The turning point in the United States was the rise of the conservation movement. John Muir and Gifford Pinchot led the way by increasing public awareness to the fact that, if left unchecked, the mining and logging industries were on the verge of forever destroying pristine areas of incredible natural beauty. Consequently, the value of nature began to take on a broader dimension than just numbers on a spreadsheet.
What nature has to offer began to expand from traditional measures of wealth to natural beauty to spiritual value to, most recently,complex concepts such as ecosystem services.But how do you put a price tag on the bark of a Yew tree that may yield the next cancer drug?
Today, regulatory and voluntary economic instruments are very much in vogue as ways to value what previously has been overlooked. Be it incorporating externalities such as pollution into the price of goods and services or imposing a value on the indirect services or potential long-term benefits of a natural resource such as a rainforest, a new set of economic indicators is emerging. But as governments reach further into the areas of regulation, taxation, and sales of ecosystem services, the decisions become more complex, more sweeping in their financial and long-term implications, more prone to manipulation by special interests, and more subject to the law of unintended consequences.
Clearly, the wealth generated from mineral resources has been abused for centuries in some regions when controlled by dictatorships. Are we to assume that the wealth from ecosystem services will be immune from a similar fate just because of its stated green objective? Could the taxes derived from the sale of this new generation of natural resources be put to uses that are completely contrary to any conceivable positive environmental benefit? We have a vital responsibility to look beyond the sound bites and offer our management a balanced, thoughtful analysis of any new program, product, law, or regulation sold as something good for the environment.