Pavan Sukhdev’s fantastic TED Talk cleverly addresses the ‘economic invisibility’ of nature. How do we put a value on what nature gives us? If we valued it in economic terms, how much would this ‘natural capital’ be worth? What will happen to us if we don’t start assigning a value to nature in a world where ‘economics has become the currency of policy’?

These are critical questions that need to be addressed as we move into a century that is already experiencing global warming, climate change and widespread ecosystem collapse. Sukhdev and other scientists set up TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), a global initiative to determine the value of our ‘ecosystem services’ to the economies they serve. He gives, as an example, one of the functions of the Amazon rainforest. A rain production system for the major agricultural region in South America, the La Plata Basin. The north eastern trade winds come in from the Atlantic, and suck up the moisture generated by the Amazon, then move on to dump it over the Basin. The economic value of this in terms of the crops sales generated by adequate rainfall can be assessed and this is what Sukhdev and his team have done. It’s worth $240 billion dollars a year. The figure also reflects what will be lost if the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon is destroyed and its service as a watering system for the food production of South America is lost. Considered in those terms, it makes clear what’s at stake if we don’t take care of the resources that nature gives us.

TEEB is a pioneering initiative of ‘true cost accounting,’ an idea spreading through our discussions on environmental and food production issues. We are squandering our natural capital at a phenomenal rate, without thinking what will happen when we run out of it. With a global, capitalist economy dominating our monetary systems, we have to start putting hard numbers onto the resources that nature gives us. Sukhdev argues for a need to value public benefit over private profit, and putting allocating a tangible cost value might just help us see what we stand to lose if we don’t manage to protect and conserve our natural resources.

‘True cost accounting’ hopes to create a shift in policy that will begin to make explicit the expense of environmental damage and resource depletion, and encourage governments and the public more broadly, to see that we literally, cannot afford to go on like this.

If you want to know more, join the Sustainable Food Trust at our upcoming conference, ‘True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming’, where we will be talking about the absence of pricing that reflects the true cost of production.

Photograph by CIFOR

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