Science: Time to face the true cost of the Earth?

How much is a tree worth? Or a rainforest? Some economists will tell you that it's worth as much as the landowner charges. Biologists calculate that, in reality, the environment is giving us a free lunch - but the bill may be on the way. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, on the trillion-dollar business we never notice.

How much is the natural world really worth? If you're studying its rainforests, for example, should their value be estimated in terms of the wood that they contain? Or should it also include the indigenous animal and plant species which are known to contain useful pharmaceuticals - such as the lethal poison from the skin of an Ecuadorean frog, discovered recently, which could lead to a painkiller that may be stronger than morphine but without morphine's side-effects? Or, given that "carbon-trading" will soon be a common phrase, in which countries buy and sell permits to pump out carbon dioxide, should we put a value on rainforests based on their ability to absorb atmospheric carbon, and hence mitigate the greenhouse effect?

Increasingly, earth scientists are trying to put serious values on to what our environment provides us with - a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service economy that never shuts down or takes a holiday.

The focus of this examination is mostly at US universities, including Cornell and Stanford. At the former, Professor David Pimentel of the ecology department last month released a study, performed with eight graduate students, making a "conservative" estimate of the value of that service economy.

"If all the planet's biota, all the plants and animals and micro-organisms, sent a bill for their 1997 services, the total would be $2.9 trillion [pounds 1.81 trillion, or pounds 1.81 thousand billion]." The US's share of that bill would, by their calculations, be $319bn. When you bear in mind that the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - which measures the value of goods and services produced in the country - was around $6.8 trillion, you can see that the ecosystem is a significant, yet unrewarded, part of any economy.

If "the ecosystem" were in fact a trading partner which charged - for air, water, animal breeding, seafood, hunting and so on - then the laws of supply and demand might rapidly put the US into deficit. "When you compare our spending to preserve biodiversity to the benefits we reap, we're really getting a bargain," commented Professor Pimentel, whose work was published in the December issue of the journal Bioscience.

In fact the value Pimentel's team put on the world's ecosystem looks quite tame compared with two others published in 1997: one put it at $33 trillion, and another, by Gretchen Daily and colleagues at the biological services department of Stanford University, at $20 trillion.

Their estimate is based on the "replacement value" of the biosystem, rather than its direct "service value". The question Daily poses is: "If you were setting up a happy life on the moon, you would have to think: what can perform these tasks - air purification, detoxification, preservation? And how much would it cost?"

Yet, she points out, production indices don't take any notice of those sorts of values. "The public is completely unaware of it."

The fact that scientists have to point out these contradictions is partly because the history of economics - reaching back before the invention of money, to the time of barter - has never assigned self-ownership to things deemed "inanimate", a definition which itself was often stretched bizarrely.

Hence, "inanimate" things can be exploited by whoever first claims ownership of them. It's an attitude that has been applied to everything from fossil fuels to live animals, and even (in the times of slavery) to fellow human beings.

The key element remains the same, though. It is an axiom of economics that anything which does not have to be paid for has no monetary value - even if its absence would cause the most horrendous problems. (Think of the oxygen in the air.)

Experiments to mimic Spaceship Earth have been done in a small way from time to time: the most memorable was in 1991, when the Biosphere II project in Arizona tried to see whether eight people could live in a self-sustaining ecosystem in an enclosed dome.

The results were so disastrous as to be laughable. Paul Ehrlich, also of Stanford, recalls: "It cost $200m to build an ecosystem 1hectare in area for eight people, and $1m a year to power it. They thought they had designed a self-sustaining system. In fact bacteria in the soil started producing carbon dioxide which was then absorbed by the concrete the building was made of. The oxygen level in the air fell from 21 per cent to 14 per cent - like going from sea level to an altitude of 17,000 feet (5,200 metres). The nitrogen oxides concentration increased by a factor of 75.

"It all went crazy, vertebrate animals died, and they had to pump in oxygen from outside. All these things are supplied easily by nature - but we don't know how to replace them."

Professor Geoffrey Heal, an economist from Columbia University, reckons that the pace of environmental wastage could enormously increase the cost of basic necessities - such as water - within our lifetimes.

"It's a reasonable forecast that by 2020 the price of water in some parts of the world will be at least half that of crude oil, and the investment in providing it will be comparable with that for providing electricity."

But natural processes will almost always be cheaper than manufactured ones. "New York City recently had a problem in which water it gathered from the nearby Catskills mountains was becoming polluted. A purification plant would have cost $4bn.

"It was cheaper to buy the land around the water source and prevent people from using pesticides in adjoining land, to stop pollutants entering the source." Soil bacteria could then clean the water naturally, he pointed out.

But such changes could require changes in the forms of ownership of land, possibly back towards that used in medieval Britain, where on each piece of land there might be separate rights to grow crops, fish, hunt, live and raise taxes. Each right could be owned by different people.

While it might cause social upheaval to introduce such changes in modern society, "it will probably be bigger if we don't do it," according to Professor Heal.

The biggest problem, though, is that many urban dwellers are too cut off from the source of their goods, said Professor Ehrlich. "In New York people think food materialises magically overnight in the supermarkets. They have to be made aware that they are fundamentally dependent on ecosystems."

It's either that - or wait until nature sends its own form of bailiff around to collect the unpaid debts.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice