What’s with all those big green and brown things that sway in the wind? Are they actually worth anything?

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!


  1. flex says

    One of the core ideas in communication is that the participants have to speak the same language.

    Different professions use different languages. An engineer and a biologist may see the same primrose opening, and both get pleasure from watching it, but be unable to express their pleasure to the other because what is fascinating to one may not be what is fascinating to the other. And very possibly neither of them can easily convey the beauty of hydraulics or speciation to the artist painting it.

    One of the things I keep trying to teach the young, and often old, engineers I work with is that if you want the financial people who run to company to make changes, you have to express the problems in terms of profit and loss. E.g. if you need a new piece of equipment for the lab, just telling the finance people that you need it is not enough, you have to show them that purchasing this equipment will generate more income than it costs. Show the finance people that the equipment will pay for itself in productivity improvements in a year, and you’ll get the equipment approved. Make the business case good enough and they will start to badger you about how long it’s taking to get it.

    That’s the secret to dealing with people who are trained in finance. You have to assign value to everything, then they can understand what things are more important than other things.

    Since the financial people currently rule society, maybe the researchers are deliberately, and desperately, trying to find a way to show the rulers of society that the rest of us rather like trees.

  2. Dunc says

    There are a couple of potential downsides to the idea of trying to value things like this though… The fundamental issue is the the notional values don’t belong to anybody, so while it’s true that “the ‘hidden’ value of trees […] far exceeds their commercial value” to society as a whole, from the point of view of any given economic actor, that value is non-realisable, whereas the commercial value can be realised. As the saying goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”…

    This then leads on the obvious next question: what if that value could be realised? What if you could figure out a way of providing those ecosystem services in a way that enables you to actually pocket the cash? This analysis tells me that there’s an enourmous untapped market out there, just waiting to be caputured – if only you can get rid of those blasted hippy trees first!

  3. says

    As someone trained in conservation biology, I have read rather a lot of papers calculating the “value” of various organisms, and this one is part of the same genre. As Flex said in their comment, talking finance language is a way to build a shared discourse, open a conversation across disciplinary boundaries. So a definition of “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” is not a surprise. You can call it a necessary translation. But this is a case, i fear, where all too often the Italian proverb “Traduttore, traditore” applies: ” A translator is a betrayer.”
    The problem is that so far, once “ecology language” has been translated into “economics language,” the economic translation is the “important” one, the one that policy makers can compute with, argue about, and delude themselves with, imagining that now they really have a handle on the issue.
    These, except for carbon sequestration, are all direct services to humans, and the PLOS article does not hint at all about other “services” that are possibly just as important — such as tree’s services TO ecosystems, e.g . their role in maintaining biological diversity (not to mention aesthetic/psychological values). All these other matters are not just fuzzy, feeling-type intangibles, either. 150 years of ecological studies have accumulated rather a lot of evidence and understanding.
    But these, as they say, don’t compute in the enragingly typical, and depressingly narrow pseudoworlds that humans construct. I am reminded of a great Gary Larson Far Side cartoon from long ago:

  4. flex says

    Brian Drayton wrote,

    economic translation is the “important” one, the one that policy makers can compute with, argue about, and delude themselves with, imagining that now they really have a handle on the issue.

    Yes, that’s part of the tragedy and one of the reasons a single worldview, whether it be finance, religion, or science or philosophy, shouldn’t be the sole judge of what is valuable and should be preserved and what is worthless and can be lost.

  5. says

    I guess it would be most accurate to say that I’m not upset that this research is being done, but rather that it needs to be done.

  6. StevoR says

    Define “worth” – and right there is our problem.

    Because yeah..

    Too many think that monetary worth is all the worth there is and they are so catastrophically wrong.

    And theyare taking the rest of us with them with their appalling,basic error.

  7. StevoR says

    Tangential, but please read & signal boost this :


    Because these are the words and actions of experts who really in depth <b.know</b what theyare talking about and who have put years, decades of mental work and time and sweat and thought intothier field, the complexities, their science and understand what they are saying and are trying to help us all. But will peopel listen and will we act?

    For .. pities. sake?

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the value of these five ecosystem services generated by trees totaled $114 billion annually.

    Right behind Comcast, displacing Valero Energy for # 34 in the world corporate revenue ranking for 2021! Almost as valuable as Meta/Facebook, but only about 1/4 of WalMart!

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