Environmental Accounting: The Way Forward?

This piece is co-authored by Rachel Fetherston & Billy Geary

As people who are somewhat environmentally concerned, we are constantly asking ourselves one question: how do we best communicate the importance of nature to those who we have elected to make decisions for us?

Sure, we can pull out statistics like “Australia has the worst mammalian extinction rate on Earth”, or “there are only 50 to 60 orange bellied parrots left in the world.” But is this negative 'you-better-do something-or-else' mantra working? It certainly doesn’t seem so.

There aren't many mammals left in this eucalyptus forest, but is that a useful message to convey when trying to engage people in conservation? Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

There aren't many mammals left in this eucalyptus forest, but is that a useful message to convey when trying to engage people in conservation? Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

Often with nature blogs, we’re preaching to the converted. You’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “What can I do to help reverse the current situation?” On the other hand, we might get the inevitable response from Joe Bloggs in the street: “Why should we save something that does nothing for me?” It’s a fair point. Aside from its intrinsic value (i.e. taking value from the simple knowledge that things exist), what exactly does the orange-bellied parrot do for the average person?


Money Matters

The world revolves around money - this we know for sure. In the age of free markets and gross domestic products, most governments are almost solely focused on achieving a surplus. Unfortunately, the environment rarely gets considered in such conversations, aside from the occasions it becomes a resource (i.e. timber harvesting, redirecting stream flows for irrigation). One approach to resolve this is to put a price on nature, a process called environmental accounting.


Environmental accounts

The approach to environmental accounting is simple. By applying accounting principles to quantifiable aspects of nature, we can estimate how much a species, ecosystem or region is worth to the economy and therefore measure how its worth changes over time. The significance of this is substantial, potentially allowing for the importance of nature to be communicated beyond its intrinsic value.

In fact, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (including acclaimed scientist Tim Flannery) has highlighted developing a set of environmental accounts as an important step in the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity. Why? Because money is the language of human civilization. If we can quantify nature in terms of dollars and cents, we are suddenly speaking the language of those in power; those who make the big decisions and run the world. Essentially, we would be illustrating the value of nature in the most literal way that is currently possible.  

Furthermore, if we can put a dollar-value on entire ecosystems, we can then measure how their value might change over time. This allows us to monitor how our actions, good or bad, impact the environment on a large scale. This is inherently relatable to other businesses and industries that measure success or failure in terms of money.

Is this alpine woodland worth more to society for its intrinsic value or for the tourist dollars it brings in? Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

Is this alpine woodland worth more to society for its intrinsic value or for the tourist dollars it brings in? Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary


Natural Capital: How much is that wetland worth?

For years now, various groups have attempted to put a price on nature. The seminal but controversial paper by Daily et al (1997) estimated that the Earth and its ecosystems could be valued at a whopping $127.3 trillion. This process essentially asked the question: “How much money would humans have to spend to ensure ecosystem function and services are maintained in the event nature stopped doing it for us?”

One way to look at it is to think of a local wetland or creek and the complex things it does. A stream might flow through it, and the plants, algae and invertebrates all contribute to cleaning and filtering its water. This could even be a tributary that runs into the Thomson Dam, Melbourne’s largest source of drinking water. Taking away the naturally occurring water filtration system, humans would have to perform that same function to ensure we could still drink water from the dam. That, as you can imagine, would cost big bucks.

Radiolab's story on the value of nature begins at 51:50. 

This concept has actually been put into practice with another incredibly important and valuable process: pollination. A recent study put the value of crop pollination by bees, bats and birds to the American economy at $29 billion. This is an enormous figure, illustrating that if pollination stopped, so would the American economy to a major extent.

This has actually happened in China, where mass die-offs of pollinators (e.g bees) led to Chinese farmers having to pollinate each crop by hand. As reported by Radiolab, this led to an increase in profits because the minimum wage is so low in China. However, in a developed country, pollination by hand would bear an enormous cost to the economy.


Problems: The Worth of Pricelessness

There is an inherent problem with the environmental accounting approach. How does one put a price tag on that which is priceless? Inevitably, there are some things that, comparatively, aren’t worth anything to humanity in terms of dollars and cents. For example, should we place the same monetary value on species that differ in terms of their influence on ecological function?

Consider comparing the value of a rare keystone species such as a large predator to that of a small rodent which shares an ecosystem with species that are ecologically similar. The former would perhaps be considered much more ecologically ‘valuable’ than the latter whose function can be carried out by a number of other organisms.

How much are unique apex predators, such as the grey wolf (Canis lupus), worth to ecosystems? Photo: Malene Thyssen (Wikimedia Commons)

How much are unique apex predators, such as the grey wolf (Canis lupus), worth to ecosystems?

Photo: Malene Thyssen (Wikimedia Commons)

What about the agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis) which is often found where other species of antechinus and rodents occur?   Photo: Mel Williams (Wikimedia Commons)

What about the agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis) which is often found where other species of antechinus and rodents occur?  
Photo: Mel Williams (Wikimedia Commons)

This intrinsic value of nature and its relative importance in comparison to monetary value is a key tension. This must not be forgotten when considering environmental accounts as a tool, lest we risk ignoring those aspects of nature that do not provide a ‘service.’

The problem here is that ecologically non-significant species would suffer in the context of environmental accounts. For example, many of Australia’s increasingly rare species could be deemed economically irrelevant in terms of ecological function and would subsequently be last on the priority list when it comes to ‘valuing’ our natural world. There would indeed be casualties, as there are in any budget. 

Such a view of nature is therefore perhaps part of the problem. Viewing our natural world through the human eye means that we more highly value what is useful to us, but value less that which may actually be vital to the non-human.

Many environmental philosophers explore this concept, deeming such a view an ‘anthropocentric’ understanding of the world around us. Unfortunately, opposing anthropocentrism also involves opposing the primary idea at the root of environmental accounting – that is, capitalism. Should we be placing a dollar-value on nature or should we be learning to value nature more than the dollar?

In the opinion of many leading environmental philosophers and ecocritics, the capitalist model of the West is becoming more and more unsustainable in the face of climate change and environmental destruction. Amongst others, Val Plumwood is one philosopher who suggested that people still struggle to perceive the natural world without the influence of human bias.

The term ‘non-anthropocentrism’ is often used to describe a worldview that attempts to encompass a less human-centric appraisal of nature. This would involve a society that deprioritises monetary gain and instead accepts that humankind’s understanding of nature does not and often cannot involve the needs of the non-human.

That is not to say that it would be easy to implement said non-anthropocentrism. In many ways, it is currently an impossible as well as undesirable prospect. In the context of such a radically different worldview, humans may no longer enjoy many of the positive features of a society that values material goods and services; our favourite movies and TV shows, the amazing variety of products that some are lucky enough to afford, and perhaps even the ability to take a holiday and visit some of our world’s incredible natural wonders are just some of the things that may be lost if we choose to devalue financial gain.

For all of humanity's impacts on it, it is still the intrinsic value of nature that draws us in - each and every time. Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

For all of humanity's impacts on it, it is still the intrinsic value of nature that draws us in - each and every time. Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary


Can we have our cake and eat it too?

The bigger issue is, then, is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can we enjoy the perks of placing a monetary value on the environment whilst simultaneously educating the public to understand nature through a ‘more-than-human’ lens? It is a difficult thing to test, but is indeed something to keep in mind if a monetary model for nature is developed.   

So, is environmental accounting a silver bullet for speaking the language of politicians and treasurers across the world? No, not really. But, it does help us further communicate the value of nature to those that cannot or will not connect with its intrinsic value. Thus, it has the potential to be a very, very useful tool for ensuring the environment gets a seat at the budget table – something that has scarcely occurred in recent times.