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A tree is worth a trillion dollars, and a clownfish is worth a million dollars

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By Marco Vesters

· 8 min read

You may think these values are funny, ridiculous or unjustifiable, and in the context of today’s extractive linear economic system, you are right to think that way.

I learned the following by spending time in the jungle, the African savannahs, and diving with reef sharks and humpback whales. If you think about the real value of a tree, the first question you should ask yourself is: What is the value to whom and to which beneficiary? You quickly realize that it's not only the value to whoever gets to put the lumber on their balance sheet.

A tree sequesters CO2 and produces oxygen. It is also where trillions of organisms make their home. It also serves all the migratory animals that are maintaining vast interconnected ecosystems critical in maintaining biodiversity within various webs of life.

To assess the value of a tree, you will find that there are so many beneficiaries and types of value that are all non-fungible.

Try it. 

Tree + Ant + Bird + Worm + Fungi + Pond + Fish + Person = what is the value exactly and to whom?

When you realize that when trees are cut down to make way for mining, construction, agriculture, or livestock farming, you risk floods because topsoil is no longer stable and washes away. You start getting droughts and an increase in extreme weather events independent of climate change, so people in the area move away because as temperatures rise (as in this study), these places become unhealthy work environments, productivity decreases, and people get sick.

You get resource conflicts, so you get social and economic wars. To protect the economy, you have to spend more on defending it. 

Do trees prevent wars?  

Do trees prevent mass poverty and famine?

Do trees house the bats that keep the mosquito population down and prevent malaria?

Do they also stabilize the topsoil that keeps the water clean for the fish that keep the mosquito population down?

Do the trees stabilize the topsoil in a way that keeps the river healthy and protects it from pollution?

Of course, the answer is yes, so how much is a tree worth to a fish or a bat or to your security?

An unhealthy river polluted with fertilizer because the trees are gone pollutes the estuaries and the coral reefs. Add plastics, rubber tire particles, and forever chemicals to the river, and you quickly see where we are today.

If you think about it, a clownfish in your aquarium would not cost between US$20 - $80. It’s part of an entire coral reef ecosystem critical to the tuna or octopus you like to eat at a sushi restaurant. That clownfish misses its home, the anemone it depends on, which grows on a coral reef that provides services to 40% of all fish species. A clownfish is worth a million dollars. 

Humpback Whale Mother and Calf Sardine Run 2022

humpback whale

Picture credit: Marco Vesters

Oh no, don’t worry, it's fine if we cut down some trees to mine for nickel for our electric vehicle batteries because we created carbon capture technologies or sequestration solutions or planted the same amount of trees we cut down, which take decades, even centuries, to grow and mature. Fossil Fuel mining is damaging, but Nickel and Cobalt mining are equally so. If you add leaching from the chemical processes used to extract the material, it's worse if the standards are not enforced.

Seriously, people, I advise you to spend some time in a Jungle close to a Nickel mine.

The tree doesn't just sequester CO2. It does a million things, so if you asked what it would cost for you to maintain the soil microbiota, the migratory pathways, and the coral reefs with known technologies available to us, the tree would cost a trillion dollars.

You will destroy a trillion dollars of value to get a hundred dollars of lumber because a trillion dollars of value is not on your balance sheet. We do not internalize the true cost; we only internalize the labor, machines, and transport as costs to cut it down.

The only thing we internalize is the cost to humans. The default is we externalize all the costs we take and do not account for what it costs nature to make it, the waste we put back into nature or anything else, or the wars that get created over it.

You cannot measure all the things a tree does. You cannot because we don’t know all the functions it provides. We like to measure things in the cartesian frame to which we have been conditioned and build models to think we can manage what we can measure or assess.

We need a new worldview and seriously need to rethink what biospheric value means. The measurement of reality and the modeling of reality is what I’m talking about when I talk about the need for a new worldview. Our model of reality is based on how we optimize for it; rather than a world reality, which is a direct sensory connection to reality, we ignore our sensory connections and only measure what we scientifically classify as reality through our models.

Our model is that we are decreasing CO2. So we plant trees or, worse, buy forests to sell carbon credits or biodiversity credits based on a value that has no relationship with reality.

A new sacred worldview requires accepting that we have to have an immediate non-mediated relationship with reality.  Accept that we don’t know everything. The whole set of measures and laws we could ever have will be infinitely far away from the set that matters. We know what is useful to us, but we don’t accept that it's infinitely wrong, so the sacred is unknowable, and what is more concerning is that today it has no value.

As Lao Tsu wrote so many years ago

The Dao that is knowable is not the Eternal Dao.

The message is clear: we can’t know everything, even if we think we do. Assigning a value to nature needs to consider all that nature does which is impossible.

We must make sense of what matters before we try to get a sense of what is meaningful. There are no models for that or a system. We can't replace capitalism with better capitalism. You can't make an A.I. that runs it. We have to have people who have a deep SENSible worldview so we can make choices independent of the measures and models.

We must accept that nature is an evolutionary, ever-spiraling process, never quite in balance but always trying to optimize for it. How can you even put a value on evolution?

So, we still choose to monetize nature and turn it into big business within a system that destroys it. If our systems were perfect, we would not need NGOs, so what guarantees do we have that biodiversity will increase? Credits are mere Band-Aids; no amount of Band-Aids will heal a gaping wound if we don’t change our worldview.

We need to address the core issues of our crises.

  • We must transform what we eat and how much we eat. Our current food makes the population sick, and our calorie consumption is excessive.

  • We must transform our technology stack in agriculture and transform it into regenerative and ecosystem-based agriculture.

  • We need bioregional management and cross-country collaborative governance and to adopt ecosystem-based management methodologies.

  • We must rethink our mobility and seriously question the need for private automobile ownership when public transport infrastructure is sufficient. I understand you don’t like sitting next to someone who needs a shower. But what is worth more to you? A little discomfort within a healthy ecosystem or a traffic jam in a desert? 80 million cars are produced a year with a CAGR of 5%, and to maintain this growth and transition to EVs, we will need to mine the deep sea and suffer the unintended consequences. Humans are excellent at replacing energy resources: Wood to Coal to Oil to Gas to Nickel, Copper, and Cobalt… shift into 6th gear, please, until we run out of juice.

  • We need to rethink how we use energy because, on our current trajectory, we are on a path to make it as cheap as possible to create more consumption of goods and services.

  • With problem-finding, not problem-solving skills, we must detect and find the perverse incentives driving us towards global existential risks, debate those, and make changes where possible.

We can only progress and solve our metacrisis by questioning our current actions derived from all the systems we have been conditioned to. Address the system. 

A tree is worth a trillion dollars. The only growth we should pursue is biodiversity growth (study) by reducing what we currently measure as growth. We need to unlearn and rethink how we solve problems and build solutions for our home: planet Earth.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Marco Vesters is Chief Exploration & Curiosity Officer in the Age of Consequences and a deep thinking analyst on the metacrisis. Marco is on an expedition to discover and design frameworks for global protopian stewardship. He deals with topics related to the underlying dynamics of our global ecological, socio-economic, physiological, and psychological crisis.

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