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.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?