If I told you I was attempting to place an economic value, on something as intangible and abstract as the sight of an unspoilt landscape, you may think me mad. Or you may ask how? Better yet, why? It is all part of my research into the often neglected cultural services that ecosystems provide; more specifically, aesthetic information, and how this contributes to a person’s health and well-being.
There is a new paradigm gathering pace in environmental politics and ecology. This is the concept of ecosystem services – the myriad of ways through which ecosystems sustain and enrich human life. Ecosystem services are numerous and can include the provision of crops, climate, air and water regulation, spiritual/cultural values and many other ways in which the environment supports society and the people within it. A “sexy buzzword” in current policy making, the term ecosystems services has garnered a lot of attention encouraging ecosystems to be considered from an ecological, social and economic perspective.
The economy is completely reliant on the environment, yet neither environmental factors nor the future generations of people that will rely on these factors are commonly taken into account in economics. Humans, it could be said, don’t just bite the hand that feeds them, they completely remove it in order to maximise their short term gain, with little consideration of the long term implications. This was described by the ecologist Garrett Hardin as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, where natural resources with open access quickly get depleted, because everyone has a proximate interest in taking as much as possible, without considering future generations that may depend on that resource. This is exemplified by cases of overfishing, including the collapse of the Atlantic North West cod fishery, which led to massive social upheaval in Newfoundland, Canada, where the society relied on this industry. The consideration of ecosystem function from an economic perspective, gives us an indication of the true importance of nature.
The idea of placing an economic value on the services ecosystems provide started as a way of pointing out the economic implications of the continued degradation of the environment. Many conservationists, with their lack of fiscal power, are starting to believe that the only way to provide an incentive to protect the environment, and to turn the promises of politicians into real action, is to put a value on nature, creating “natural capital”. They have lost faith in the idea of protecting nature for its own sake, and see “natural capital” as a way of driving forward environment conservation.
Some aspects of ecosystem services and their contribution to human well-being, including carbon sequestration, the maintenance of biodiversity and the treatment of pollution, can be easily fitted within the model of “natural capital”. Cultural and spiritual benefits, and how they contribute to human well-being, however, are loose concepts and ambiguous: since they cannot be observed, they cannot be directly measured. Indirect measures therefore have to be used to get an idea of what these services contribute to human well-being. One cultural benefit ecosystems provide is aesthetic information, whether that be gazing upon the open ocean, or seeing animals in their natural habitat. The best way to get this information is to simply ask the public their opinion, which is why the main focus of my research is surveying, to try and get an accurate reflection on how aesthetic information contributes to their lives.
The fact that part of my research involves attempting to put an economic value on what aesthetic information means to society is sad in a way, and isn’t in direct support of the monetising of nature, which is something people expect, and rightly so, to be ‘free’. It is also scary to think that in an exaggerated worst case scenario, someone could privatise and market the air we breathe, or the blue sky we look up at on a clear day. However, using economics can be a succinct and eye-catching way of pointing out what we stand to lose if the rate of environmental degradation continues as it is. We just have to make sure that we don’t sell our souls in the process.
The link to the survey I am carrying out is here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/coastalaesthetics and it would be great if you could contribute your thoughts!