Guardian editorial on how appalling it is to measure the value of nature

My response there:

Blimey.

No one is in fact saying that a nightingale\’s song is worth £5.

What we\’re trying to get to is a set of relative values.

So, we start with, well, people act as if a nightingale\’s song is worth £5 to them. They also seem to act as if their own lives are worth around £2 million (not that far off the real figure). Bluebell woods at £300. Salt water marshes at £1,5 million.

Etc, etc.

Absolutely no one is saying that you can sell the marshes for £1.5 million. Take the nightingale\’s song to the bank and get a fiver.

However, now that we\’ve got some numbers, these valuations of what people seem to value things at by what they do, now we can begin to make trade offs.

To be absurd, imagine that 1,000 nightingale songs would cure a child of cancer. Five grand? It\’s a bargain, start liming those twigs so we can capture them.

Now let\’s not be absurd. Those salt water marshes near Cardiff, they\’re worth £1.5 million as the home of those wading birds. They\’re also worth £1 billion as the shores of the Severn Barrage (note, please, these are imaginary numbers, just for illustration).

So, do we build the barrage or do we keep the home for the birdies? And is our decision different if the tweeties\’ mudflats are worth £1 billion and the energy system £1.5 million?

We aren\’t at all saying that any of these things are worth £x. We are saying that people seem to value that over there at x times what they value that over here, or some /th of what they value some other thing at. £ is only used so that we have one unit to play with.

Now that we know the relative values (note again, not the absolute values) we can begin to make decisions. So, what do people actually want? Bluebell woods or houses for the homeless in a former bluebell wood? Oystercatchers or energy?

To try and approach this problem any other way would be insane.

3 comments on “Guardian editorial on how appalling it is to measure the value of nature

  1. You mention the ‘Severn Barrage’ but not the Severn Tidal Power REEF, which attempts to address exactly the kind of choices you are talking about. The choices are seldom black or white, and in the case of the Severn Estuary this is often put into stark contrast by the ‘press’ it’s either ‘renewable energy’ or it’s the ‘birds’.

    It doesn’t have to be polarised like this and it is usually those with an ‘agenda’ or vested interests (on both sides) who are against any type of compromise. If we don’t cooperate, we will all be the loosers.

  2. Armstrong Evans – “You mention the ‘Severn Barrage’ but not the Severn Tidal Power REEF, which attempts to address exactly the kind of choices you are talking about. …. It doesn’t have to be polarised like this and it is usually those with an ‘agenda’ or vested interests (on both sides) who are against any type of compromise. If we don’t cooperate, we will all be the loosers.”

    Oh Bloody Hell. The Severen Tidal Barrage is precisely such choice. You may prefer we all talked about an even less financially affordable alternative that will generate even less power, but that is hardly the point. That is not in any way co-operation. That is avoiding the issue by finding some other non-starter. It does have to be polarised like this – we can’t build the barrage and save the birds.

    If we build the “reef” instead we will have a price to put on how much we love those birds as it will be £X billion more expensive and generation Y less kilowatt hours.

    Human beings are the most co-operative and social animals on the planet. It is just that while ants regulate their society through pheromones or whatever, humans do so through markets and hard currency. That is why I will be drinking Chilean wine with dinner tonight before going out and getting smashed on Cuban rum. Those nice people producing those drinks for me did so on the other side of the planet without even knowing I existed. Aren’t we co-operative?

  3. Would I be right in thinking that if the UK had half the population, half as many such choices would have to be made?

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