Should we put a price on nature?

Starfish near a dock at low tide, Vancouver Island, Canada (Jurgen Freund/Aurora Photos).

 “The west coast of Vancouver Island boasts the kind of wild shoreline that could swallow a kayaker for weeks. Crenellated with fjords and stippled with islands, it’s a place where old-growth stands of Doug-fir yield to rocky beaches, where black bears stalk the tidelines, and where, each March, some 20,000 gray whales cruise by en route to the Bering Sea. Yet even in this natural outpost, human enterprises clash: Cargo freighters and commercial fishermen spar over shipping lanes and fishing grounds; salmon- farmers and kayak guides struggle for control of coastal waters; -logging, mining and resort-building threaten seagrass beds.

“No one wants to go out there and wreck stuff,” Andrew Day, managing director of West Coast Aquatic, a local management board, told me. “But they disagree on the level of restriction that should be imposed to achieve different goals.” Anyone who’s taken part in a natural resource dispute will recognize the problem. How do you resolve all these conflicts?

“In 2010, Day got help from the Natural Capital Project, a Stanford-based cadre of economists, biologists and software engineers whose work meets at the increasingly crowded intersection of ecology, technology and finance. NatCap was founded in 2005 in order to tackle the very quandary faced by West Coast Aquatic — how to juggle clashing human and natural values. To clear up such dilemmas, NatCap’s scientists use their diverse talents to consider a question that seems simple but is actually bafflingly complex: What is nature worth?

“NatCap wasn’t the first group to address the problem. In 1997, a team of researchers pinned nature’s economic value at $33 trillion worldwide — nearly twice the global gross domestic product, or GDP. That immense value flows from ecosystem services, the natural benefits provided by everything from water-filtering shellfish to soil-forming microbes to storm-buffering reefs. The solution to ecological woes, many policymakers have concluded, lies in incorporating nature’s dollar value into decisions. Put a price on ecosystem services, the wisdom goes, and watch the polluters, over-fishers and developers fall into line” (read more).

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