Putting a Price on the Environment


On Public Lands Day last year, my friend and I spent some time in a state park. As we walked through the woods, a few female Mallard ducks flew over the creek. We found a few large spiders in vernal ponds and a grasshopper jumping around through the weeds. We could not, however, identify a certain type of frog that was present on the trail we were hiking. The frogs were scattered throughout the trail; we could hear them. My friend and I would identify where we thought the sound was coming from in the wet grass and then run our hands over the area, pull back the plants; we even stepped carefully around the area to try to scare the frog into our sight. The elusive amphibians were too sneaky for us. I became frustrated and said, “Whatever. It’s not like it’s that important anyway.” My friend, being a bit more patient than I am, responded, “I’d still like to know what it is though. I still want to know what’s around us.”

He was right. We should still know what is around us. We should connect with our living, active surroundings.

In one of my college classes, we discussed value using the differences between wealth and income. In an international human rights course I had taken, we reviewed ways that humans have assigned monetary value to other humans and likened them to property. How should we assign value to the environment to promote conservation, if at all? Is it moral to do so? Cost and benefit analysis of certain practices, like clear cutting, sometimes encouraging conservation, but oftentimes do not. The benefits of short-term profits gain seem to take precedent over long-term, ecologically-conscious choices that foster stable economic growth.

So, how do we best protect the frog in the park that could not be seen?

Robert Costanza, of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, has stated that, “A resource can be driven to extinction before the market even realizes it was there” (Wennersten 195). Perhaps a large number of our unidentified amphibians have lost their habitats to commercial development and suburban sprawl. The thought of losing a species without even knowing it existed in the first place is startling.

The environment should be given some sort of value, but it is risky since, defining the environment in solely economic terms can lead to more of the same destructive, profit-motivated behaviors. This is because ecosystems services are often grossly undervalued, if a price for the service is reached at all. How can one put a dollar amount on the value of shade from a tree, carbon dioxide sequestration of forests, storm-water mitigation from wetlands and marshes? Who are the players and stakeholders deciding these figures? Are the figures standardized with the measures of other agencies? There are so many questions for this challenging and controversial method. Oftentimes, if values are assigned to certain practices at all, developers and corporations will chose to clear cut a forest instead of completing sustainable harvesting practices because clear cutting will yield short term profits, instead of long term stable economic growth.

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