A price on nature? The ethics and practicalities

It is no secret that our current actions are failing to protect the environment. From carbon emissions, to biodiversity loss, scientists have gone so far as to claim that the rate of environmental degradation may be putting life on earth at risk.

One policy response is to extend our capitalist economic system to incorporate nature by putting a price on the things that we want to protect. A recent Ethics Centre IQ2 event debated just this: ‘Should we put a price on nature?’.

Certain market systems are commonly known, carbon pricing for example, has been central in the Australian media over the last 10 years. However, completely pricing natureFullSizeRender (3) would need to go well beyond costing certain pollutants and it raises much larger questions in the debate, both practically and ethically.

The affirmative argued that the failure of current efforts is proof that a different approach is required. If decisions that have a significant impact on nature are made based on monetary values, then nature needs to have a ‘say’ in the equation. This can only be done by assigning nature a price.

The negative challenged the practicalities of this approach, asking; who gets to determine the price and does this just reinforce a reductionist approach to nature? Additionally, many markets that are used to trade other goods do not function well and are the subject of significant political influence. Why would a incorporating nature in to these capitalist markets work any better?

These practical questions are interesting but the most compelling questions are of an ethical nature. And strangely for a debate, both affirmative and negative gave equal time to the ethical difficulties of valuing nature. Fundamentally, they both argued it is impossible to put a price on something that has its own inherent value. Even trying to price nature merely reinforces an anthropomorphic view of the world and brings us no closer to truly valuing nature. So whilst the debate was fierce, there was also a significant amount of agreement from both sides.

For me, the event recalled another fascinating talk I attended many years ago. Pavan Sukhdev the leader of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB – this work was also mentioned by panelists at the iQ2 event) was tasked with pricing ecosystem services. At the Sydney Opera House he stood before a packed theatre to deliver a summary of the project’s findings. He started his lecture by saying ‘Ecosystems support life on our planet without which we are unable to survive. They are therefore infinitely valuable‘. He picked up his notes and began to walk off stage. Sukhdev took a few steps before turning around and making his way back to the mic to continue with his hour long lecture acknowledging that whilst something infinitely valued cannot be priced, assigning economic values to ecosystems can help to ensure that nature is not forgotten in our decision making processes.

Read more commentaries on the nights event from the Fifth Estate and The Ethics Centre.

Jacqui Bonnitcha. Principal Consultant, Edge Environment.

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