Realizing nature’s value

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Until very recently, if they thought about it at all, most people likely would have assigned a short-term, exploitative value on nature — considering the value of trees to be wrapped up in their lumber or paper mill uses, for instance, instead of placing value on the shade they provide, the oxygen they emit or the harmful greenhouse gasses they absorb. 

Now, we are starting to see a shift change in this way of thinking. 

As the chief advisor of economics and development for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), one of the longest running and most widely known conservation organizations, recently said: “If we start to understand the value of nature to our society and economy, we will recognize the importance of living in harmony with nature, rather than destroying it for short term gain.  So many governments and businesses around the world are now realizing this, and starting to act – it gives me real hope for the future.”

As we detailed in this issue of The Post-Record (“A Wealth of Natural Resources, page A1), the city of Camas is joining this worldwide movement to rethink how we view nature. 

“Your natural land is doing work for you, and it’s worth money,” a city consultant told Camas officials earlier this month.  

How much money? In the city of Camas alone, consultants estimate the city’s nearly 3,400 acres of trees are doing about $35 million worth of work every year — pulling 83 tons of pollution from the air each year; intercepting 136 million gallons of stormwater runoff; sequestering 11,000 tons of carbon; saving homeowners and businesses an estimated 50% savings on energy costs during hot days; and providing invaluable wildlife habitat for birds and other critters that contribute to Camas’ ecosystem. 

Nature also helps improve people’s mental and physical well-being. According to information that came out of recent Camas Parks and Recreation Commission meetings, studies have shown that “people without views of nature from their desks claimed 23% more sick days than workers with views of nature.” 

Considering the damage caused by humans and our never-ending thirst for gasoline-powered vehicles, next-day delivery, meat-heavy diets, air travel and new technology on our planet’s climate, it is more important than ever before that we begin to shift our perspectives on the true “value” of nature. 

According to Defenders of Wildlife, thanks to climate change, “habitats around the world are beginning to shift, shrink, melt and even disappear entirely from climate change. Intense storms can destroy nesting trees, drown animals, spread invasive species and damage aquatic ecosystems. Unusual heat and droughts stress plants and animals alike. And increasingly, animals’ life cycles are out of sync with plant growth and seasonal changes.”

Even our magnificent oceans are in peril. 

“Oceans are also changing rapidly,” Defenders of Wildlife notes. “High temperatures lead to the bleaching of coral reefs, which countless marine species depend on for food and shelter. Warmer waters also cause changes in ocean currents, altering migration patterns and shifting feeding areas away from traditional breeding areas. In addition, increased ocean acidification is expected to interfere with marine organisms’ ability to generate calcium shells, which threatens marine life from the tiniest plankton to sea otters and whales.”

The reality of climate change has been staring us in the face for decades, so why did our locally elected officials wait so long to take any significant action? A big part of the decades-long stall — and outright denial by many right-wing politicians — had to do with mindsets that placed far more value on the economy and jobs and convenience and not wanting to rock the boat or anger voters than on nature and its myriad benefits. 

Now, as we see the true economic devastation caused by climate change and a warming planet — with recent figures placing the cost of worldwide climate change at $16 million an hour — everyone but the most stubborn among us can surely see that we need a new way of looking at our natural world. 

Even economists are starting to publish research showing the financial benefits of protecting and maintaining nature. In his 2021 review of the economics of biodiversity, University of Cambridge professor Sir Partha Dasgupta argued that we can no longer use outdated tools like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure a nation’s wealth without also considering the value of nature and the cost of degrading our natural environments. 

“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognizing that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of Nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them,” Dasgupta told The Cambridge Review. “It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with Nature across all levels of society. COVID-19 has shown us what can happen when we don’t do this.”

The professor argued in his 610-page review that not only do we need to change our thinking when it comes to the value of nature, but we also need to be educating children “from the earliest stages of our lives” on the high cost of destroying our natural world. 

“It would seem then that, ultimately, we each have to serve as judge and jury for our own actions. And that cannot happen unless we develop an affection for Nature and its processes,” Dasgupta stated in his review. “The conclusion we should draw from this is unmistakable: if we care about our common future and the common future of our descendants, we should all in part be naturalists.”

We urge Camas officials to truly absorb the information coming out of the parks department’s work on the draft Parks and Open Space Management Plan and then, during the City’s upcoming budget cycle, put this new way of thinking about the true value of nature to use by adequately funding the types of projects that will help the City respond to climate change impacts by protecting, maintaining and enhancing Camas’ abundant natural resources.