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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'