Does nature really have to be exploited to be valued?

Rosalie for AUClimate

I hear the wind whistling in my ears while the first rays of the morning sun fall upon my skin. The tiny water droplets left by the night slowly fading away. While the sun rises over the mountains I feel my senses come alive. 

We are giving it all up. 

Ever since the first human being walked this earth, humans have used non-human nature as a resource. At first, our behaviour was much like that of other animals. Eating and using whatever materials the environment provided with an eye on survival. Now that our species have existed for around 200.000 years, most have started treating non-human nature as if it were our property. Human property to use, to exploit, and to mistreat. In David Attenborough’s documentary, a life on our planet, he explains that humans have changed our ecosystems to such an extent that we currently make up one third of the total weight of mammals on earth. Among the other mammals, around 60% are raised to feed humans and “the rest – from mice to whales – make up just 4%”. We have truly conquered the world. Yet, an important thing to note is that we are not all equally responsible for this domination of nature. Research by Oxfam (figure 1) has shown that when analysing carbon emissions from 1990 to 2015, the world’s richest 10% are responsible for 52% of the total carbon emissions. This is in stark contrast with the poorest 50% that are responsible for just 7% of the emitted carbon. Rather than saying that all humans are the cause of environmental destruction, we can safely say that – as a result of their consumption pattern – the rich are to blame. An important issue in this consumption pattern is the misvaluation of nature. 

A tree has no value until it is cut, a chicken has no value until it is doomed, a shell has no value until it is decomposed. Nature has no value. In our society, nature is considered valuable only once it has been transformed into a resource for human use. Global wealth is calculated on the basis of our gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced within a country. This value does not reflect the impact of production on the environment. As a result, a country’s wealth will only grow by increasingly damaging the web of life of which humans are part. Last month, António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, urged that “we need to transform how we view and value nature. We must reflect nature’s true value in all our policies, plans and economic systems.”. He stated this while presenting a newly approved approach to calculate the wealth of a country. This new method, the System of Environment Economic Accounting (SEEA), will help include the value of ecosystems when they are thriving rather than when they are exploited. The ecosystem services, the human benefits of keeping the ecosystem intact, will thus be included when using the SEEA to measure a country’s wealth. 

The misty morning rain tapping on the window. Now that the lightning and thunder of the night moved away. The animals that attempted to stay warm, huddled together in their shelters, are emerging into the light. As I see a squirrel leave the hollow tree behind the house, I feel my senses come alive. 

We are giving it all up. 

Moving from the use of GDP to the use of the SEEA is a step in the right direction. Yet, nature has even more to offer than ecosystem services. In light of this I would like you to ask yourself whether you have ever experienced the joy of being in pristine nature? Not a city park, not a protected nature reserve, but actual pristine nature. Unfortunately, I can answer that question for you. No. That is, as Rachel Nuwer writes, if you were to define pristine nature as truly untouched by any human influence. Our human species has truly conquered the planet. When considering the value of nature for humans, the lack of pristine nature is not such a big problem. As Richard Hobbs points out, non-pristine places are often more accessible, giving them a higher value. Yet, this is if you were to value of nature only in light of human benefit. Most other organisms (i.e. non-human organisms) would much prefer to live in pristine nature than to live in an ever shrinking forest or a fenced park. Apart from that, we should realise that the earth will exist long after our species has gone extinct. Valuing the environment is not just in the interest of non-human nature. It is key if we would like to preserve our place on this planet. Our mistreatment of nature is posing a threat to the enjoyment of our self-created human rights. The human rights to life and health are at risk as toxic waste pollution makes for a lack of potable water, as people are being killed by landslides resulting from soil degradation, and as harvests fail as a result of the desertification. Apart from the direct effects environmental problems have on our human existence, they will also affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Being in nature nourishes our bodies by reducing stress. The feeling nature is able to give is of much higher value than just the instrumental, resource value. Nature has an intrinsic value, independent of human needs, which cannot be monetised.

Waves crashing on the shore, washing over the sand and rocks. Seabirds squeal, making the sounds of the ocean feel like a whisper from afar. Sand brushes against my cheek and I feel my senses come alive. 

We are giving it all up. 

Nature has the ability to make your senses come alive. It will never be possible to put a price on this sensation. Neither will it be possible to put a price on nature, including the human species, in its own right. In a wealthy country, nature would thrive. Thus, a wealthy country would have ecosystems that provide services not just to humans, but to all that is part of the earth system. For a country to become wealthy, they would put a stop to environmentally degrading consumption. I call for wealth to be measured by the health of a country’s web of life, as nature really does not have to be exploited to be valued. 

Beaches looking like landfill sites. Children growing up in smog filled cities without ever having seen a bright, blue sky. Oceans and lakes turning into dead zones. A disbalanced food chain in the Amazon Rainforest as jaguars lose their life or their home. 

Every fibre in me wants to put a stop to this. 

We should be giving it all up.

11 thoughts on “Does nature really have to be exploited to be valued?

  1. I’m really glad to see the introduction of the System of Environment Economic Accounting (SEEA). As you mentioned, it is the first step to quantify the value of nature in a more holistic way. While reading your blogpost I immediately thought of the anthropocentric myth and thought it would be a nice concept to include in your analysis. At its essence, anthropocentrism refers to “the belief that value is focused on human beings and that all other beings are means to human ends” (Kopina). That is all the flora and fauna are means to human ends. Anthropocentrism is of human origin and early tribes already showed anthropocentric traits i.e. prehistoric communities considering themselves the center of the world. The interesting thing is that, from an evolutionary point of view, anthropocentrism makes sense because it promotes the preservation of the species. Despite the fact that science has repeatedly refuted this claim, the idea that nature was created to serve human beings has remained a popular belief throughout Western history. As early as the 19th century, Darwin explained that natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in a species exclusively for the good of another species. Nevertheless, the anthropocentric myth is still very much alive in the 21st century. An excellent example of this is the notion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is often used to assess the performance and growth of a country based on anthropocentric activities alone.

    Kopnina, Helen. “Anthropocentrism and Post‐Humanism.” The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 2019, pp. 1-8.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YES, thank you for looking at nature from a more holistic and spiritual perspective. Nature has so much intrinsical value just by being the way it is. Humans can greatly benefit from nature without exploiting it, especially considering how our way of life is affecting mental health. It’s great that there is more literature being published on the value of nature for our well-being – I can recommend “Blue Mind” by Wallace J. Nichols. I also think that we can learn a lot from many indigenous people on how to value and respect land and nature.

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  3. “An important issue in this consumption pattern is the misvaluation of nature.” I think this is such a relevant point. I strongly believe that the misevaluation of nature coming from the detachment and misunderstanding we have is part of the reason why we find it somewhat ‘easy’ to exploit it ruthlessly I think there is something pretty intentional about this detachment. I don’t mean this to sound like a conspiracy, but more like a regime we have gradually locked ourselves into. The millennia-old feeling of being disconnected and above nature (goes back to Judeo-Christian values) got taken advantage of by companies to search outside for something more and purchase products for healing that discontent.

    I really liked this analysis on consumerism and nature vs humans


  4. I also think that the detachment is (at least unconsciously) changing our consumption patterns. This made me think about an article Mischa recommended in class a couple of weeks ago. It addressed the life of Peter, who decided to let his life be fully influenced by his impact on the environment. At some point the article shows how lonely this felt:

    “For years, in articles in Yes! magazine, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, in his book “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution,” on social media, Peter had been pleading, begging for people to pay attention to the global emergency. “Is this my personal hell?” he tweeted this past fall. “That I have to spend my entire life desperately trying to convince everyone NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?””

    You can read the full article here:

    I’ll definitely check out the video! 🙂


  5. Your blog post was so nice to read, Rosalie! Were the parts you added in between quotes from a book or of your own writing? Either way, it worked really well to reinforce your message.
    “In our society, nature is considered valuable only once it has been transformed into a resource for human use.” I think you make a very interesting point here. I don’t feel as though this is completely true for each individual; I think there is a kind of inherent connection to nature that all humans feel, regardless of where they live or grow up, although it may be buried deep. Perhaps controversial, but I would argue that even a Shell employee or a shitty politician can feel this. Nevertheless, that’s not what our society is built on or what we value most (that’s profit), and as Ines pointed out I think it is a very Western value that has now been exported globally – capitalism perhaps being the ultimate manifestation of these values.
    I agree with Gigi that there is so much we can learn from Indigenous peoples and their way of living with and valuing nature. I think this would not only help save our planet, but also humanity, as nature can be almost a healing force to us. An example of a value we could learn from Indigenous peoples would be the creation of nature’s rights similarly to human rights, as was done in Ecuador. I’m sure you’ve already heard of the ‘Rights of Nature’, but I was wondering how you feel about this? Do you think this is an important step to take in order to recognize nature’s values beyond its materialist values? And do you think it’s possible to have such legal constructions globally?


  6. Hi Nicky!

    Thank you! Those parts were my own writing :).

    I find the questions you ask super interesting, especially as I have focussed parts of my capstone on this issue. My thesis is about the global diffusion of human rights norms though climate change governance/the climate change regime. Your questions fit quite well with the interface between human rights and the environment especially in light of the “human right to a healthy environment” that has been introduced in many national constitutions. Such a right has the ability to promote environmental protection by focussing on the implications of environmental destruction on human life. Still, a human rights to a healthy environment is a human right rather than a right of nature.

    Where I do think rights of nature would be an important step forward in attributing the value that nature deserves. I do also see that it is very difficult to shape rights of nature as nature itself cannot act as a legal person. When you have rights, you would want to be able to act upon them in the legal context. Yet, nature would need legal representatives to be able to do this. When appointing a group of people to represent nature, different approaches to nature conservation could clash. Where some would consider a historical natural ecosystem equilibrium to be the best aim when restoring nature, others would want nature to find a new equilibrium without human intervention. For these reasons I definitely think it would be beneficial, but I am not completely sure it is feasible to set up an effective global legal framework. What are your thoughts on this?


  7. Thank you for your very interesting and well-written blog post! I really agree with your message that nature has important intrinsic value and should not have to be exploited in order to be deemed valuable. You talk about how the use of GDP is problematic, stating that “Nevertheless, the anthropocentric myth is still very much alive in the 21st century. An excellent example of this is the notion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is often used to assess the performance and growth of a country based on anthropocentric activities alone.” and state moving to the use of the SEEA is a step in the right direction. I was wondering what your opinion is on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness measurement in this context? As the name indicates, the country does not use GDP to measure wealth, but a measurement of happiness that is based on nine domains (see for more information). Do you think the use of such a tool is also already a step in the right direction, and could this also be a (partial) solution to the problem you talk about? Or do you think a framework like the SEEA really is crucial?

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  8. Hi Vivian! The GNH is definitely a nice tool to use when assessing wealth. As I am confident that being in nature has a positive impact on people’s mental and physical wellbeing, the GNH measure would probably reflect this. Therefore it would definitely be a partial solution. I do still think that the SEEA is more suitable when it comes to incorporating the non-material value of nature in international wealth measures. This is largely a result of the fact that happiness is quite difficult to quantify. The meaning of happiness differs per culture and per context. This lets me to believe that using the SEEA as a global measure is more feasible than using the GNH. Would you agree or do you think that implementing GNH isn’t much harder than implementing SEEA?


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