On the Value of Nature

The Merits and Perils of a New Economy of Nature

Green economy is the new hope, putatively offering a response to the major ecological crises. As a concomitant, a new economic school of thought concerning nature and nature’s “services” is gaining ground. The economic utilization of nature and natural resources is part and parcel of the relationship between humankind and nature and nothing new as such, although this relationship is in constant flux and plays out in quite disparate types of markets and social systems.

What is new about the new economy of nature is that we are not just harvesting from nature and converting the harvested resources into a product or good. Instead, the services provided by nature – for instance, water filtration through peatland or the CO2 storage capacities of a forest – are now expected to become a source of profit. Along with water, air, food and the natural raw materials that humankind needs, the focus is thus turning to other, indirect ecosystem services.1 The proponents of such a view argue that, with this economic motive, nature will be protected more effectively than by conventional nature conservation policy. The working hypothesis of the advocates of the new economic perspective on nature is, in brief: all that nature provides for humans goes unnoticed, and the public and private values of its services have not so far been captured. That is then the reason for the destructive overuse of nature.

The value of nature and its “services” should not only be cherished and given greater visibility as elements of the economy, but should be assigned a monetary value in order to protect them. That is the new mantra. Key concepts in the new paradigm of green economy are natural capital and payments for ecosystem services (PES). These are finding their way into climate and nature conservation policy and into international development cooperation. Although the idea is becoming more popular – the World Bank counts as one of the major protagonists of the new paradigm, for instance, and the private sector also seems to be warming to PES – it is also highly contentious.

Is it a matter of cherishing nature, just calculating the value of nature, making “natural capital” visible as a means of encouraging political action? Or is it merely an attempt to incorporate nature and its monetarizable services into our capitalist market logic? Are we already on the way to monetarizing nature and its services in the form of tradable certificates and derivatives, to such an extent that even nature conservation and environmental protection become commodified for financial markets, as many critics fear?2 Where does valuing nature or, one step further, PES make sense? Where do the new approaches lead in the wrong direction? What is the political background to this new wave of valorization of nature?



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Date of Publication
February 2014
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