Monday, January 07, 2008

What's the Value of a Tree?

On the first episode of the short-lived television series, Joan of Arcadia, Joan has an encounter with a young man whom she comes to realize is God in the flesh. She tries putting him on the spot by asking, “So how about a miracle?” In response, the young man points to a tree and simply says, “There.” “But that is just a tree,” says the unimpressed Joan. She is silenced by the reply, “You try making one.”

The simple truth sounds cliché, only God can make a tree. Don't mistake this for an argument for Intelligent Design; regardless of the origin of species, mere mortals remain incapable of creating from nothing. This helps to frame one of the glaring problems in environmental protection, the fact that a tree has no economic value left on its own. The only time a dollar amount is attached is when calculating its value once cut an processed as lumber. The value of a stand of trees, or a wetland, or a barrier island does not lie just in their potential for development, or even for recreational use. The only cost effective machines for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen are green plants. If we were to develop every square inch of land, we would also have to develop technology to produce oxygen. What would that technology cost? Calculate that and you begin to have a figure to use when considering the value of untouched natural resources. And that's just part of the value. Vegetation provides natural erosion control, wetlands purify water, and barrier islands protect the mainland from coastal storms. When gone, human efforts to provide the same services always prove to be exorbitantly expensive. This is why the time has come to stop thinking of nature as resource and start considering it as capital.

In an April 2007 report, “Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital: An Assessment of the Economic Value of the State’s Natural Resources,” the value of the goods and services provided by the state's natural capital is estimated at a minimum of $20 billion annually. That places the value of the state's total natural capital at $681 billion (the amount needed to be invested at 3% to produce the annual yield). The authors are confident that the estimates are conservative. These are numbers that don't normally enter into economic discussions. But there is an ethical imperative to consider the value of creation as is. As the saying goes, good planets are hard to find. We are seeing the limits of limiting our understanding of creation solely in terms of the teaching of the book of Genesis that humans are to subdue it. We need to balance that with the equally biblical teaching that all the earth belongs to God. Life is a loan, not a grant. Whether your faith is in the God of creation or the wisdom of science (or both), we all need to begin to find our place in the web of life and live accordingly.


CresceNet said...
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the reverend mommy said...

I think of Dr. Seuss and the Lorax.