A Price Tag on Puget Sound

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For as long as there has been an environmental movement, there's been what amounts to a language barrier between environmental advocates and more practically minded economic and business thinkers. In much of the developed world, and in the U.S. in particular, attaching a monetary value to our environmental resources and impacts can help ensure that those factors aren't lost in translation when we plan new products, uses for our land, government policies, and nearly every other societal structure.

For this reason, I was excited to read the P-I's coverage of a new economic study that assigns monetary value to our region's environmental features:

After examining how wetlands, the Sound and other natural features benefit people living here, the economists behind the report pegged the value of those goods and services at between $7.4 billion and $61.7 billion a year. And they admit upfront that's a big underestimate -- it's just the best they could do for now.
If the ecosystems that surround the region's cities had a price tag, what would it be? At least $243 billion -- and perhaps as much as $2.1 trillion, the economic team says. Again, that's a "rough cut, first step" at putting a value on the nature that surrounds us.

According to the 18-month study, residents of the Puget Sound region enjoy significant benefit from the surrounding environment, in the form of better health, reliable clean drinking water, a variety of food resources and more (the article discusses these points in more detail). The authors didn't settle on a method for putting a price on benefits like local farms and drinking water from the mountains, so they conclude that there is much more value to our region than they were able to report.

The article says that the report will be useful to local institutions like the state agency Puget Sound Partnership, which is currently working on a multi-year agenda for restoring the Sound.

While appealing to our most basic, natural connection with the planet we live on is to some an obviously legitimate argument for conservation (see, for example, Dr. Tom Crompton of the WWF-UK), there are others who would see things more clearly if they could understand the bottom line. So tools like this study, which quantify the ultimately un-quantifiable resources that give us our quality of life in this region are, I think, very valuable contributions to the larger conversation about why we must love, trust and protect this planet. Carbon pricing is one well-known strategy that we have great hope for, because of (among other benefits) its ability to force businesses and others to practically weigh the costs of access to the atmosphere as a dumping ground. Environmental impact assessments and newer health impact assessments are other tools for making previously invisible impacts visible.

In the words of the study's lead author David Batker:

"Even though this is a gross underestimate of the true value of ecosystem services, it's far better than counting them as zero, which is what we've done in many policies."

Read more about natural capital in the Worldchanging archives.

Photo credit: Joshua Trujillo of the P-I