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There’s more to it than this.

Cents and sensibility: why it’s unwise to put dollar figures on nature

More and more studies are attempting to “value” nature by attributing (sometimes huge) dollar figures to things like threatened species. Apparently, this makes it possible to compare their value – for the record, a sea otter is worth twice as much as a sea turtle, according to one estimate.

This fits within a wider approach that attempts to view and manage nature as an “asset”. Advocates argue that valuing the “ecosystem services” provided by “natural capital” and specific “natural assets” will ensure the environment is given due consideration in decision-making.

Indeed, this week a diverse group of people from government, business and environmental organisations assembled at the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh to explore how and why this must be done.

However, I think it makes more sense to question what economic terminology achieves and where it leads. Instead of asking “what’s the value of nature?”, I would rather ask “why is nature important?” and “how can we live with, and within, it?”

How we think (and write and talk) about nature has important implications for how it is appreciated and governed. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson made this clear in their seminal 1980 book Metaphors We Live By. Put simply, when we signify things through one metaphor rather than another, different realities are created.

Reframing nature

Embracing different metaphors works by reframing situations and enabling different questions to be asked. For example, while not without their own problems, metaphors such as “green infrastructure” and “ecological foundations” reframe the importance of nature in significant ways: anyone familiar with the classic children’s tale of The Three Little Pigs will attest to the importance of good infrastructure.

In a similar way, “building” metaphors are already used to understand waterways and beach nourishment. There is potential to explore further opportunities in this area, including through metaphors such as ecological “renovation” and “restoration”.

The importance of embracing new metaphors for nature is highlighted in an essay by US environmental scientist Thomas Princen, who wrote that “change occurs not when people argue well, but when they speak differently”. Using “building” or other metaphors can therefore help to understand nature in ways that do not commodify and financialise it.

In contrast, the idea of “living with nature” re-imagines the relationship between humans and the world we live in. It does not view human-nature relationships through a narrow, commodified lens using concepts like “ecosystem services”. It avoids creating singular measures (such as dollars) to represent all the diverse ways we interact with and benefit from nature.

Such a perspective aligns with an emerging body of literature that focuses on the ways in which we encounter nature in everyday situations, and the implications that arise from this. This highlights the fact that human understandings of nature are closely connected with our experiences of it.

This forces us to consider the intimate and pervasive ways we encounter nature in our daily lives: nature is not just “out there” in national parks and wilderness areas. If we learn also to understand “everyday” nature, we will realise the coarseness of using economic metaphors to understand it. As others have argued, embracing economic metaphors serves to “work inside and perpetuate the very logics that have produced biodiversity loss in the first place”.

Clearly, the use of economic metaphors is politically significant. For me, economic metaphors represent a continuing neoliberalisation of environmental policy: nature is only important to the extent that “natural capital” provides “good and services” that are viewed as having a financial value to humans. The reality, of course, is that our dependence on nature goes far deeper than money.

New metaphors for nature and why it matters are needed so that new questions, new understandings and new answers can be explored. Perhaps it’s time for our political leaders, policy and business elites, and environmental researchers and practitioners to cast their minds a bit wider.

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