The Price of Everything




Nature has been infiltrated by the language of economics. Terms like “natural capital”, “sustainable growth” and “ecosystem services” have all become part of the vocabulary of conservation. Whilst this continues to be the case, the intrinsic value of nature, the value of nature for nature’s sake, becomes less important to decision makers. So, along with oil, chemicals, gases and litter, the capitalist agenda is now polluting our environment.
To think of the natural world in economic terms is to ignore its real worth. Last year I was fortunate enough to visit Orkney on a work trip. Watching seabirds at Marwick Head and Scapa Bay was one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life. The drama of the chase between an Arctic skua and an Arctic tern has all the excitement, twists, turns, glory and defeat of any great sporting event, but there it was unfolding in front of me in this vast and sensational landscape, for free.

Wildlife spectacles aren’t something you necessarily have to travel to see. The beautiful purple flower, buddleia, which grows on waste land and in cracks in buildings, attracts kaleidoscopic species of butterfly. You can see peregrine falcons hunting prey in Glasgow city centre, bats in your local park, thousands of mini-beasts in canals and waterways, deer, badgers, foxes…nature is amazing and it is all around us, you just have to look for it.
As our connection to nature becomes increasingly fractured, for many the concept of being part of the environment is alien, which explains the prominence of the improper, economic justification for nature. In conflicts between developments and the natural world, the monetary value of nature is becoming an ever more frequent factor in how much of our environment we are forced to surrender in the pursuit of growth. There are a number of flaws in this approach, not least that in a planet of finite resources growth is not sustainable.
Economic rhetoric to justify the environment is used by lobby groups on all sides; companies want to show how much more valuable their development is than “barren” land or sea and environmental NGOs use it in reaction to a political landscape obsessed by the economy. This is particularly evident in the marine environment.

In July the Scottish Government designated 30 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to “protect and enhance” Scotland’s seas. Whilst these MPAs were welcomed by environmentalist and industrialist alike, the management of these areas, which makes them more than just lines on maps, is stirring up controversy.

The purpose of Marine Protected Areas is to protect the amazing wealth of species we have in our seas – flame shells, maerl beds, black guillemots and sandeels – but by failing to implement robust MPA management, the Government is failing to conserve marine wildlife, or it is ‘Taking the P from out Marine Protected Areas’ as a campaign led by a coalition of environmental organisations puts it.

The justification for allowing scallop dredging is economic – the amount of short-term income estimated to be lost by banning dredging is argued to be greater, and more important, than the overall value of the nature it destroys. The same is true for the four huge windfarm developments given planning consent in the Firth of Forth. It is estimated that the developments will kill over a thousand internationally protected seabirds each year.
Political conformity to economic growth is killing our wildlife. Yes we do need renewable developments to combat climate change, and yes we do need fish to eat, but there are ways of providing both without destroying the natural environment. Prosperity, employment and happiness can be achieved by creating a fairer society that is part of a healthy environment, they should not be used as an excuse for destroying it.

One of the most positive outcomes of the independence referendum is that it has made everyone aware that politics is part of their lives and that, together, we are going to make a better, fairer society. The environment is the foundation of this society, and to ensure that it is built on solid ground we need to protect it at all costs.

A campaign to ensure MPAs protect wildlife and habitats has been set up by Scottish Environment LINK –

Comments (13)

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  1. This week Tory peer Lord Hodgson said that shale gas was ‘a second gift from Nature’

  2. Keith Paterson says:

    Alan ‘s comments are well made. However the ‘economics’ he refers to is the ‘neoclassical’ brand – the one which gives ideological justification to the capitalist market, basing itself on the economy as made up of utility maximising individuals with no theory of society. Sadly this brand of narrowly focused bunkum dominates our universities although there is a back lash (check out the Glasgow University real world economics society on ). A major issue for the radical independence movement is to promote alternative political economy theory which includes ecological and feminist economics.

  3. Tam McGarvey says:

    I think it was one of Bill Clinton’s camp who gave us the saying “Its the economy, stupid”.
    With life itself being increasingly commoditised by the freemarketeers resulting in global environmental degradation and the huge and widening gulf between rich and poor its time to change it to “its the stupid economy”.
    Maybe they should hark back to the old Cree saying:
    “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”.
    Somehow I don’t think this will happen.

  4. Daryl says:

    Exactly that’s why Windfarm’s should be excluded from area’s covered in SNH wildland map, if we don’t value, preserve and enhance what wilderness we have left then games up. We also need land reform, and to promote community ownership of renewable energy, or we are just throwing away the money to rich land owners and foreign companies.

  5. Well said, on the part of both yourself and Keith. Two points to add though.

    Firstly, although attempts to promote alternative economic ideas are welcome, there is a problem with the idea of ‘economics’ at all.

    Money is always related to systems of power. So it’s impossible to understand it without relating it to politics and history. This was well understood in the era of ‘Political Economy’. The growth of the strange belief that it was possible to separate these spheres has enabled generations of ‘economists’ to get ahead on pseudo-science that servse the most powerful in their societies. I suspect this was also true in the Soviet bloc, rather than being simply a capitalist thing.

    Secondly the idea of the ‘market’ is itself a metaphor which was stolen by capitalist thinkers. There are ‘markets’ – some people still get their fruit and veg at them. Other people go to them but call them ‘boot sales’. But it’s stretching a point to call (for example) a coal exchange a ‘market’. Let alone a futures exchange. Let alone a semi-computerised competition to acquire parts of a ‘130-30 part-leveraged non-hedge distressed debt package’.

    The function of the word ‘market’ in these instances is to make something essentially unnatural, alienating (and often plain wrong) look as twee and comfortable as going to the corner shop for your eggs.

  6. Clootie says:

    For me this article ties in well with the many debates of the YES campaign regarding changes in social values.
    The London bubble approach puts “money and things” ahead of people and our planet.

    I’m certain a better path is waiting.

  7. sean mcgee says:

    Strangely I have never seen a working definition of “sustainable growth”. As Marx said “It is the nature of capitalism to expand indefinitely.” Nature and capitalism are thus in inevitable confrontation, you can’t do business with nature – a lesson long in the learning.

    1. Crubagan says:

      The Scottish Government prefers the phrase “sustainable economic growth”, it is stated as part of the purpose of the Scottish Government, and has also created legislation to ensure that public regulators give it due regard:

      “(b) that regulatory functions should be exercised in a way that contributes to achieving sustainable economic growth, except to the extent that it would be inconsistent with the exercise of such functions to do so. ”

      The best (only?) definition is given here:

  8. Crubagan says:

    Environmental destruction isn’t limited to market economies. The centrally planned economies of communism (so called) also caused extensive degredation (look at the Aral Sea, well you could, if it was still there).

    Economics as a subject is a social science, so subject to the vagaries of any academic subject. I’d say outside of central banking and state treasuries (outside of academia the only employers of economists) economic theory doesn’t have much purchase.Politicians, businesses and other economic actors (i.e. you and me) don’t base our decisions on their theories.

  9. Boris says:

    Where is the second post about why social media is great?

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