Putting a Value on Bees, Trees and the Rest of Nature

The Biomimicry Column

Putting a Value on Bees, Trees and the Rest of Nature

Bee hives - http://www.flickr.com/photos/piterpan/ / CC BY 2.0

"Money doesn't grow on trees," our parents told us, and they were right. Trees, however, are essential for making money, and not just because of the paper they provide. More and more, companies are recognizing that the forest, as well as the tree, is essential to everyone's prosperity. After all, we live in a society with a nature-based economy, and the resources that nature provides could not exist without healthy ecosystems.

Resource economists typically depict nature as doing four general favors for us: providing things like food and water; regulating things like floods and droughts; supporting life through basic processes like photosynthesis, soil formation and material cycling; and enhancing cultural things like spiritual refreshment and scientific discovery. Valuing these services is complicated and is done by several methods, like calculating replacement value, or willingness to pay. As resources get scarcer, valuation of these services will become more and more a part of every business.

Gretchen C. Daily of Stanford has chronicled the development of market mechanisms that combine resource values and commercial endeavors so that land can be conserved and people can make a good living. She edited the groundbreaking collection “Nature's Services,” where some of these values were first identified, and co-authored “The New Economy of Nature,” a case-by-case account of how different organizations have used these values to make conservation pay.

One example is New York City's hardboiled decision to protect the 2,000-square-mile watershed of its surface water supply rather than try to treat degraded water. The treatment with mechanical filtration plants would have cost four times as much as conserving its natural (and superior) counterpart. The choice was based on the services that the forest ecosystem provided, like filtering, erosion control and flow regulation.

Claire Kremen of U.C. Berkeley is investigating the relationships between land use practices, wild bee communities and pollination services that these bees provide to crops in Northern California. If she and her colleagues can determine the value that these native bees provide, then land planners and agronomists can calculate the values of natural habitats and alternative farming practices that will keep bees healthy and working. What they have found so far is that wild, native bees are capable of pollinating most of our current crops; they just need to live near them and not be gassed with pesticides.

In the face of recent colony collapses of commercial bee operations, this research is especially important as an insurance against the loss of food production. Estimates of the value of insect-pollinated crops vary widely, but a figure in the tens of billions of dollars is not unreasonable. Bees do most of this pollinating. Kremen's team is documenting the critical floral and nesting resources the bees need. They will then use this information to develop protocols for restoring natural habitat and managing farmlands to promote bee diversity, abundance, and the pollination services these bees provide.

These examples illustrate so-called "natural capital" models, in which biological processes are quantified, assigned a monetary value, and made part of the policies or compacts of a capitalist society. The broad conceptual underpinning of these models came from many sources, but most well known is the seminal work “Natural Capitalism,” by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. The thesis of the book is that current business practices assign values to only three of the four types of capital found in our world: human, financial and manufactured, while leaving out the most important, natural. This capital is made up of the resources, living systems and ecosystem services provided by the living planet. The next industrial revolution, write the authors, will be in resource productivity, but it will only yield a better world if natural capital is assigned a fair value.

The United Nations Environment Programme, through The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, produced a report for policy makers last November that served as a toolkit for those seeking to integrate conservation of our natural capital with public policy. Business leaders will be able to review a similar report that addresses their issues this June. This next report will offer practical recommendations on measuring and managing risk, avoiding damage, identifying new markets and sharing information on financial, human and natural capital. 

Allied with these kinds of efforts is a pioneering collaboration between the Biomimicry Guild and HOK, the giant architectural firm. The two organizations are developing a system of ecological performance standards for building development that is based directly on ecosystem services.

Performance standards for building development are not new, and ecosystem services have been identified before. In this case, however, the two have been combined in an innovative and groundbreaking way. Rather than being based on impact to the environment - such as controlling the amount of soil loss - the standards will be based on matching the services that the natural, historical landscape would have provided. Distinguishing the standards from typical ecosystem service models is the fact that no unit value is assigned. Only amounts of service are quantified, such as gallons of water stored, or tons of carbon sequestered.

Biomimicry Guild founder Janine Benyus spoke at U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design recently for their 50th anniversary celebration. She described a planned new urbanist community near Pune, India, called Lavasa. The development will be India's first post-colonial hill station and will include about 25,000 apartment and villa units in four settlements on 25,000 acres of land. The Biomimicry Guild investigated the so-called “genius of place” within the site's valley and studied both the organisms in the field and the area's historical ecosystem designation, a moist deciduous forest. Team members then compiled a metric of 15 criteria for measuring success, including water purification, carbon sequestration and biodiversity maintenance. They also worked closely with HOK's urban planners in creating forms and solutions that were inspired by the native flora and fauna.

The guild admits that the standards, to a large degree, reflect their aspirations for the site's performance rather than their immediate expectations, and many details of monitoring and measuring remain to be developed as well as new building forms and processes that can meet this challenge. The attempt, however, nudges builders closer to the natural capital revolution described by Hawken and the Lovinses. It is squarely in the camp of regenerative design, much like Jason McLennan's Living Building Challenge.

The goal for Lavasa is a human settlement that actually enhances local ecology by functioning at least as well as a healthy, highly-functioning, moist deciduous forest. Says Benyus, “When cities and ecosystems are functionally indistinguishable, that's when we will have truly mimicked at an ecosystem level. That's when we will be a welcome species.”


Tom McKeag teaches bio-inspired design at the California College of the Arts and University of California, Berkeley. He is the founder and president of BioDreamMachine, a nonprofit educational institute that brings bio-inspired design and science education to K12 schools.

Bee hives - http://www.flickr.com/photos/piterpan/ / CC BY 2.0; http://www.flickr.com/photos/alanvernon/ / CC BY 2.0