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How to Get Wall Street to Hug a Tree

Environmentalists and investment bankers are working together to put a price tag on nature. The new 'greens' think that human beings are ready to start paying for Mother Nature's services--and that calculating their financial worth will save the planet. Pssssssst, It's About the Economics, Stupid

February 11, 2007|David Wolman | David Wolman is the author of "A Left-Hand Turn Around the World" and has written for Wired, Newsweek Discover and other magazines.

Gretchen Daily, an ecologist at Stanford University, wears butterfly-patterned socks. She's a careful recycler and bikes to work. She composts.

So what's she doing hanging out with guys from Goldman Sachs?

As a tried-and-true "green," she believes she doesn't have a choice.

"Time is running short," she says. "Appealing to moral sense isn't enough anymore. We have to make conservation fit mainstream business calculations."

In her fourth-floor office in the Herrin Labs just off Stanford's main quad, Daily, a professor of biological sciences and director of the tropical research program at Stanford's Center of Conservation Biology, shows me what she means. She clicks open a series of digital maps compiled for a meeting in New York with Goldman Sachs. The maps' rich purple-and-blue hues convey information about California's Central Coast eco-region, which stretches from Santa Barbara north to Napa County and includes San Francisco Bay. Daily explains how each image tells a story of the terrain's value--not property value as a real estate agent would figure it but value in terms of service to mankind. Where the terrain offers a high degree of flood protection, for example, the map is the brightest purple; where the flood-protecting function is comparatively low, the color is light blue. The ecosystems providing the most overall value to people are shaded to indicate highest priority.

If Daily and her colleagues can get Wall Street on board, the maps will also be shaded to indicate financial worth.

This is the future of the environmental movement. Increasingly, economic measures are being used to assess ecosystems by way of the universally comprehensible currency of money. The calculations can be quite explicit: A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund reckoned that the bees that pollinate a Costa Rican coffee farmer's crop, and by extension the nearby forest where the bees live, are worth as much as $60,000 annually to the farmer. Last year, two entomologists, one from Cornell University and the other from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, figured that a $60-billion-a-year chunk of the U.S. economy is supported by wild bugs such as dung beetles and bees that pollinate plants, hasten the decomposition of manure, feed on crop pests and end up as dinner for birds, small mammals and fish.

Such huge numbers can be compelling, and they get people talking. Which is the point.

"We need a new conservation," Daily says. "We don't want to let go of the past. We just want to bring revenue streams into conservation." As it is, environmentalists "aren't really relevant in policy and business decision-making. If we don't do something to become relevant, we don't have a chance."

For most of history, nature, when not playing the part of a wild force to be reckoned with, has been a remarkably consistent servant of civilization. In agriculture, for example, much of humanity's success has depended on the functions of bees, bats and other pollinators. These organisms never submitted an invoice, though, and there was never reason to imagine that their work wouldn't continue in perpetuity.

So much for that. Since the '60s, scientists have been declaring with increasing acuity that environmental degradation isn't just heartbreaking and hazardous, it's also expensive. The financial stakes really came into focus when big-name number crunchers--including Cambridge University economics professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, former World Bank economist Herman Daly and Stanford economist and Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow--began gauging the negative effect of binge consumption of natural capital on world economies.

Now, says Humboldt State economist Steven Hackett, we know that "the economy doesn't exist in a vacuum." When competitive markets don't put financial values on nature's services, "there is the potential for maladies." Deforestation is an example. A small number of people profit from the sale of timber or cattle raised on cleared forest lands, but all of us bear the costs of soil runoff, increased carbon emissions and so forth. Many scholars and activists suspect (or at least hope) that human beings have reached the point where we're willing to pay for nature's services, because we've finally come to accept that there's a relationship between caring for the environment and ensuring our well-being.

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