"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

Let's between us make the world a better place.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

How do we value the Natural Environment?

I have been following a blog for a while called Sustainability in Crisis. One particular post caught my eye this week: Should we put a Financial Value on the Natural Environment.
This discussion came about because the UK Government have tried to do just that.And opinions are very divided on how and whether it can be done.
But this is not confined to the UK - the principles are just as relevant in the USA, and Robert Kennedy and others have had something to say about the issue on the other side of The Pond.
This is what I said by way of comment on that blog but it is either awaiting moderation or has disappeared into the ether. So for what it is worth I am saying the same thing here:

"I think we could turn this question on its head. Perhaps we should look at the economic system itself, which is flawed in many ways. One important flaw is that humans are not valued within the system.

We measure a ‘healthy’ economy in terms of the material wealth or prosperity that is created by and for its working citizens, expressed in terms such as the gross domestic product (GDP), gross domestic income (GDI) or gross national product (GNP). Whichever measure is used, they all put a zero valuation on the environment, on healthy citizens, social cohesion and cultural values!(1) As Robert Kennedy said:

…the (Gross National Product) does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. (2)

A very large number of people in our society are presently undervalued or not valued at all in monetary terms. These include the old and young, the infirm and disabled, the housewives and the many community and charity volunteers without whom many organizations would simply not survive. All of these people outside the conventional workforce often work very much harder and longer hours than many in full time employment. But they gain no financial independence or recognition within the economic framework from their toil. I know of a wife who for two decades has selflessly cared full time for an increasingly and profoundly disabled husband. Or I think of the mother who takes a career break to raise her own children. These women both lead enormously valuable lives, but feel undervalued.

But it is the economic system that is wrong.

So to return to the question – and the concern expressed that the natural world should be seen as having some value in and of itself, not just in its benefit for human welfare and well-being. This could happen, but we would need this to be within a financial system that is cyclical and sustainable and environmentally sound, and that is far from the reality of our present economy.

The fact is that we cannot sustain our present financial systems
There is massive wastage in our consumer society, both from personal consumption and in our industrial processes. Alarming statistics can be found of physical waste:

Americans waste or cause to be wasted nearly 1 million pounds of materials per person per year…[and] this does not account for wastes generated overseas on [their] behalf…the amount of waste generated to make a laptop computer is close to 4000 times its weight (3).

There is a beautifully sustainable cycle within nature. Dead bodies provide food for living creatures, plants photosynthesize and produce oxygen from carbon dioxide and animals use that oxygen in their respiration of which the by-product is carbon dioxide. At school we learnt all about this and called it the Carbon Cycle, little suspecting that 50 years later this would have such a fundamental significance for the future of the world!
If we can see the Earth as a single living entity involving complex interrelationships and a finely tuned balance of all life, as envisioned for example by James Lovelock, should it not be logical for a sustainable economy to mimic that natural world, indeed be a part of that world, where everything is recycled, everything has a further use elsewhere. We would then be able to build a system that is totally cyclical and sustainable and environmentally sound, and such a system would be able to place values on those important intangibles.

Evolution biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris (4) once posed the question: doesn’t it seem crazy and so obviously illogical that our household finances and the study of how we make a living (or economy) should be so totally divorced from the study of how other species make a living (or ecology)?
This seems so simple and obvious but we cannot see it and we stumble onwards within an economic system that is deeply flawed!
So let’s first look at how we can change our economy – to embrace all these other essential qualities."

1. Hazel Henderson, 2001, cited in The Path to Living Economies – a collaborative Working Document of the Social Ventures Network at http://livingeconomiesforum.org/living-economies-path

2. Robert F. Kennedy, from transcription of audio version of Address made 18 March 1968 at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, sourced at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/RFK/RFKSpeech68Mar18UKansas.htm

3. Paul Hawken and Amory and T. Hunter Lovins,1999, p. 52 cited in The Path to Living Economies – a collaborative Working Document of the Social Ventures Network at http://livingeconomiesforum.org/living-economies-path

4. Attributed to Janine Benyus at a Bioneers conference – from a Note from the Author Elisabet Sahtouris, 2000 at http://www.ratical.org/LifeWeb/Erthdnce/erthdnce.html

© Eleanor Stoneham 2011

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