Can you put a price tag on a mountain? What about a forest, or a river, or a lake? And if you can do that – what does it actually mean?
A recent NOAA commissioned study places the value of Hawaii’s coral reefs at at $33.57 billion – a number based on what the American people ascribe to it. The peer-reviewed study was a survey of over 3,000 American households, located all over the country to prevent any biases expressed by people who actually get to experience those coral reefs on a daily basis.
It based the ultimate economic value of the reef on passive use values and direct use values. A passive use value could be willingness to support coral reef ecosystems; a direct use value could be eating fish raised in coral reef ecosystems.
The study provides some interesting (and ultimately balanced) information, but it raises some questions, too. What does it ultimately mean for part of nature to be worth a definitive amount of money – particularly when that amount of money is so outrageous? Forbes puts the amount of billionaires in the world at 1,210; most people cannot even imagine billions of dollars. Numbers that high become meaningless in most quotidian, real-world applications.
Granted, there is no real-world application – the coral reef certainly isn’t up for auction. Using the study to show how much the reef is worth in a tangible, monetary form might make people take notice when the reefs are being destroyed. At the same time, it is an alarming trait in humanity that they must put a monetary value on something, rather than appreciating that the reefs are a necessary part of the ocean ecosystem and probably shouldn’t be haphazardly obliterated.
The overall benefits of the reefs are incredibly varied – humans rely on them for food and recreation, and they help protect coastlines from storms. Looking at these benefits for what they actually are, instead of ascribing a monetary value to them, reminds people that the reefs are irreplaceable.
While there are currently $33.57 billion dollars in the world, a number which is only going to keep growing, the coral reefs are a limited resource.
The NOAA study is certainly an interesting thing to think about in its own right, but the most important thing it highlights is the human knack for reducing everything to a definitive number which doesn’t capture the beauty or importance of reefs themselves. Saying that a garage door is worth $400 is fair – garage doors are built in factories and if something goes wrong, they can be replaced.
They serve a purpose, but it’s not a life altering one and without them, people would find some other way to keep their cars out of the elements. Coral reefs, on the other hand, are one of a kind – and they should be viewed as such, not reduced to dollar signs.
image credit: PMC 1stPix on Flickr