April 27, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Putting a Price Tag on Arts Quad Trees: Friend or Foe?

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The northern red oak that I walk past on my walk to Goldwin Smith every morning is worth 803 dollars across a 25 year period. Or, so Cornell has told me.

Last week, the multitude of trees that decorate the Arts Quad were clothed with blue ribbons and paper signs that read their economic worth in dollars across 25 years. The values, calculated using i-Tree, an online program developed by the U.S. Forest Service, are based primarily on measures of climate change mitigation: pounds of atmospheric carbon dioxide the trees sequester, gallons of storm water runoff the trees intercept and air quality improvements the trees provide. The initiative, organized by a College of Agricultural and Life Sciences course associated with the Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute, appears as a celebration of trees and surely aims to inspire environmental consciousness among passersby.

When I first saw the arbor-accolading tags and shiny blue ribbons, I was excited and impressed at the environmental enthusiasm gracing the Arts Quad. But, after my grin straightened, I began to wonder: are these celebratory price tags implicitly telling us to think of the environment as a commodity?

The tree tagging project falls under the domain of a controversial conservation phenomenon known as Ecosystem Services Valuation, which aims to estimate the monetary benefits human populations derive from ecosystem functions. The assessment of “natural capital” integrates environmental value into the economic.

Lending economic metrics to ecological entities may help to instigate conservation strides, by informing policy decisions and pricing goods according to the environmental exploitation involved in production. Further, green accounting initiatives that estimate corporate environmental externalities can be beneficial in educating consumer and market-affiliate decisions.

Economists that prize ecosystem valuation as a conservation tool argue that it is a necessary response to the inherent environmental evaluations ingrained in society’s exploitative consumer, industrial, infrastructural, and agricultural practices. While the commodification of the ecological may be a virus of our cultural mainstream, in pursuing change, must we work within the capitalistic system that led to our environmental downfall? Should we engage our captor in fighting for freedom?

While the project on the Arts Quad only evaluates about 80 sidewalk trees, it works to promote a dangerous enviro-economic lens. Ecosystem services valuations insinuate a notion of an economic balancing scale. In policy, natural capital assessments of ecosystems may be measured against market revenue profit. The direct economic outputs of a fracking program may be greater than the capital valuations assigned to the ecosystems it threatens. Ecosystem services valuations plot ecology onto a time-limited graph that disregards the environment’s intrinsic value and pan-generational indispensability.

How can the worth of natural resources be estimated when their perpetual presence drives the propagation of our futurity? The values of our ecosystems are infinite across time because they are necessary for the propulsion of humanity. In the same way that a human’s existence, that encompasses the possibility for reproduction, cannot be economically quantified, the ecological entities that support life cannot be reduced to dollar signs.

As humans continue to push the biophysical boundaries of energy and material consumption, the “stock” of natural resources rapidly dwindles. Economic valuations of environmental entities, like trees, will rise as carbon emissions escalate and weather calamities rise with the changing climate. Can we assign static estimates to entities that sit at the foundation of our ecological survival? Are the benefits that we reap from ecosystems as linear as the tree poster graphs proclaim?

To whom is the red oak worth 803 dollars? The economic valuation of ecosystems in conservation strategy is fundamentally anthropocentric, in that it focuses solely on the human-ecosystem dynamic and ignores the existence of our 8.7 million species cohabitants. What kind of monetary benefit do the squirrels and robins that nest in the oak’s muscular brown branches gain from the tree? It wasn’t plotted on the poster’s graph.

The mislead conservation tactic that the Arts Quad tree tags champion may turn our attention away from the construction on the Agriculture Quad that is using an immense amount of energy and natural resources to plant rain-runoff-impervious concrete onto a once tree-laden, grass lawn. Though new trees will ultimately be planted on the Ag Quad, I find myself thinking of the construction as a microcosm of agricultural expansion, a global phenomenon that engenders threats of energy exploitation, pollution and ecosystem disruption.

Though it may serve to inspire a form of environmental appreciation, the valuation of the Arts Quads trees represents a controversial approach to conservation that must be engaged cautiously and critically. However subtle, the tree price tags may impact the way in which Cornell’s future professionals of the business, legislative, agricultural, academic, architectural and technological fields, engage with and prioritize environmental conservation.

While natural capital assessment will likely be incorporated in global conservation initiatives, having already gained significant momentum, I think it is imperative that we begin to work towards a cultural shift whereby we view the environment as a priority separate from our economic growth. A graph schematic of variables and growth curves may seem functional, but we must approach conservation from a position that distances us from the very economic institutions that led us to this global state of environmental calamity.
As we enter an era of environmental reform and engage with ecosystem valuation, we must question whether a price tag can represent an ecosystem’s worth and how we can make changes to human-ecosystem dynamics that can’t be plotted on a curve.


David Fiskus Singler is a student in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected]