

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