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How can we put a value on nature?

Central to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the principles of ending poverty, while safeguarding Earth's life support systems.

However, the way we address this dual ambition is imbalanced. In our current model of resource management, nature is a ‘provider’ of ecological capital, through which we increase our financial and social capital, for instance:

  1. Resource provision. Nature provides the raw materials that become food, fuels, metals, timber, etc. and through which we are able to build financial and social capital. For instance, a country's oil resources can be reinvested in other forms of capital such as physical, financial and intellectual capital.

  2. Service provision. Nature absorbs, into the air, water and land, the waste we generate from the production and consumption of goods.

The problem with this model, is it values ecological capital against the financial and social capitals. But the natural world is not simply a stock of resources to be exploited - and ecological, social and financial capitals are not always interchangeable. Instead the natural world must be seen for what it is, a complex living system consisting of evolving elements, which collectively provide:

  1. Life-support functions. Providing the basic conditions through which life and production is possible. How can you value these basic life-support functions, such as those supporting climate and ecosystem stability, and the shielding of UV radiation by the ozone layer?

  2. Amenity services. The result of millions of years of complex evolution. How do you assign aesthetic value to green rolling hills or a lake? What is the 'exchange rate' between new roads supporting social development and the preservation of ancient woodland?

  3. Existence value. The value that people place on the continued existence of species or ecosystems, regardless of whether they will themselves ever encounter the species or experience the ecosystem.

By only viewing nature from the perspective of the resources and services it provides, we continue the mentality of optimising our continued exploitation of these services. Instead, and in order to achieve the ambition of the SDGs, we must adopt a more holistic perspective. This approach should value nature, not for the capital it can generate, but for the irreplaceable value it provides us.

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