This post was written by Bluestem Communications summer intern Hannah Lacava.
Listening as waves crash on rocks that have stood for centuries. Watching colorful fish swim hurriedly through clear waters. Feeling wind on your face and soft grasses beneath your feet.
If these two concepts seem to you to have nothing to do with each other, think again. Coastal regions—many of which consist of crashing waves, clear waters, and swaying grasses—are much more than beautiful oases. They are ecosystems, providing vital services to nearby landsand communities.
Coastal ecosystems absorb excess waters, preventing floods. Their plants take in harmful carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gases. Their greenery also absorbs wind and waves, shielding those further inland from dangerous storms.
All of these services have monetary value. After all, scientists and inventors are constantly clamoring to come up with technology that will do all of these things for us; floodwalls and levees are always being built, and they’re still working on a high-tech solution to store greenhouse gases. But doesn’t it seem a bit silly to invest millions of dollars into putting up a floodwall that provides the same services the Earth was providing for free?
As highlighted in a recent New York Times article, in 1997, a group of scientists quantified just how much coastal ecosystems’ services are worth. Worldwide, they found that coastal ecosystems are worth $48.7 trillion. In 2011, a new study found that this was an underestimate. In fact, in 1997, coastal ecosystems were actually worth about $165.8 trillion (more than three times the original estimate). Unfortunately, though, coastal ecosystems today are not worth what they were then. Due to environmental degradation, we’ve lost about $23 trillion worth of coastal ecosystem services. The Gross Domestic Product of the United States alone is lower than that number at only $16.2 trillion. So you could say it’s a big loss.
Studies quantifying the monetary value of these ecosystems have actually succeeded in pushing for their protection. Governments around the world have started to incorporate these findings into their environmental policies. As recently as last week, President Obama announced the creation of the world’s largest marine protected area. His designation of 11 new national monuments will ensure protection of a large portion of the south-central Pacific Ocean.
The studies, however, have garnered some controversy from the environmental community; many are questioning the ethics of putting a dollar sign on nature. And it’s true—by doing this, we’re attaching modern constructs of value to something timeless and unquantifiable.
Ultimately, however, it seems that studies like these have had mostly positive effects. People—and, perhaps more importantly, national governments—are starting to understand the value of these ecosystems and, consequently, act on their protection. At the end of the day, does it really matter why they’ve taken action? Let’s face it: political powerhouses are never going to prioritize swaying grasses and crashing waves. However, there is one thing they will always prioritize: money.
Displaying the monetary value of ecosystems is a way of finally telling the world what environmentalists already know: nature is worth protecting. Putting a price on ecosystem services like flood protection and greenhouse gas reduction may not be ideal, but it might be what allows us to keep our swaying grasses and crashing waves—something that is and will forever remain priceless.
Photo by Billy York, submitted to the 2010 Great Lakes Forever Photo contest.