Friday, 6 January 2012

A price worth paying

The environment has been taking something of a battering over the last 12 months. It seems that when the economy is struggling, it is the environment that is one of the first things to suffer. In an attempt to reduce costs, cuts within Government and its agencies seem to have fallen hardest on those responsible for looking after the countryside. Elsewhere, in a bid to get the economy moving, there is talk of loosening planning legislation and weakening the already poor environmental regulations. Then there has been the criticism of conservation-based NGOs, often from within their own ranks, with the suggestion that such organisations have been all too ready to rollover.

For me, perhaps the most worrying thing has been the increasing tendency to put a price on the environment and its natural processes. This approach argues that we undervalue our environment and that, as a consequence, the best way to address this is to give a monetary value to each natural process, something referred to as ecosystem services. The ‘value’ of pollinating insects to UK agriculture has, for example, been put at £400 million per annum. In some ways I can see the benefit of this. By presenting wildlife ‘value’ in the monetary terms that Government and industry are used to dealing with, we can at least communicate with them in a language that they understand. It is no longer just a chalkstream but an ‘ecosystem service’ chalkstream that delivers ‘x’ million pounds of value per annum. The problem with this approach, however, is that this is a measure of ‘value’ based purely on what the species, process or ecosystem has to offer us.

Wildlife and natural processes should have their own intrinsic value, something that exists beyond our rather narrow and selfish frames of human reference. The Buff-tailed Bumblebee should be considered as having ‘value’ simply because it exists and not just because it pollinates our crops. The value that we put on a single bee should be the same as that which we put on a Hedgehog, a Barn Owl or, for that matter, a human being.

The fundamental problem that I have with ecosystem services is that the approach is about what other creatures and natural processes do for us; it is not about our responsibilities towards our fellow creatures. We should judge the consequences of our actions by the impact that they have on the environment within which we live and the creatures with which we share it. While an ecosystem services approach may appear to go some way to doing this, it rather misses the point by incorrectly presenting value purely in monetary terms.

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