True Value

Jon Foley

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

I need to come clean. While I’m directing an institute on the environment, I have never thought of myself as an environmentalist.

I have a deep appreciation of the environment and natural systems. But I have always considered myself a scientist first and a humanitarian second. To me, the critical issues of our time are about improving human welfare and security—making sure everyone has enough to eat, enough to drink and enough for our children to have a better future.

Coming from this perspective, I gradually realized the extent to which human well-being depends on the environment. It turns out that nearly everything we really need, and much of what is worth leaving behind for future generations, comes from the natural world. Healthy food. Fresh water. Clean air. Sustained sources of energy and raw materials. A good, safe and beautiful place to live. These are the things society cherishes most, because these are things of true and enduring value.

To me, the environment is the bedrock upon which we build our civilization and our economy. Without it, we cannot survive and prosper. As Gaylord Nelson, the late Wis­consin senator and genius behind Earth Day, liked to say, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

So it’s curious—and deeply disturbing— that we don’t value the environment in our current economic and financial systems.

Maybe it’s because we think environmen­tal systems are essentially priceless, and impos­sible to bring under the umbrella of formal economics? Some environmentalists, for example, are concerned that framing environ­mental systems in economic terms ultimately undermines their real value. “How can we put a price tag on nature?” they ask. “This ignores the intrinsic—and infinite—value of the natural world.”

They are right, of course, in a philosophical sense. But I think the disconnect between economics and the environment is largely because we focus on immediate returns and ourselves rather than on building a prosperity that is widely shared and can be passed down for generations. We have an economy that is amazingly shortsighted and mostly interested in speculation, consumer spending and sales forecasts for the latest disposable doodad. This is not only frivolous, but an amazing waste of intellectual and financial resources. Wouldn’t a true capitalist be more interested in investing in things of enduring value—clean water, a stable climate, healthy soils to grow our crops, sustainable sources of energy and materials? As physician and philanthropist Larry Brilliant says: Imagine what we could accomplish if the brainpower and funding that brought us the latest video game or gadget were harnessed to address the world’s biggest challenges.

Fortunately, some revolutionary ideas are emerging in our approach to economics and the environment. A few years ago, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment convened thousands of scientists, economists and development experts to assess ecosystem goods and services on an international scale. Pioneering thinkers such as Gretchen Daily at Stanford University and Steve Polasky at the University of Minnesota are showing us how the things we derive from nature can be folded into our formal economic systems. And the Natural Capital Project, an innovative partnership among Stanford, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota, has begun building and field-testing new tools for incorporating ecosystems into economic programs around the world. These are exciting days for linking economics and ecology.

Society, not the invisible hand of the market, ultimately decides what the economy includes or ignores. We determine what we should value, and then our financial and market instruments execute the day-to-day activities that follow. If fashion, entertainment trends and mortgage-backed derivatives can have huge economic value, so can the environment. We just haven’t decided yet to make it so.

At the end of the day, the fate of any civilization is largely determined by its values and the extent to which its citizens live in concert with them. By truly valuing the environment and the generations that come after us, and rethinking our economic systems so that they reflect this, we can build an enduring, and ultimately more meaningful, prosperity.

Let’s get it right. We can’t afford not to.

Jonathan Foley
Director, Institute on the Environment