The things we value

The things we value

Graywalls, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As an environmental economics firm, we are often called upon to assign a dollar value to something that doesn’t normally have a price tag assigned to it. This is often a confusing, and sometimes contradictory, idea to many people.  In the United States we live in a culture that tends to equate something’s value in terms of how much it can be sold for. It’s easy enough to say that the value of a forest is in the number of board feet of lumber that would be produced out of it, but that wouldn’t give you the value of the forest’s beauty, or the watershed protection benefits, or the clean air it provides.

To assign a value to these things we might look at the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in a beautiful place; increased mental and physical health can result in decreases in medical costs. A forest’s watershed protection can be measured in the cost savings of reduced levels of water filtration needed for drinking water, and clean air benefits can be seen in reduced rates of lung disease and the associated costs of treating it. And those dollar values can be presented to city councils, congress, or whomever else you might need to convince that protecting forest land has value beyond just the timber in its trees.

While this may be great for trying to persuade your local city council that a patch of forest is worth protecting, it rapidly proves inadequate when looking at the personal, more human value.

How do you put a dollar value on being able to look back on the memory of walking through the woods with your children and being witness to their joyful explorations of the natural world? How do we quantify the opportunities for human connection provided by parks, forests, and other open, and thus safer, spaces during a pandemic? How do we quantify the loss when the spaces in which we created memories, found peace, or took refuge are gone?

A poet might say we measure these things by the space they take up in our hearts or the hole they leave behind when they are gone. But then we aren’t really known for valuing the words of the poets either.

What if we expand beyond forests? How do we put a value on the feeling that comes with having a safe, warm place to live?  Or not having to choose between one’s health and the expense of a medical bill? What is the value of the absence of hunger?

Many of us don’t ever think to put a value on those things because we’ve always been safely housed, had access to medical care, and have never experienced food scarcity. These things have no value to us until we find ourselves without them.

Is the value of a safe place to live measured in the number of nights you go to sleep without worrying where you might sleep tomorrow? Can access to medical care be measured in the years of memories you are able to make, and the stories you can pass on because you lived instead of dying too early?  Is the absence of hunger quantified by the thoughts you are able to think when your brain is not busy figuring out where the next meal comes from, or how to feed your children?

The pandemic has made many of us realize the value of the things we couldn’t put a price on until they were made absent in our lives. Gathering with friends and family, being able to spontaneously hug another person, the enjoyment of previously innocuous activities like sharing a meal together, and a general feeling of being safe in the world. And for a whole lot of people, it was the first time that they experienced the thought that there might not be a tomorrow.  They were only able to assess and quantify things like human connections and what it means to feel safe by their sudden absence.

There is one more step in assigning a value to something, and that is using that value to communicate the need for action. Just as we might use the value of watershed protection to communicate the need for the protection of forests, we can use our new understanding of the value of safety, connection, and hope to advocate for others.  We can remind ourselves that while this feeling was new to us, there are many people who live entire lifetimes where the possibility of tomorrow is not a given.

The value of human experience isn’t measured in a dollar amount but in what we choose to do with it. Let’s make 2022 the year we take what we have learned and use it to make sure that tomorrow is something we all have the opportunity to look forward to.

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