Some may argue nature should be viewed as priceless, but this argument is not always sufficient when it comes to social and economic welfare. Putting a dollar value on nature is a common way environmentalists get people to support and take action in ecosystem preservation. The process of putting a value on nature and acknowledging the positive benefit that ecosystems provide to humans is known as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services save us trillions of dollars each year that would otherwise be spent on developing these services artificially. This allows us to think about nature in a whole new way, as natural capital fundamentally contributes to human welfare.
To put this concept in action, let’s say a community is considering cutting down a mangrove forest in order to make room for shrimp aquaculture. The area in which the mangroves grow is not only the perfect environment for shrimp to live, but there is a lot of area for economic growth within the aquaculture business. At first glance, these reasons may result in local governments supporting the destruction of the mangrove forest to make room for a shrimp farm. However, in reality, the services the mangroves provide are 4 times more valuable than anything a successful shrimp aquaculture project could produce. Mangroves act as both natural barriers that prevent soil erosion and storms from harming inhabitants, and as biofilters that reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into the ocean. Without this ecosystem, the community would spend billions of dollars on artificial services to mimic what mangroves do naturally.

This is only a small example of the benefit of ecosystem services, yet many people are still unaware of the incredible economic value provided by nature. While we are destroying our natural ecosystems, we are suffering the consequences right along with the organisms that call that ecosystem home. As stated by science writer Carl Zimmer,  “Tropical forests, rivers and lakes, coral reefs, coastal wetlands, inland wetlands, the ocean, woodlands, temperate forests… [provide], in today’s dollars,142.7 trillion dollars per year of services. And that’s more than all of the gross national products of the world.” We need to protect natural ecosystems not only for the sake of their intrinsic and environmental value, but for economic and social benefits as well.

In Simon Adler’s podcast on ecosystem services, he also mentions the risk that involves putting a price tag on nature. While environmentalists often use the concept of ecosystem services to provide support for nature preservation, it also begs the question of “devalu[ing] something that should be seen as priceless”. Check out Radiolab’s take on the subject to learn more, and decide for yourself if you can put a price tag on nature.

Listen to the Radiolab podcast on ecosystem services.