The way our society determines value is deeply flawed. It’s not that there’s no relationship between what things cost, and the resources expended to produce them, but a great many things are vastly over-valued, and many other things – including most life forms on the planet – are vastly under-valued. Those flaws are compounded by the fact that we seem to be increasingly encouraged to view every aspect of our lives through the lens of capitalism, in which things are generally deemed to have no value unless it’s proven someone will pay money for them. Unfortunately, that’s the world we’re still stuck in, so there’s probably some merit to calculating the economic value of life. When it comes to wildlife, the ways in which it benefits humanity are called “ecosystem services“, as part of what I view as a failed attempt to get capitalism to assign any value to a habitable environment. Quantifying their value to us may not do much to change policy or stop environmental destruction, but it does put things in terms to which we’re accustomed:
Trees sequester and store greenhouse gasses, filter air pollutants, provide wood, food, and other products, among other benefits. However, the service value of 400 individual tree species and tree lineages growing in forests and plantations in the contiguous U.S. was not previously known. To determine the ecosystem services value of U.S. trees, researchers mapped the value of trees and calculated the economic contributions to these services of every US tree species and lineage. They measured the net value of five tree-related ecosystem services by calculating the value of benefits provided, minus the direct costs incurred to produce these services. The five key ecosystem services included climate regulating services from carbon storage, filtration of particulate matter from the air that harms human health, and provisioning services from production of wood products, food crops, and Christmas trees.
The researchers found that the value of these five ecosystem services generated by trees totaled $114 billion annually. Carbon storage in tree biomass comprised 51% of the net annual value, while preventing human health damages via air quality regulation, contributed to 37% of the annual value. The remaining 12% of the net annual value came from provisioning services. Trees in the pine and oak families were the most valuable, generating $25.4 billion and $22.3 billion in annual net benefits, respectively. The study had several limitations that likely contributed to an undervaluing of ecosystem services since the researchers did not have access to data for many ecosystem services such as erosion control, flood regulation, and shade-related energy savings. They also did not evaluate disservices of trees. Future studies may provide more accurate estimates of the monetary value of these benefits.
According to the authors, “This study shows that the ‘hidden’ value of trees — the nonmarket value from carbon storage and air pollution filtration — far exceeds their commercial value. Sustaining the value of trees requires intentional management of forests and trees in the face of myriad and simultaneous global change threats. Our study provides information and an approach that can contribute to precision forestry practices and ecosystem management.”
Cavender-Bares adds, “The fact that tree lineages have evolved to inhabit different ecological niches across the continent is important for sustaining the ecosystem services that we depend on for our life support systems. These benefits from trees, however, are increasingly at risk. Our research team found that climate change threatens nearly 90 percent of tree species, while pests and pathogens put 40 percent of the combined weight of all U.S. trees at risk. We also found that the species and lineages of greatest ecosystem service value are the most at risk from pests and pathogens, climate change, and increasing fire exposure.”
One of the most irksome parts of this environmental collapse is that we know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to stop it. That’s not even a general “we know what’s happening”. We have thousands of scientists all over the world studying everything. That’s why we’re able to do things like putting a dollar value to trees, or wetlands. Day after day, week after week we hear the relentless accounting of everything that’s going on around us, and yet we still have to try to dress up reality with dollar signs and big numbers in a hopeless effort to get the tiny-minded ghouls who run the world to pay attention to what’s being lost.
It’s draining. But hey – at least we know roughly what trees are worth!