Katy Guest: Put your abacus away, Ms Spelman

Our writer recoils from the costing of nature's bounty
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The Independent Online

When you travel to work tomorrow morning, will it take you more or less than an hour? How many green spaces will you see during the journey, and will any of them be a waterway? Will you be in your car, picking your nose; or eyeballing the person who's in your favourite bus seat; or dangling from a Tube strap being an accidental sex pest to the stranger in front? At any point, will you feel that you'd give a million pounds not to have to be there?

It is surely part of the human condition to ask, "Isn't life worth more than this?" But it's weird, nonetheless, when a government department is set up to decide exactly how much more that ought to be. Last week, two official reports set out to quantify just how much these little things are worth. The Office for National Statistics told us that epic commuters are paid more than short-walk-to-workers. And the National Ecosystem Assessment concluded that "nature" is worth £20bn a year.

It was in Lady Windermere's Fan in 1892 that Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". One hundred and nineteen years later, the Government is investing in cynicism. In an Orwellian exercise that sounds like an April Fool spoof leaked at the wrong time, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, explained: "We have often taken nature for granted, until now. We're the first country to do this and to actually get a full understanding of what we get free from nature."

Those freebies include £430m from bees and other pollinators, apparently. And £540m from "the value of biodiversity to social well-being". Does that mean that I'm happier to the tune of a quid or so each time I see a bird on my way to the office? Is an urban fox worth more or less than a magpie? Do we owe nature anything for the mice on the Northern Line? Can we get any money back for moths?

Now, it may be that I am failing to understand all this because I am just too tired from my 90-minute commute. But the good news for me is that I am probably loaded. Because people who travel more than an hour to work every day earn almost twice as much as those with a journey under 15 minutes, according to the new figures from the ONS.

That may be so, but during the last heatwave a fellow Tube monkey's armpit actually dripped sweat on my foot. I spend 15 hours each week in a modern version of Dante's Hell, and it costs me £123.70 a month for a Zones 1-3 travelcard to do it. What would I give just to fly to work?

Now, thanks to the Government, that's not a hypothetical question. No wonder MPs have to live within a short stroll of Westminster, and we have to pay for them to do it. Come on, if you were in charge of making the rules, wouldn't you make that one for yourself, too?

When you think about them hard enough, all sorts of things can be allocated a hard cash value. Married men live longer, according to all the figures, and men who are married to clever women longer still. Should women with PhDs start asking for dowries? What's an extra year of healthy life worth on the open market? If the benefits of living near a green space are worth £300 per person per year, then are people in Wales all emotionally minted? Can the people with 90-minute commutes buy some of it from them?

I'm going to need it, because the idea of putting a price on happiness has left me depressed. Caroline Spelman owes me a heron.

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