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June 25th, 2012

The Problem With Putting a Price on Nature

Nature? Priceless.

By Mitch Jones

With the failure of governments to provide a vision for sustainability at Rio+20, some environmental leaders are looking to other stakeholders—mainly the private sector—to develop a green economy. But we know that corporations are, by nature, profit-seeking entities, and when you bring them to the table at a multilateral forum, they will come representing their shareholders—to whom they have a fiduciary responsibility. But with government leaders like Barack Obama and David Cameron AWOL at Rio, who was representing the rest of us and the planet?

Hopefully not guys like Robert Johnson, executive director of the Institute on New Economic Thinking. Here’s what he said at a recent event at Bard College, which was also posted on Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog:

Water and air are priced at zero…. On the other hand, if you cut off my air and water I would be willing to pay to get it turned back on. So there’s something amiss in a theory of value that doesn’t value these common resources, the common pool on which we all base our lives.

I have no doubt that Mr. Johnson does not truly believe that only people who can pay for air should have the luxury of breathing it. But arguing to put a price on an environmental service like water is a slippery slope to a human rights nightmare. Just imagine if the atmosphere or our freshwater were privately owned and priced at market value. With a growing population and increasing environmental degradation, the haves—like Mr. Johnson and others living here in America—will flourish while the have-nots—the almost 900 million around the globe that lack access to safe water, or the 2.6 billion who lack access to sanitation—will be priced out of our essential, life-giving resources.

You can’t put a price on nature. But if you did, only a handful of people on the planet would be able to afford it.

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