Economics of Nature

written by

Drausin Wulsin

posted on

March 31, 2023

Bobcat-at-Red-Stone-Farm-3-9-23-2.jpgWhat is the economic value of this bobcat, recently filmed on our farm in the dark of night?

Well, the hide might be worth $100, and that is it. Nobody eats the meat. I have never seen a live bobcat, so this one feels like it is worth a million dollars to me.

And what about the stunning coyote below and the elegant heron preparing for flight? What are they worth?

We recently spent $4,000 to save this catalpa tree from eroding forces during floods. It is probably worth less than $200 at the sawmill. Was that a good use of precious dollars? How many more catalpa trees can we afford to save like that? Not many. But this tree was just too beautiful to sacrifice to the plunder of time, so we protected it.

I have recently read a fascinating book, The Value of A Whale, On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, by Adrienne Buller. It was forwarded to me by Richard, who provokes me to consider alternate perspectives on green capitalism. Ms. Buller is an excellent writer and she understands and explains the role of money in global systems and upon conservation of natural resources. Her presentation and analysis is most compelling, for a topic that can be dry and opaque. She understands her subject matter, and one can't help admiring that this full-fledged economist turns out to be a rabid environmentalist.

She cites the analysis of the World Economic Forum, which shares that 50% of global economic activity is dependent on nature. It further claims the present value of global natural capital to be $44 trillion. Richard objects to such quantification, because as soon as it is stated, some nefarious entity will try to buy it! And biodiversity should not be for sale, ever. It is of the commons and for all.

Ms. Buller's basic thesis is capitalism is very efficient in moving resources from point A to point B, but it is not effective at addressing externalities like pollution, destruction of habitat, abuse of labor, and climate change. And when it tries to, through green capitalism, the exercise proves to be more one of green-washing than generating effective solutions.

She points to the growing practice of purchasing carbon credits as an example. Large corporations buy carbon credits to offset their carbon consumption for questionable projects like clearing understory of forests in Uganda. How are the results of such investment monitored, how effective was the project, how permanent are the results in replacing permanent impacts, and would the project have been done anyway? These issues are hard to quantify and certainly feel elusive and perhaps worthy of the label of green-washing. 

She feels that green capitalism is, to no one's surprise, the art of one capitalist moving a pile of money to another, without any net benefit to the environment. She concludes that capitalism isn't effective at conserving natural capital, and so we should stop looking to it to do so. History would validate we have done a very poor job of conserving natural resources. What is effective, on the other hand, is halting impacts, entirely! Such extreme mandate would have to be legislated, which we all know would be a tall task to conclude currently. So, what do we do in the meantime?

My experience with wetland mitigation, which is a form of green capitalism, is that it does work. The cost to companies of mitigating impacts to wetlands can be considerable, and does influence their behavior. Companies do everything possible to avoid such impacts and costs. But if they can't, they pay a price for doing so, finally. Prior to the Clean Water Act of 1972, they incurred no cost for destroying wetlands. Their cost now is the price of buying credits at a certified wetland bank, which is protected into perpetuity.

Through this process, a small area of wetland is accordingly moved to a large wetland ecosystem, which creates long-term protection and enhancement for that acreage. It moves the acreage from a modest environment to an expansive, rich, and safe one. That is a net plus for that acreage, creating environmental benefit considerably greater than the 1:1 exchange of acreage. 

So, I empathize with Adrienne Buller's concern about ineffective solutions to environmental degradation, but do feel certain environmental mitigation processes are effective, such as for wetlands and streams.

If you want to educate yourself about green economics, The Value of A Whale is certainly worth perusing.

Now, on to creation of wetlands in Pike County.

By mid-March, we finished planting 60,000 trees in two and half weeks, averaging about six acres a day. Weather ranged from 70 degrees to 33 with wind. As you can see, it was a bit chilly in the picture above, but those days are preferable for planting than warmer ones, where seedlings dry out. 

It is hard for the uninitiated to identify some of the seedling trees that come in. They don't have leaves or much bark by which to be identified by. But the guys in the sorting room know them by their roots. That is such an interesting observation, for who identifies trees by their roots? Not many, so I thought a closer look at a few might be worthwhile.  A Persimmon on the left has a fairly naked root, while the Bur Oak on the right is full of hairy tentacles.

Once all trees are planted, we then move to hydrating the fields by plugging outlets of tile systems. Water thus stays in the fields and no longer drains into the creek. Over the past two days, we have done that with five outlets.

Part of the weekly ritual in our wetlands during the growing season is to measure saturation in the soil. We do this by putting a measuring tape down a perforated tube that is 40 inches deep. These tubes are called piezometers. Drilling holes in the ground for them is a trick, readily solved by strong doses of testosterone, as provided by Wesley and Jacob below. The tube is then inserted and surrounded by large grains of sand, that allow ground water to pass into the tubing.

All of this hard work calls for good food in celebration!

Below is a roasted whole duck, with rice, salad, and spinach. Duck carries a layer of fat on the outside, which makes for particularly delectable fare. 

Mussels are a great and inexpensive shell fish, which we try to have when available. A white wine sauce with onions, garlic, and saffron seems to bring the ocean to one's table. 

We stand in the pricelessness of nature. 


More from the blog

Big Muddy

Here is the Lower Mississippi River, 45 feet below normal pool. Over Thanksgiving, Susan and I shoehorned ourselves onto a cruise ship to learn about the lower Mississippi and its bayou. We started in Memphis and ended up in New Orleans, with stops along the way to explore river towns. This river is the third longest on the planet, providing drainage to 40% of North America. It has historically deposited silt yearly in its floodplains, producing topsoil 120 feet deep, making these soils some of the richest in the world. Vast wetland forests grew beside its banks, of cypress, oaks, and sycamores, populated by a rich array of black bears, deer, bobcats, alligators, and aquatic life. This was the legendary bayou.

Streams & Souls

Streams and souls seem to share character. They are life-giving, they are coveted, they can be impeded, they can be channelized, they can be overwhelmed, they flood, they dry up, they flow downhill, they are a force of both change and constancy, they lie at the center of a community, they will not be denied, and because of this great complexity, they attract periodic resistance. So, it seems that streams may serve as a metaphor for the journey of the soul.


Biodiversity depends on the neighbors. We feel like we live on islands, at times, but even islands are connected by surrounding rings of activity. Every organism that travels through our wetlands is in transit. Some stay longer than others, but all are in motion. They came from somewhere and are going somewhere. In the meantime, they stop for respite and nurture, adding to the richness of the ecosystem.