The recent publication of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) has left me with something of an uncomfortable feeling. While the NEA should be rightly applauded as a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural environment, it has also effectively put a price on that environment and its component parts, which is something that about which I am less certain.
In some respects the NEA’s attempt to assign a value is a good thing. For too long decision makers have underestimated the true value of the environment and the services that it provides to our way of life. If the value of the environment is underestimated then there is a real danger that it will be lost or overexploited because its worth cannot be accurately compared against something else, something that does have a measurable and, therefore, defined economic value. Take the value of bees and other pollinators, for instance. The NEA report suggests that the presence of these pollinators is worth £430 million per year to British agriculture. Decisions made on the control of invertebrate pests through the use of broad-spectrum insecticides, which might impact on non-target pollinators, can now use knowledge of the value of pollinators to better interpret potential costs and risks. Other ‘ecosystem services’ that have been given a monetary worth include the amenity benefits of living close to rivers, coasts and other wetlands (valued at £1.3 billion per year) and the health benefits of living with a view of a green space (valued at £300 per person per year). You would hope that this would lead to better decision-making.
This is all well and good but here is the rub. Once something has a value it can be bought and traded, and its worth becomes a currency divorced from the reality of the thing itself. It is right that we should properly value the world around us but I believe that there is an inherent danger in seeking to address this value in purely monetary terms. Is giving the countryside and its natural processes a monetary value the only way that we humans can properly understand its worth? If it is, then the future seems rather bleak.
In some ways the NEA process has stripped away the true value of the countryside, further divorcing our rapidly urbanising society from the natural world around us. The only way to get decision-makers to make properly balanced decisions about the fate of the environment is for them to have experienced the natural world at first hand. They should be people who have spent time living within and exploring the very places they are taking decisions on. Only then will they have experienced the true value of the ‘commodity’ they are now trading.