Does money grow on trees? The debate continues

‘Natural Capital’ is populating the news, sparking moral debates, bringing conservationists to the edge of their seats: the choice to commodify something we have evolved with for centuries?

By Killerlimpet (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Killerlimpet (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back in March I wrote this little article introducing the ‘Natural Capital’ agenda: allowing humanity to, in effect, cost and value pieces of nature and thus make them worth keeping. Both sides put up a strong argument.


Here lies the first real opportunity for conservation of the environment. Slight inputs from money markets might have a huge impact on our underfunded conservation projects: but they must be carefully placed, and strategically regulated. Natural capital is a source of intergenerational equity: may our children expect to enjoy beautiful landscapes and wildlife spectacles, whilst bees pollinate their food crops without costly manual methods, and the mountains filter their water without chemical input.

The Carbon Tax has exemplified how, in some countries, pricing something deleterious to the environment may have positive effects. We might look to Australia, where a price of 34 $AUS was allocated to every ton of C02 emitted by major industries. Revenue from this tax was geared toward pensions and social welfare, with some even used to compensate those industries negatively affected by the carbon tax implementation. It was reported in July this year that Australia had reduced emissions by 17 million tonnes (before Abbott, unashamedly, abolished the tax in the same month). Journalist and environmental campaigner Tony Juniper recently argued that taxing emissions would work just as well as conserving bogs, dunes, and forests that absorb carbon, which would in turn benefit the biodiversity that associates with those ecosystems. 

Ecotourism suggests how a piece of land thought to be of some worth might encourage revenues from tourists, which can be recycled into encouraging the land to flourish with biological vigour and thus attract more revenue. If this method isn’t exploited (many popular and badly managed parks and reserves are run-down and suffering) then sustainable practice could be successful.

A mohosi tőzegláp – photo taken by uploader User:Csanády in 2006

A mohosi tőzegláp – photo taken by uploader User:Csanády in 2006


The environment should not always have to justify its own existence, as if it were a permanently expendable resource. In economic terms, there is a great deal of uncertainty on the valuation of a natural attribute. Therein lies the problem that if something is undervalued, it might be undersold, whilst the highly valued might be exploited. Commodifying must be done with a precautionary approach, if at all.

Fisheries have revealed how in the long term, it is in our economic interest to fish sustainably. If we over-fish, the population cannot sustain itself and we witness crashes, like the peruvian anchovy fisheries. But we cannot trust individuals to fish sustainably, because humans are naturally selfish beings, and it is not in the short-term interest of the industry. We can make it in their interests by altering quotas and imposing fines for by-catch (similar to a carbon tax) as was discussed and locally celebrated earlier last year.

Illegal wildlife trade can (arguably) demonstrate what happens when a high price on nature leads to overexploitation. The demise of large horn-bearing vertebrates such as elephants and rhinos has had catastrophic effects on populations and caused international outrage. How long does it take before all our pricing systems backfire?


The decision making processes that lead to the pricing would presumably emerge from a trade-off analysis. We might be using a cost-benefit framework, used to make any major policy decision, to assess how much we can get out of protecting a natural resource. But the value of biodiversity is so infinite and complex that we may never appreciate all the factors involved.

The commodification of nature, even with the best intentions, will have unintended and potentially deleterious outcomes for conservation.

– Georgina Mace (2014)

It seems as if we are beginning to arrive at a compromise to allow nature to be ‘priced’ in a strategic manner. Whilst some argue of the dangers of our instinctive capitalist captivation with economics and monetary strategies, others simply contend that if we don’t make nature sound like it’s worth anything, then we can’t see a future for conservation. But what kind of world do we want to live in? One with morals, to say the least? Do we need to put a price on pollinators for the goods they provide, or should we respect them for the beauty they harbour? Do we need to find ways to justify the economic importance of a blue whale? How do you price the existence of a polar bear population that is declining as a result of melting sea ice? Are you supposed to price a mosquito that causes human disease? Surely we wouldn’t be pricing all these things, but then where do we draw the line, and how thick is that pen?