Nature as a “free gift”

Nature as a free gift

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 7th January 2012

Last time I discussed, in the spirit of Christmas, the tremendous and little-acknowledged extent to which our monetary economy depends for its continued successful functioning on countless daily acts of generosity, especially by carers and parents.

It also depends on the seemingly endless generosity of nature, which is almost always taken for granted. The idea of treating nature as a ‘free gift’ to humanity – our tendency to ‘treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves’, as the famous German economist and author of Small is Beautiful, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, put it – has its immediate roots in the thought of the founding fathers of our modern market economy: Adam Smith, David  Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Malthus. 

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Arguably it goes back much further than that, to the very founding stories of our Judeo-Christian culture: to a certain interpretation of the Book of Genesis, according to which God created the world, then created and placed humans in it, and gave them dominion over all living and non-living things. This is of course not the only interpretation of the creation story – another is that the role of humans vis-à-vis nature is not as ‘masters’, but as stewards – but it is the conventional and predominant one.

Treating nature as a ‘free gift’ has certain consequences. Most obviously, as Schumacher noted, it means that we ascribe no value (in monetary terms) to resources such as clean air and healthy soils. That’s dangerous, in a culture in which most of us understand something as ‘valuable’ only when there’s a price tag attached to it. It sets up an unhealthy dynamic between private riches, in various forms of property, and public wealth, in the form of resources that everyone, of necessity, shares.

According to the theory which underpins our market economy,  a monetary value can only be affixed to goods and services which are exchanged, because they are said to exist in a condition (either actual or constructed) of ‘scarcity’. Public wealth, on the other hand, is said to exist in abundance, and as such is not susceptible to monetary exchange.

The difficulty is that as private riches increase, public wealth diminishes. This dynamic is endemic to much of modern production, in agriculture as elsewhere. Coal-seam gas mining is a prime example: extraction of the resource brings profits to mining companies, but at the cost of depleting and polluting underground water tables.  

More than two hundred years ago the eighth Earl of Lauderdale, James Maitland, foresaw this destructive tension between an expanding sphere of private riches and a diminishing realm of public wealth. We live daily with manifestations of the ‘Lauderdale paradox’, perhaps the most severe of which is climate change. As the private wealth generated by our market economy has expanded exponentially in the past two centuries, the ‘liveable space’ provided by a stable climate appears to be rapidly diminishing for future generations.

You might think that the obvious answer to this paradox would be to put a price on the most essential aspects of ‘public wealth’; to treat them as ‘scarce’, and subject them to the laws of supply and demand. We pay for waste water to be treated; and from the middle of this year, we will be paying for the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, as the first step towards a full-fledged ‘emissions trading scheme’. But markets always produce winners and losers; and there are real questions as to whether an ETS will be an effective way to tackle climate change, much less a fair one. 

A lot depends on what we understand by ‘scarcity’; and, fundamentally, what our relationship to nature is, or should be. Many farmers, here and round the world, already see themselves as ‘stewards’, not ‘masters’, of the land they inhabit. There is a great deal of wisdom in such a perspective, and it points the way to a truly ‘sustainable’ future.