A 2007 study found that for every $1 spent annually on planting and maintaining New York’s street trees, there was $5.60 return. Some of this return was in the form of environmental benefits such as summer energy savings from cooling effects, air quality improvement and reduced water run-off. But almost half of the benefits came from increased property values and the associated growth of rate and tax revenue.
In a similar study using data from the city of Brisbane, Lyndal Plant found that street trees generated property value benefits of $29 million – more than twice the cost of planting and maintaining them.
Findings like these are bound to capture the attention of planners, developers and politicians because they make a “business case” for investing in urban greenery. And in our materialistic world, having a strong business case is a powerful incentive. It is all well and good to parade the environmental, health and lifestyle benefits of green infrastructure, but in a dollar-driven society like ours, what counts more often than not are “bank-account” benefits.
Well, if this is the way of the world, why not welcome the emergence of a compelling business case for greening our streets, apartment complexes and commercial centres? Why not go further and push business arguments for creating and maintaining national parks, for expanding venues that attract nature-based recreation and for greening work places to make employees healthier, happier and, “Ta-ra”, more productive?
Why not Indeed!
Well I can think of one very good reason why we need to use business arguments with great caution especially where nature is concerned.
That doyen of finance and economic commentators, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Gittens, wrote about this risk only a day or so ago. He was commenting primarily on the way deteriorating business ethics and behaviour are eroding trust. One reason for the decline, he says, is the growth of economic fundamentalism or rationalism. At the core of economic fundamentalism is the assumption that the market finds the best resolution of the competing self-interests of sellers and buyers, producers and consumers. It also assumes that the market mechanism assures the most economically efficient use of resources.
But there is a moral problem with these assumptions. As Gittens says, by emphasising monetary value, economic fundamentalism views all things, including “labour” as resources to be exploited, as grist for the market mill. Worse than that, he reminds us, economic fundamentalism has had the effect of “sanctifying selfishness”.
When I put my interests ahead of other people’s, I’m not being greedy or self-centred or anti-social; I’m just being rational.
Economic fundamentalism, like ideological extremism of every kind tends to be blinding. It easily blinds us to values that lie beyond the economic or materialistic sphere. Not only that, economic fundamentalism is incapable of putting a value of many things including virtually all aspects of nature. The fact that a value has been put on urban tree plantings may seem to say otherwise, but any attempt to assess nature in dollar terms is doomed to be difficult, dangerous and demeaning.
- It’s difficult because it presupposes complete knowledge, when in fact our understanding of what natural products and services could be useful is very incomplete.
- It’s dangerous because economic calculations ignore social concerns about who benefits and who loses. It is dangerous also because market-determined values fluctuate as economic conditions change.
- It’s demeaning because it is an invitation to act with ignorance and arrogance. How presumptuous it is to assume that natural beauty, serenity, tranquility or wonder, for example, can be measured in monetary terms!
Unfortunately, economic terms are the ones that dominate present-day public discourse. There are conservation and other organizations in our own society striving to change that discourse – to have all things in nature, including ourselves, seen primarily as ends and much less as means. All such organisations warrant our support.
At the personal level, we can help support the change by modelling, advocating and promoting the “I-you” rather than the “I-it” relationship with nature. And we can certainly resist trivialising nature by discussing it in marketplace terms. We do well to heed what the noted environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold said:
We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.