To Put a Price on Nature

To Put a Price on Nature

I recently entered some products into a skincare competition and was innocently asked by the organisers whether I felt my products would fit their ‘wildcrafted’ category.

Quickly turning to Wikipedia, I found wildcrafting to be “the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or 'wild' habitat, also known as foraging”. In all honesty, at the time I was horrified, foraging was one of my top ten pet hates, believing that when there is so little natural habitat left for nature, we should leave remaining areas well alone.

Yet at the same time, here I was, harvesting ingredients from my meadow to make my products, which no matter which way you look at it sounds an awful lot like foraging to me. I was in a state of denial, and completely confused as to how I should answer.

However, in one of those strange twists of fate that life is very good at throwing at us every now and then, a friend happened to lend me a book around the same time. And thank goodness she did, as within those pages there told a story which completely changed the way I view mans relationship with nature (and therefore enabled me to go back to the awards organisers and proudly say ‘yes, I would consider my products to be wildcrafted’, and ultimately to win an award, so thank you very much to that friend, you know who you are 😊)!

This blog post describes my journey, from believing that the only healthy ecosystems are those in which man has no impact, to the wonderful revelation that the healthiest ecosystems are those in which man plays a vital role. To understand how I got here, we need to go on a brief journey into the theory of nature conservation…

A (very brief) history of nature conservation

The diversity of life on earth is declining at a faster rate now than it has at any point in human history; extinction rates are hundreds of times higher they have been (on average) over the past 10 million years, and the rate of loss is still accelerating.

The practicalities of the problem are easily understood, at a very basic level, as human populations increase, we use more land and resources, leaving less for others.

For a long time attempting to reverse this trend was the main focus of conservation projects; defining areas and species at risk and trying to ‘protect’ them from further decline. However by the end of the 20th century we found that all this ‘protecting’ was having little impact on species declines, and scientists started to wonder; given that we very much rely on nature (at a very basic level for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat) why are we letting it slip through our fingers?

It seemed that the problem wasn’t our inability to quantify the declines or to write management plans that would reverse them, the issue seemed to be one of motivation; conserving nature didn’t seem to be a priority.

The report from the United Nations

In response to this, the United Nations called for an “assessment of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being”, also known as the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. This report explained in great detail all the hundreds of ways that nature provides services to us humans, for example commodities such as timber, fuel and fibre to services such as nutrient cycling, clean air provision and pollination.

The point of the report was to demonstrate that nature isn’t just an attractive backdrop to human existence, it was something useful, in fact something essential to human life. But the report didn’t stop there, to ensure that people really understood natures importance, the next natural step was to put a financial value on each of these services, enabling us to communicate powerfully and universally the importance of these services to man.

For example, in 2017, the Scottish government calculated that the value of these ecosystem services to their economy was £156 billion. A wopping sum that surely would boost the priority of nature conservation!

Now at this point, despite feeling vaguely uncomfortable about it all, I was also slightly hopeful that this monetising nature thing could have a positive outcome, perhaps by using financial valuations nature would have a seat at the table when it came to priority setting, however all that changed when I delved deeper into the report and noticed that one of the ecosystem services that nature provides to humans, sitting snugly between photosynthesis (oxygen supply) and food provision, was biodiversity. Yes, biodiversity itself.

Encompassing the diversity of all life on earth, tidily summarised into a little box denoting nothing more than a service provided to the human race, seemingly no more important than amazon prime or deliveroo. And to make things worse, one that we were encouraged to put a financial value on.

My heart raced and my blood boiled, how could we even suggest that all non-human life on earth existed simply to supply the human race with resources. From this place, my ideas of protection extended their angry tentacles until a definite line was drawn; any examples of man commodifying, exploiting, or taking from nature fell firmly within out-with my conservation ethos, from large scale commercial exploitation of rainforests to folk simply foraging for blackberries in their local hedgerows.

It was a dark place that separated man from nature, holding no hope of humans ever living sustainably within or alongside a healthy natural world. So, to then find myself in the position whereby I’d inadvertently done that very thing; in creating a wild space for nature in my wildflower meadow, whilst harvesting ingredients from it (which quite understandably other people put into the category of wildcrafting), left me with a feeling of deep unease.

Until I was saved, with my theories blown to smithereens by a single paragraph in a book.

The lightbulb moment

In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, plant scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts a story from her days teaching environmental science to university students. As an exam question she asked them a) examples of humans exerting negative impacts on the environment, and b) examples of humans exerting a positive impact on their environment.

Just as I would have, the students were able to recount many examples in answer to the first part of the question (climate change, pollution and habitat loss to name a few), but not a single example in answer to the second part of the question. However Robin goes on to draw a revelatory conclusion; that in the western world we are so plagued by imagery of our negative impacts that we can no longer even imagine what beneficial relations between our species and others might look like.

She then writes these magic words “How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path looks like”.

And that’s exactly where I realised I was stuck, in this space where I have no reference point of what a positive relationship looks like, and no particular place I feel we should be moving towards (apart from the grim ideal in which humans are obliterated from the face of planet earth). However, here I was being presented with evidence that humans can be an essential part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem, whereby we are one of a myriad of species sustainably and gratefully using the resources she provides us with.

By going back in time and remembering that there was a time when humans had a healthy relationship with the natural world, when our water came from a stream rather than a tap, our food came from the forest rather than a supermarket, and our medicines came from carefully selected herbs rather than a pharmacy.

It’s just we’ve now gone too far, and have forgotten these roots, have forgotten how important nature is, to the extent of needing clever people to write lists of why it’s important (and apply a financial value) to remind us. But there has to be a happy medium, somewhere between living within nature and living apart from it, where we sustainably use her resources without exploiting them. And that’s when I realised that that’s exactly what I’ve done at Seilich!

I’ve created, a healthy functioning wild space that provides habitat to a myriad of species as well as generating valuable ingredients that I can harvest. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s the way it should be. I as a human can have a positive impact on the natural world. Who knew, what a thought, what a revelation! And what a positive place to move towards.

It's going to be my mantra from here on. Say it loud and proud. I CAN HAVE A POSITIVE IMPACT ON THE NATURE!

To order a copy of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book click here.

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