In one of Cereflections’ earliest entries (Tilting at Windmills, February 25, 2014) I ruminated about the values – economic, aesthetic, spiritual etc. – of “nature”. And again in the December 16, 2014 post, Growth!, a similar theme arose. Now, just the other day, one of Cereflections’ loyal followers has called my attention to an NPR Radiolab program of December 23, 2014 which explores similar ideas in wonderful depth.
The show is divided into three sections. The first two, rather grimly, discuss efforts to place a dollar value on human life. One details machinations by our government as it tries to figure out how much to compensate the Afghan families of innocent civilians killed by our drones. The second asks patients, doctors and average citizens what price is reasonable for a course of drugs that may extend the life of disease victims by a matter of days weeks or years. Both segments conclude that it is very difficult to make these determinations. The third segment is rather more satisfying.
How does one figure, the Radiolab guys ask, the value of services provided by nature. They speak briefly about mangroves and watersheds and then tell an amazing tale of an apple-growing community in China that lost all its bees to pesticides and, as a matter of economic survival, replaced them with……human labor. Imagine! An orchard with apple trees festooned with workers transferring pollen by feather and paintbrush among millions of blossoms. Sounds insane. But guess what? Apple production increased thirty percent above that provided by bees! Orchard owners’ incomes rose. At least for a while. Then labor costs rose. Orchardists’ incomes plummeted. So the easy conclusion to draw from all this is that bees have a previously uncalculated value but, like the stockmarket, that value floats depending on market forces. And shifting from bee labor to human labor may expose orchardists to increased cost volatility.
But this economic approach, point out the likes of George Lakoff and George Monbiot, is a trap. The conversation’s frame, they say, steers you right into the hands of environmentalism’s worst enemies because it makes the unspoken assumption that the important value of the bees is an economic one. Once you start talking like this, you are stuck with having to justify any environmental program by its economic value. No more national parks, no more dark starry nights, no more spotted owls for their own sake. In fact maybe those woodchucks that keep raiding my garden ought to be exterminated once and for all.
In many ways, I think Lakoff and Monbiot are on the right track, Certainly for me, and I think for many others as well, the value of the natural world simply can’t be measured in dollar terms, and if one comes to depend entirely on money as a metric of its value one is unnecessarily and severely handicapping one’s self.
But let’s face it. There are some poor souls who, for whatever reason, would rather be in their Barcalounger watching football than out snowshoeing. For those folks maybe the only effective argument against a specific development project is an economic one. But that should only be as a last resort, when all else fails, and after every effort has been made to help readjust those Barcaloungers’ value systems.
The Radiolab ends with some interesting comments by JB MacKinnon , author of the recent book The Once and Future World. Mackinnon says that he prefers to think of nature as an extension of our own brains and imaginations. And when a species becomes extinct or a piece of wild land is developed the pool of reality available to our minds and imaginations is diminished forever. It was bees and trees, after all, that developed the system of apple production which those Chinese workers copied. And once you start thinking that way you come to realize how much the natural world does enrich our mental life. Would the Wright brothers and those who preceded them have worked so hard to get us up in the air had they not spent a long time studying the wings of the birds they watched effortlessly soaring over Kitty Hawk? Would de Mastro have come up with the idea for Velcro had he not spent a fair amount of time picking burdock burrs out of his hunting pants ? Would we be ooing over elegant ultrasound images of our unborn children had Lazaro Spallanzani not studied how bats navigated and conceived the idea of echolocation?
And it doesn’t stop with some clever inventions. There’s vocabulary and metaphor. Think monkeyshines, horsing around, being buffaloed, clawing one’s way to the top, clamming up, eight hundred pound gorilla, lone wolf, red herring. I’m sure you can come up with many more.
It’s fitting, I think, to end with the evocative imagery of William Butler Yeats magnificent poem, The Lake at Innisfree. Without bees, we wouldn’t have this either.
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”