Equating Ecology: The Human Island (Chapter 11)

The first half of The Human Island tried to illustrate what should be easily recognisable facts about life. We are not free from nature and to aspire to as much is simply to willingly turn off one’s own life support system; it’s blatant suicide. To achieve greater production, to mitigate and adapt to the worst of a changing climate, to create jobs, to improve mental as well as physical health, to secure energy, fresh water and food is entirely to protect, rehabilitate and to advance the many wonderful ecological services available (albeit slowly disappearing from the biosphere).

The hope and result of the industrial era has been quite the opposite of this. We now have too much available information to plead continual ignorance and I feel confident in concluding that the resistance typically observed to these issues (such as climate change denial and the condoning of species extinction) is the result of misinformation and personal delusion which is the result of very little if not completely devoid of real and relevant data.

Another way to look at it is to compare human and ecological relationships to the workings of a company. At first, most of the work is manual; high employment and moderately expensive, high quality goods. To be competitive, the profits are kept in check. The result is a good cycling of money among the community. It’s a system that inherently demands a strong gravitation towards equality and modest competition.

However, as new technology becomes available, people are replaced with machinery. Overheads, such as wages, are lowered, yet the produce remains at the same price or only has a minor price reduction. Profits are thus increased. The cash flow cycle is altered and disparity is increased. With the newly unemployed unable to afford quality goods; inferior goods (especially poorer quality food) is the only option.

Even newer technology means that transport costs are relatively cheap, so the whole local production centre is closed and operations are moved offshore to where the required labour can be achieved by those willing to work at much lower rates. Again, produce remains the same price, or is only slightly reduced. Profits are increased again. Now the local cash flow is so greatly changed that only those who have shares in the company obtain income and via offshore wages, wealth is trickled out slowly from the local market all of which exacerbates disparity even further.

I could go on to discuss why I believe labour-saving devices are in many ways, inhumane, but that is a subject for another project.

In short, the idea is that by removing services provided by species, you may be able to make a quick dollar, but eventually, by removing the contributors to the larger cycle you fundamentally reduce local productivity which will eventually impact all members of the community – even those who originally profit from the quick dollar.

As previously discusses; removing the tropical rainforest removes the nutrient supply; removing vegetation around agricultural land removes many pollinators, soil regenerators, storm surge protection and pest controllers. By removing services, you will lead to lowered productivity. It’s a simply enough concept and one we had previously applied from much of our agricultural past, until the modern industrial era (not that this is a call for deindustrialisation, obviously, but I’ll get to that later).

I mentioned in chapter 7 a quote from The TEEB foundation that Priess et al. (2007) found that pollinators in Sulawesi provided 46 Euros per hectare worth of ecological services to agriculture [12]. These pollinators of course rely on the neighbouring forest, which are slowly being cleared. Ultimately the loss of forest area is expected to reduce revenues from local agriculture (coffee) over the next 20 years by as much as 14%, solely from the reducing the pollination service [12]. In the same report, insect pollination alone is estimated to provide €153 billion of global economic value or nearly 10% of the agricultural output in 2005 [12].

Some other points from the same report [12] that are worth mention are:
• Current fishery practices are estimated to underperform by as much as US$50 billion per year, when compared to more sustainable fishing scenarios.
• As much as 30 million people are entirely reliant on coral reef ecosystems for primary food production (think about this and do some research on coral bleaching over 2010).
• Looking at climate change prevention alone, it is estimated that halving deforestation by 2030 could save US$3.7 trillion in net present value terms (if we include the previously discussed living space for pollinators, soil regenerators, pest controllers, as well as storm surge protection, water capture and purification and sustainable harvest, the number would be much higher).

This is not, as is often demonised, the talk of some radical “Green” liberal movement, but as much a discussion about the economy and wealth as you would hear from any iconic conservative group or individual with one important difference; being totally aware of all the employees of the system. In chapter 8, I quoted an Australian journalist, Andrew Bolt, referring to species protection as a “racket”.

However, when you look at much that is discussed in The Human Island and the underlying referenced work, you find that the real threat to industry, to job, food, fresh water security and the whole host of important services previously discussed is the racket of endless growth; this neoliberal development over the past few decades that requires not only growth of production, but acceleration [15] – two principles that just don’t work with finite resources and services that have an inbuilt speed limit (and are often slowed down as we change the functions of landscapes).

When you equate a financial value to ecological services, the picture is suddenly translated into something more intelligible to a wider audience and the threats to prosperity should be exposed. By reducing ecology, there may be some sort term gains, but just like farming on tropical lands, this too will eventually come up short and will require greater effort to maintain.

Over the coming chapters, I had originally planned to focus on simply trying to live as an island species. However I now think that it would be more useful to breakdown each chapter, first to explore this idea and then to provide examples of the opposite; re-promoting an ecologically enriched prosperity.

[12] TEEB Foundation 2010. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Edited by Pushpam Kumar. Earthscan, London.
[15] Gleeson, B. 2010. Lifeboat Cities. UNSW Press.

This is chapter eleven of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.


3 thoughts on “Equating Ecology: The Human Island (Chapter 11)

  1. a friend told me once: “economy is like a war they do not care at what cost they make their profit they do not care how many life’s they took away to win a market”.

    I am not so sure about putting monetary value on certain aspects that nature provides us. If you would have said to people a 1000 years ago that you pay for your water or that water has a £ value they would have said don’t be daft it comes freely from the sky. I know in Australia in some parts you still can have your own water with a rainwater tank but most places it is not possible anymore. Now we see the bottle water being 10 times the price of tap water why do people pay that????
    So will we see bottled bees for farmers and gardeners to buy so they can pollenate their crops while we have destroyed all of them in the wild just as we have polluted our water we drink. When my father was a child he drank water out of the “sloot” canal now it would be very dangerous to do so thanks to farmland polluting the canals. This is in The Netherlands were the draining of the land is done by canals as the land is below sealevel.
    So i do not think it is a good idea to put a price on the services that nature gives us as the free market economy does not give a donkey how they make their profit.
    However we are in this system and we have to deal with it. We all need to think where our money goes to how do we spend it which company gets it.
    It is already known for a long time that this planet has only so much resources that unlimited growth is just an illusion the Club of Rome mention this already in 1972 yet we still go on as if we live on a bottomless pit. So we do need to think does them 20 pair of shoes really makes us happy or is 4 pair more than enough. We live in a system where what you own gives you a status a ranking but does it make us feel better???????
    So do i become good better best if i drink my water out of a blue glass bottle which costs £1.75 for 750 ml. instead of drinking from a jug filled from the tap will cost me £0.25 for 1000 ml.
    oeps sorry for raving on a bit


    1. I tend to agree putting a price on nature to save it might seem like a way of subverting the capitalist system to a better end , but what of the thing that dont get a price on them they will just die out ? . Like Tolkiens One ring your intenions at heart might be good but capitalism will subvert them yo its own ends .
      Our lessons will be learned to late to stop alot of people suffering but we(humans) will survive and science will help us learn how to live in a world of finite resousces .
      clegyrboia We have 8000 litres of watertanks dont use it for drinking but its good for growing the vegies , I think you could drink it you can get filters .
      Yes why do people pay for bottled water ? I remember when you could get a glass of water at the corner shop for free !!


      1. It is a little of a double edged sword, I totally agree, but I believe TEEB provide yet another valuable tool to assist with wider audience awareness. For instance, a dropkick like Andrew Bolt might happily send a species to extinction in favour of a new shopping complex and suburb but he might think choice (if he even thinks at all) if he realised that species was important for another species survival which provided ecological services that equate to a certain monetary value.
        There’s plenty within nature and even within anyone’s personal life that cannot be given a value in money, but from planning point of view – especially in such a commercial structured society, an approximation might be the needed nudge for some.


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