Re: ECON: Worth of the Earth

Carl Feynman (
Thu, 05 Jun 1997 11:45:49 -0400

At 04:10 PM 6/5/97 +1000, Mitchell Porter wrote:
>In Nature v387, 15 May 1997, p283
>(Costanza et al, "The value of the world's
>ecosystem services and natural capital")
>the value of the entire biosphere is estimated
>to be "US$16-54 trillion (10^12) per year,
>with an average of about US$33 trillion/yr..."

I read this article. This number is pretty completely bogus. They went
through the literature and found about 60 studies that estimated the value
of various ecosystem services (flood control, CO2 recycling, etc) provided
by various types of ecosystem (ocean, reef, wetland, grassland etc). Then
they added them all up. So far so good. What makes it bogus is that some
of the prices were marginal prices and some were replacement costs. These
are only the same if unit cost is independent of supply, which they
explicitly point out in their article is not true.

If the value of ecosystem services could be estimated accurately, the
government be able to charge people for destroying ecosystems (or reward
people for fixing them). Such charges would make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, this would only apply if the costs are estimated
*accurately*, which I doubt is possible. If costs could be estimated
accurately by governments, socialism would be a thriving system.

>Global GNP is around US$18 trillion/yr.

Hey! If we triple GNP, we'll be able to get rid of Nature entirely!

>"Although it is possible to imagine generating
>human welfare without natural capital and ecosystem
>services in 'space colonies', this possibility is
>too remote and unlikely to be of much current
>interest. In fact, one additional way to think
>about the value of ecosystem services is to
>dteermine what it would cost to replicate them
>in a technologically produced, artificial
>No figures are provided in support of these
>claims about space-colony economics.

I estimated the cost of sustaining someone in Biosphere II to be about
$200,000/yr in direct consumption and several times that in depreciation. I
don't have the email message with the details on this estimate any more but
I think it was to this list, so you could maybe find it in the archive.

Of course, Biosphere II is the first try, and new technologies always get
cheaper. I doubt they'll get cheap enough to move the whole human race into
biospheres any time soon, though.