Putting a value on nature's "free" services.

AuthorAbramovitz, Janet N.

Contrary to conventional economic wisdom, most of the value in the world economy does not come from pulling things out of nature - it comes from the normal functioning of healthy rivers, forests, and fields.

During the last half of 1997, massive fires swept through the forests of Sumatra, Borneo, and Irian Jaya, which together form a stretch of the Indonesian archipelago as wide as all of Europe. By November, almost 2 million hectares had burned, leaving the region shrouded in haze and more than 20 million of its people breathing hazardous air. Tens of thousands of people had been treated for respiratory ailments. Hundreds had died from illness, accidents and starvation. The fires, though by then out of control, had been set deliberately and systematically - not by small farmers, and not by El Nino, but by commercial outfits operating with implicit government approval. Strange as this immolation of some of the world's most valuable natural assets may seem, it was not unique. The same year, a large part of the Amazon Basin in Brazil was blanketed by smoke for similar reasons. The fires in the Amazon have been set annually, but in 1997 they destroyed over 50 percent more forest than the year before, which in turn had recorded five times as many fires (some 19,115 fires during a single six-week period) as in 1995.

For the timber and plantation barons of Indonesia, as for the cattle ranchers and frontier farmers of Amazonia, setting fires to clear forests has become standard practice. To them, the natural rainforests are an obstruction that must be sold or burned to make way for their profitable pulp and palm oil plantations. Yet, these are the same forests that for many others serve as both homes and livelihoods. For the hundreds of millions who live in Indonesia and in the neighboring nations of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand and the Philippines, it is becoming painfully apparent that without healthy forests, it is difficult to remain healthy people.

As this issue of WORLD WATCH went to press, the fires in Southeast Asia were still generating enough smoke to be visible from space. Some relief was expected with the arrival of the seasonal rains, but those rains were past due - in part because of an unusually strong El Nino effect. Along with the trees, the region's large underground peat deposits have caught on fire, and such fires are perniciously difficult to put out; they can continue smoldering for years.

When the smoke does finally clear, Southeast Asia - and the world - will attempt to tally the costs. There are the costs of impaired health and sometimes death, from both lung diseases and accidents caused by poor visibility. There is the productivity that was lost as factories, schools, roads, docks, and airports were shut down (over 1,000 flights in and out of Malaysia were cancelled in September alone); there are the crop yields that fell as haze kept the region in day-long twilight, and the harvests of forest products that were wiped out. Timber (some of the most valuable species in the world) and wildlife (some of the most endangered in the world) are still being consumed by flames. Over three-fourths of the world's remaining wild orangutans live on the fire-ravaged provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Some of them, caught fleeing the flames, have become part of the illegal trade. Because of their location, the Indonesian fires, like those in the Amazon, have dealt a heavy blow to the biodiversity of the earth as a whole.

As the smoke billowed dramatically from Southeast Asia, a much less visible - but similarly costly - ecological loss was taking place in a very different kind of location. While the Indonesian haze was being photographed from satellites, this other loss might not be noticed by a person standing within an arm's length of the evidence - yet, in its implications for the human future, it is a close cousin of the Asian catastrophe. In the United States, more than 50 percent of all honeybee colonies have disappeared in the last 50 years, with half of that loss occurring in just the last 5 years. Similar losses have been observed in Europe. Thirteen of the 19 native bumblebee species in the United Kingdom are now extinct. These bees are just two of the many kinds of pollinators, and their decline is costing farmers, fruit growers, and beekeepers hundreds of millions of dollars ill losses each year.

What the ravaged Indonesian forests and disappearing bees have in common is that they arc both examples of "free services" that are provided by nature and consumed by the human economy - services that have immense economic value, but that go largely unrecognized and uncounted until they have been lost. Many of those services arc indispensable to the people who exploit them, yet are not counted as real benefits, or as a part of GNP.

Though widely taken for granted, the "free" services provided by the natural world form the invisible foundation that supports all societies and economies. We rely on the oceans to provide abundant fish, on forests for wood and new medicines, on insects and other creatures to pollinate our crops, on birds and frogs to keep pests in check, and on forests and rivers to supply clean water. We take it for granted that when we need timber we can cut trees, or that when we need water we can find a spring or drill a well. We assume that clean air will blow the smog out of our cities, that the climate will be stable and predictable, and that the mounting quantity of waste we generate will continue to disappear, if we can just get it out of sight. Nature's services have always been there, free for the taking, and our expectations - and economies - are based on the premise that they always will be. A timber magnate or farmer may have to pay a price for the land, but assumes that what happens naturally on the land - the growing of trees, or pollinating of crops by wild bees, or filtering of fresh water - usually happens for free. We are like young children who think that food comes from the refrigerator, and who do not yet understand that what now seems free is not.

Ironically, by undervaluing natural services, economies unwittingly provide incentives to misuse and destroy the very systems that produce those services; rather than protecting their assets, they squander them. Nature, in turn becomes increasingly less able to supply the prolific range services that the earth's expanding population and economy demand (see graphic, pages 14-15). It is no exaggeration to suggest that the continued erosion of natural systems threatens not only the continuing viability of today's human enterprise, but ultimately the prospects for our continued existence.

Underpinning the steady stream of services nature provides to us, there is a more fundamental service these systems provide - a kind of self-regulating process by which ecosystems and the biosphere are kept relatively stable and resilient. The ability to withstand disturbances like fires, floods, diseases, and droughts, and to rebound from the shocks these events inflict, is essential to keeping the life-support system operating. As systems are simplified by monoculture or cut up by roads, and the webs that link systems become disconnected, they become more brittle and vulnerable to catastrophic, irreversible decline. We are being confronted by ample evidence, now - from the breakdown of the ozone layer to the increasingly severity of fires, floods and droughts, to the diminished productivity of fruit and seed sets in wild and agricultural plants - that the biosphere is becoming less resilient.

Unfortunately, much of the human economy is based on practices that convert natural systems into something simpler, either for ease of management (it's easier to harvest straight rows of trees that are all the same age than to harvest carefully from complex forests) or to maximize the production of a desired commodity (like corn). But simplified systems lack the resilience that allows them to survive short-term shocks such as outbreaks of diseases or pests, or forest fires, or even longer-term stresses such as that of global warming. One reason is that the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT