Jadav Molai Payeng, Forest man of India.
Recently, a colleague here at IIASA and I have been doing some thinking about the concept of natural capital, those elements of the natural world that are (have been/will be) exploited as resources, or otherwise contribute economically. Trees are a classic example. What is the value of a tree? You’ll get different answers from economists, ecologists, lumberjacks, and squirrels. What is the utility of a tree? The meaning is more abstract, but the differences between the answers given by the agents above start to converge. Now, what is the value of a forest?
Ask a nobleman from early modern Europe, and his answer would likely be that it’s the sum of money that can be raised by selling its trees for lumber. Now ask that nobleman’s grandson: he’ll say it’s a fraction of whatever his grandfather was able to raise. This is because, as James Scott (1998) pointed out, logging was inherently destructive to the forest-system that produced them and, worse, the process of capitalizing on forest products — systematising, ordering, and making them “legible” — denuded the quality of the lumber itself.
Ask a similar question about the ecosystem today, even of a serious person; then imagine asking it again in two more generations. Because we cannot predict the future, we have no way of accurately evaluating the utility (writ large) of a tree, or any other element of our earth-system, because we will not be able to assess it for decades. However, we do know that whatever utility it has now, that utility will almost certainly increase. So there is a bias on the evaluation of its future utility that we would predict. This should be a part of how we assess its value now. But how to do that?
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-30007016-3.