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Valuing Nature in Environmental Education

Originally appears in the Summer 2006 issue

Traditional economic thought presumes that economic growth and increased prosperity are one and the same. In fact, gross domestic product (GDP), the standard measurement of economic growth (and therefore “prosperity,” according to traditional economists), is simply the sum of consumer and government spending and investment, minus the national deficit. This equation posits that military conflict, rainforest destruction, and massive oil spills all lead to increased prosperity because they boost spending and thereby create profits for individuals.

Environmental economics is a field of thought that expands this vision of prosperity beyond the GDP to include sustainable use of resources, protection of endangered species and wild lands, and human health and well-being. It includes these components by “internalizing” economic factors that traditional economists “externalize” from their analysis of the market, such as people’s willingness to pay to protect a natural area, or the devaluation of a land base’s future productivity due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Recognizing that human well-being is inextricably linked to the health of the environment, environmental economists put forth a worldview that is even more human-centered than that of traditional economists, in that it takes into account more facets of human well-being.

In The Future of Life, E.O. Wilson writes that “the juggernaut [of technology-based capitalism] will very soon either chew up what remains of the living world, or it will be redirected to save it.”1 Environmental economics can be used as a tool to redirect industrialism toward constructive ends. Discussions of traditional versus environmental economics help students understand a broad spectrum of human interests in the environment and expose the shallowness of the debate between self-styled “economists” and “environmentalists.” We might ask, what environmentalist does not play a part in industrial capitalism, and what economist does not derive livelihood from natural resources? The spectrum of human interests in the environment ranges from bottom-line assessments of potential for resource exploitation to intrinsic arguments in defense of nature. Puzzling through the complexity of these value systems lays a foundation for a complete environmental education and enriches prior knowledge of the relationship between humans and nature. Through the activities outlined below, students will become familiar with some of the language and processes of a society propelled by money, and examine the ways in which they themselves value nature.

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Nicholas Bayard is a Peace Corps volunteer working as an environmental educator in the 100-household village of Costa, Paraguay.