Ecological collapse is a crisis of values, not value
Mind the gap
With an annual financing gap of more than $700bn it is tempting to perceive the current ecological crisis as a financial problem, but fundamentally it is not - it is one of values.
Consider this simple truth: the world spends more on fizzy drinks than it does on nature. Or this tragic paradox: we choose to pay more to directly harm our own lungs each year (purchasing cigarettes) than we do to maintain the earth’s – its forests, oceans and grasslands.
The nature rounding error
The nature financing deficit is a mere rounding error in comparison to global public budgets and consumer purchases, but these multi-trillion expenditures do include critical needs such as healthcare, education and basic nutrition. It is more revealing, then, to examine the cost of “convenience culture”: the billions of dollars spent each year on producing and purchasing gadgets, gizmos, apps and accessories that deliver negligible – or, worse, negative - societal value.
Consider the communication platforms such as TikTok and Instagram that have pumped millions into making digital ‘filters’ that make you look like a talking tiger or a pouting puppy. These expensive augmented reality tricks keep users addicted to virtual worlds – worlds that have been linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and bullying. Plastic coffee pods save an individual half a minute in the morning but produce hundreds of tonnes of waste that will end up in landfill and oceans.
You are what you pay for
Examples like these demonstrate both what we do value (such as likes and views) and what we don’t (such as the impact of avoidable plastic pollution).
Acknowledging that our values are reflected in our financial decisions (and that, conversely, our financial decisions can reflect our values) should be embraced rather than feared. The inspiring implication is this: we each have the chance to be proactive, values-based investors – through our purchases, pensions and, importantly, what we choose not to pay for.
Do we place value on the very existence of dazzling, intact coral reefs? That deep, dark pockets of jungle remain the homes of uncontacted tribes, oblivious to the cacophony of our modern world? And what about option value – the option to show our children the animals of their storybooks in unfiltered, jaw-dropping reality?
If we do, and we set the compass of our values to account for nature, we have the financing tools already at hand. The $700bn (more than $1m a minute) we spend each year on (often deeply damaging) global agricultural subsidies is an urgent place to start. Redirecting the $400bn a year spent on fossil fuel subsidies is equally so. Ensuring the growing power of carbon offset finance is directed towards nature is another.
An unparalleled return on investment
Even if we choose to put values aside, the financial case for investment in nature hardly needs stating. Nature, after all, enables our very existence – by providing breathable air, potable water, stable climatic conditions, food production and waste transformation. Similarly, our economy cannot function without it: $44 trillion, more than half global GDP, is exposed to the risks presented by nature loss.
As we continue to rebuild from the devastation of COVID-19 - itself a direct result of our neglect of the natural world - let us not rebuild a system where we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
Instead let us make choices that make clear economic sense, empower us with purpose and meaning and allow us to pass on the wealth and wonder of the natural world to our descendants.
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.