All human things of dearest value hang on slender strings.
Like pricing the Earth, getting the right price for your mother might be harder than you think
So you want to sell your mother. It’s a free market; most other things are bought and sold these days and all sorts of exotic items are priced and traded every second.
You reckon she must be worth a decent amount. I mean, she is your mum after all!
How to figure out the asking price though? That’s where it starts to get tricky.
Assuming you like her, you may feel that she is worth more than a simple calculation of what you might fetch with the sale of her possessions, the change and notes in her purse and the sum of selling off any decent stuff she owns.
Similarly, selling her house, car and savings or investments (if she has them) may well not come close to telling you how much she ought to fetch. It is possible that you may be able to calculate what her actions are worth. For example, start with your existence value (you’re obviously worth a lot and she brought you into the world after all) then tot up all the services she provided you over the years (physical, emotional financial support, etc.) and then add all the stuff she’s bought you, such as food and clothes. She’s probably done a whole load of stuff for other people too, so add something in to cover that as well.
The trouble is that if you take this approach you may be left with a nagging feeling that you have sold yourself (and perhaps your dear old mum) rather short.
The Earth presents a pretty similar challenge for pricing. You can price its results and its productivity, but that price comes nowhere near a true reflection of the value of its capacity to continue to sustain us and everything else in (pretty much) perpetuity.
This is why the seductive notion of pricing ecosystems as a route to sustainability must be seen clearly for what it is – and what it is not.
Using a comparable metric like money as a way to put things on a level playing field makes sense, but only up to a point. Such an approach would be fine if the things we were comparing were truly comparable. However, the environment is something you can’t do without.
There is a dependency relationship. Put simply, there is no money without human beings capable of inventing and using it. There are no human beings without food, air and water.
If you can’t measure, you can’t be bothered
The logic of ecosystem valuation is motivated by the idea that we need to value and price the contribution our economy gets from the natural world; once that value is identified, it can be considered and balanced alongside other priorities.
Value implies price, price implies sales, and sales imply markets. If we are not careful we will reduce everything to money and lose sight of the real value we started with.
The idea that: if we can’t measure it we can’t manage it pervades much of our current way of prioritising activity. However, there are many cases when it simply does not either apply or help. For instance, how do you quantify the love you feel for your children, your parents or partner? You don’t. You know the value without needing to know the quantity. Finding an exact figure is irrelevant, pointless and borderline offensive.
In essence the trouble with pricing the priceless is that it implies fungibility (economic ‘swapability’). By putting a price on your mother, you are essentially saying that you’d be equally happy with a different one that cost the same.
Valuing the invaluable
Breaking down the value of your mother into monetary amounts based on the individual benefits she brings to your life will ultimately sorely undervalue her; such is the dilemma presented by the move towards valuing ecosystem services.
Factoring the Earth’s ability to sustain us into economic value is a little more complex than just finding a price that we would be prepared to pay or forgo to preserve or develop parts of the environment.
Ecosystem prices tell us what it would be worth if we sold all of our mum’s stuff – but it wouldn’t buy us a new Mother (Earth).
In September 2013 we produced a short animated video to illustrate this idea, and also provided further thoughts on the issue in November through a remixed post, find this here.
This article was also mildly updated in March 2017.