$54 trillion a year
— Estimated upper value of the world’s natural capital and ecosystem services, according to ecological economist Robert Costanza
No, that was not correct. Anders rubbed his head with his thumb. It wasn’t an area of outstanding natural beauty, it was twelve hectares or thereabouts of medium to low quality indigenous fauna habitat, but Sasha need not be concerned about that. Sasha was nine years old. The place was pretty – yes, it was pretty – its cultural and recreational value was adequate for their purposes, and such qualitative definitions, he thought, were not of importance to children.
Such definitions were not of importance. Anders closed and reopened his eyes. He gazed at his trouser legs stretched across the patio, and then at the pebbles around the lawn and the trees beyond the garden. The trees were mostly rowans and oaks, and during a night of sleeplessness that had occurred some months ago he had calculated the value of each to about six hundred ecos a year – taking into account such factors as sequestration of atmospheric carbon, electricity conservation through shading and wind reduction, interception of particulate matter, and raising property values through leaf surface area. He looked at them now, doing their part. It was a ballpark estimate, and something about it bothered him now. The leaves were moving in the light. He rose from his usual chair and took a few paces, frowning.
He had woken up with that ache again, the one behind his collarbones. Every morning for the past few weeks – a dull, familiar bruising. He took a few paces and stopped, absently rubbing around his neck, and then checked his phone to see the time. They would be here any minute. He turned to go back into the house, wondering if he should change his jumper. He thought the last time had gone quite well. Sophie had cooked them all a meal, and then he had taken Sasha to the multiplex to watch a film. The film had been a good idea, because it had given them shared points of reference. Even if they hadn’t discussed it – her mother had wanted her home straight after – Anders hoped the experience might connect them still.
The film had been about cartoon animals fleeing the effects of a supervolcano, but his recollection of the plot was vague. Some had escaped and some had perished, but he couldn’t remember how, or why, or what situation the animals had been in when the film ended. He thought back to Sasha’s face, impassive in the light of the screen, the way he had strained to look at her without her knowing he was looking. He hadn’t really been able to tell whether or not she’d enjoyed it.
He found himself at the end of the garden, and suddenly realised he was crying. Well, perhaps he wasn’t crying – but water was coming from his eyes, and he didn’t know how he had got there. He’d thought he was going into the house. He was going to change his jumper. Wiping with the backs of both hands, he realised he didn’t feel sad, could think of nothing to be sad about. Confused, he retraced his steps, and by the time he had reached the back door the phenomenon had ceased. He looked back towards the trees, the rowans and oaks holding and slowly increasing their value year by year, converting energy from the sun into fungible units of worth, diligently running through their economic functions.
Ironically, it was an economy he was no longer useful to, practically no longer part of. After all he’d done, he was finished now, relegated to the role of consumer – and these days, hardly even that. His consumption levels were negligible. When she had first visited here, a sort of preparatory check ahead of Sasha’s visit today, Sophie had accused him of being a hermit. Actually it felt as if every word she spoke to him, since she’d started speaking to him, was an accusation of some kind, and he’d long since abdicated the right to defend himself. He was in the house now, moving through his possessions. Evidence of former worldly engagement was displayed haphazardly: dusty flatscreen monitors from the days when he still traded from home, a few framed photographs dating back to the early Bang, technology he no longer noticed but most of which was worth many times the value of the trees outside. His jumper was draped on the back of a chair. He pulled it over his head and walked through the room putting it on, bumping into furniture. They would be here any minute. He checked his phone again.
There wasn’t much to do inside, so he returned to the garden. There was something about those trees, something he hadn’t yet got right. It bothered him and he didn’t know why. His collarbones still ached. He went to where the trees began and laid his hand on the nearest trunk, feeling the coolness of the bark and thinking automatically of the process of evapotranspiration cooling the air around his home, the calculations that flowed from that – suddenly he felt tired. He pressed his forehead to the trunk. An ecosystem service provider was fumbling a path through the branches, colliding with the lower leaves, heading to its next pollination event. He watched it stagger drunkenly, and felt a small surge of affection. As a younger man he had made, and lost, a large amount of money on pollinators, buying forest habitat credits on behalf of tropical coffee plantations – until commodity prices had plunged, the coffee was replaced by pineapple groves to which pollination services were an active hindrance, the forest ceased to serve any purpose and the credits had depreciated in value by tens of thousands of ecos. But he was young then, starting out – he bounced back from things like that. Was it affection he felt, or nostalgia? Sometimes he missed who he had been. The service provider went on its way. The day was warm, but wet weather was coming. Soon it would be redundant.
He realised he had got distracted, and retreated to the middle of the lawn in order to look at the trees as a whole. Six hundred a year, a rough calculation. But the oaks were surely worth more than the rowans, both in terms of services rendered, due to their greater size, and their leaf surface area appeal – maybe even cultural appeal. How to quantify that? He took a few paces back. One and a half rowans, say, might equate to a single oak – was that a permissible starting point? The canopies were starting to brown. A couple of leaves detached themselves from the branch he was looking at and made their slow way down to earth, and that was when it jolted him: never mind the conversion rate between trees, what was the value of a leaf? He felt a tingling of nerves. The sensation was deeply familiar but had the effect of making him nervous. Rapidly, as if to get the whole thing over with, he selected a sample branch and estimated the number of leaves on that, multiplied that by the number of branches – an even wilder estimate that gave him one hundred and eighty thousand – then divided six hundred into that. Point zero zero three three ecos, or point three three cents, per leaf. Approximately three leaves to the cent. Three hundred leaves to the eco. He felt slightly sick in the warmth of the day. He might have to take off his jumper. Stooping around the lawn he began to sort them into a pile, counting under his breath as he went, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and twenty-seven… two ninety-eight, two ninety-nine, one unit of natural capital… then he straightened up, feeling ridiculous. He knew he should turn around.
‘Dad.’ She was in the garden, wearing wellies and a purple coat. Sophie was watching from the door, and Anders had the immediate impression that Sasha had been silently coaxed to utter the first word of greeting – he imagined a series of urgent mimes taking place between them, Sophie encouraging, Sasha refusing, until her mother’s will won out. Now she had accomplished her task the girl was staring at her feet, her face vaguely worried.
‘What are you doing?’ Sophie asked.
‘Tidying leaves,’ he said. There was a moment of silence, during which he dropped some leaves. ‘How did you get here?’
‘We drove,’ Sophie said.
‘No, in the garden.’
‘The door wasn’t locked. We rang the bell, but you didn’t come. Sorry to barge in.’
‘Hello, Sasha,’ he said to his daughter. He bent at the knee and hugged her awkwardly, conscious of Sophie’s critical eye.
‘Hi,’ said Sasha again. She created a small smile.
Sophie came out, but there was no hug. Instead she touched him on the arm. ‘Shall we go inside?’ she said. ‘I’ve got stuff to make sandwiches.’
‘I bought her a present.’
‘Tell her, not me.’
‘I bought you a present.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sasha. But once they were inside the house he forgot where it was – even what it was. He was feeling unpleasantly warm again, but didn’t want to remove his jumper for fear his shirt might smell of sweat. Sophie had gone into the kitchen and was slicing bread for sandwiches. Her apparent familiarity with his home seemed less personal than professional, like a social service provider doing a house call.
Sasha sat on the edge of the sofa, her wellies dangling over the floor. Anders liked seeing her there, but he didn’t know what to say to her.
‘How are you?’ he asked, hovering near.
‘It’s okay. I like Mrs MacGregor.’ She thought for a while. ‘I don’t like games.’
‘We’re going for a walk.’
‘Are you driving there?’ asked Sophie, bringing a carrier bag full of sandwiches and other things. She was facing him, but he knew that her eyes were peripherally focused on the room, evaluating the conditions of his life. He wished he’d remembered to clean up a bit.
‘No, it’s just along the road. An area of low quality indigenous… outstanding… natural habitat.’ The words were getting mixed up before they reached his mouth. Sophie was looking at him oddly. ‘A woodland, woods,’ he managed to say, but it came out strangled.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked at the door, when Sasha had gone on ahead. ‘You seem a bit… distracted, or something. If this isn’t a good time…’
‘I’m fine. It is a good time.’
‘We can do this another weekend.’
‘Really, I’m looking forward to it.’
‘Try to relax. She’s just a bit shy. She wants to like you, you know.’
They felt like the nicest words she had said to him for a long time, but immediately he wasn’t sure. What did that mean, exactly? Anyway, there were no more concessions, and when they parted at the car her eyes were distant and alert. She kissed the top of Sasha’s head, told her she’d be back at three, nodded to Anders in a manner that seemed exaggeratedly formal, and a moment later the car was gone and father and daughter were standing alone.
‘Right,’ said Anders, pointlessly. A helicopter rattled overhead. Brown leaves descended from the trees, economic units that had served their usefulness.
They walked together side by side, Anders holding the carrier bag, Sasha scuffing in her boots which were a little oversized, past the golf course, the ice hockey centre and a pre-developed development site, until they reached the start of the trees. Protected Natural Habitat Area was displayed on the entrance sign, and a system of green stars indicated its biological, cultural/recreational and sequestration values, none of them especially high – in fact, Anders thought some were lower than when he last came here. Beyond the car-park two square posts indicated the starting points of the Common Toad and Hedgehog Trails, each with its cartoon representation of the indigenous creature in question, along with statistics about the various services they provided. The common toad wore sunglasses, and the hedgehog had a little hat. Wood-chip pathways sliced through the trees in two different directions.
‘Which way shall we go?’ asked Anders.
‘Which one do you like the look of most?’
She pointed to the one in the hat. ‘Are there hedgehogs?’ she asked with hope.
‘Theoretically there could be,’ he said as they set off down the path. ‘That is, it’s a suitable habitat. But I don’t know much about their habits or current distribution. We might not actually see them.’ Sasha didn’t respond to this. He wished he was better at talking to children. The path was wide enough to walk abreast but she seemed to want to walk slightly behind him, and they progressed like this for a couple of minutes without saying anything more. He analysed the quietness, and didn’t think it felt so bad – it was better to walk in silence, at least, than sit in silence in a room. The ache beneath his collarbones seemed to have subsided.
They wouldn’t see hedgehogs here, he knew. There weren’t enough green stars. These woods were less than ten years old – some of the smaller trees still wore protective mesh cylinders, though what they were protection against he wasn’t entirely sure. These twelve hectares of medium to low quality habitat had been forested by a soft drinks company, offset against a single hectare of rare/endangered species habitat somewhere in Spain, he seemed to recall, which the company needed to develop – he couldn’t remember the species involved, but thought it was some kind of snail. He knew this because he’d taken an interest when the deal went through. He’d long been out of the game by then, but the existence value of a natural habitat area near his home had been higher than he’d anticipated – although of course there was no telling how long its existence might actually last. Like everything else in the world, it was only waiting its turn.
One hectare for twelve, he thought to himself. It seemed scarcely credible now. He couldn’t even begin to guess what the rate might be in today’s climate, the markets booming and crashing with increasing randomness, positive feedback mechanisms kicking in all over the place. He couldn’t keep up with it any more. It wasn’t like in the early days, when things had at least been predictably unstable. It was a different market now. It no longer made any sense.
The woods were quiet, apart from the sound of traffic rushing down the nearest road. Service providers of various kinds were active in the undergrowth, and intermittent birdsong added further bioacoustic appeal. He realised he had dimly imagined the little girl would be somehow running, jumping over water features, chasing fritillaries. He felt very anxious all of a sudden. He listened to her dutiful footsteps on the path behind, the rustle of her jacket as she moved her arms. What was she thinking?
‘Do you like it here?’ he asked.
‘It’s pretty,’ she said.
Anders felt a wave of relief quite out of proportion to her words – he felt almost dizzy with it. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘I’m glad we agree. Pretty places are very important. They have high recreational value, some might even say spiritual value. The world would be a worse place without them.’
There was silence again after that. He wished she would start a conversation for once, so it wasn’t always down to him. But that was ridiculous, she was only nine years old. He tried to picture himself through her eyes: an awkward stranger who was attempting, for reasons she probably didn’t understand, to fit himself inside her life where he hadn’t fitted before. Uncomfortably dressed, unapproachably tall, seemingly incomprehensible. She wanted to like him, Sophie had said. And he wanted her to like him too. If both of them wanted the same thing, then surely it couldn’t be so hard. What had Sophie said about him? Did she know the mistakes he’d made?
He was pretty sure she knew nothing about him – about who he was, or who he had been. How could she be expected to know? Her rubber boots scrunched on the path. There was a pigeon somewhere. The trees were spindler round here, the foliage less mature – through the regular spacing of trunks, the ice hockey centre was visible metallically looming past the woods. He had walked this path dozens of times, and never noticed it before. How many visits, he wondered, to a medium to low quality habitat might equate to a single visit to a pristine boreal forest? Was there a qualitative rate of exchange – the way that, in a bygone age, two pilgrimages to certain shrines had been worth one pilgrimage to Rome? It was the kind of thing he’d once have discussed in the bar after work, a half-forgotten lifetime ago.
Twenty years ago, even ten. He found it almost impossible reaching his mind back to those times. His daughter might see him as shabby and odd, but he’d been part of something great. Someday, when she was older, he’d explain it all to her – how his generation had opened the world, how they’d changed everything.
Seized with sudden urgency, he opened his mouth to tell her this – but could find no starting point. He cleared his throat instead, squeezed shut his eyes. The problem was, his head got so full – he had to make a conscious effort to simplify the complexity. He found that his breath was short. The ache had returned.
Presently they came to a stream, not much more than two foot wide, with a sign that detailed its provisioning, regulating and recreational services scored by the usual green stars, which he didn’t look at. The water was spanned by a little bridge, and as they stepped onto the bridge Anders, in a kind of desperate inspiration, reached down and took his daughter’s hand. He amazed himself with this action – he had done it without thinking. Sasha’s fingers stiffened in shock. She didn’t pull away, at least. He realised his heart was beating fast, pounding beneath his shirt – this is ridiculous, he thought. But he felt very pleased.
‘It’s nice to see you,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to go for a walk with you. I know you don’t always… understand me. I mean, I try to make myself clear. But you’ll get to know me, and I’ll get to know you. Our relationship will progress. It will get better and better…’
Silence. Of course there was silence – what possible answer could she give? Her shyness and embarrassment were like a cloud keeping pace with her, as his own kept pace with him, moving at the speed of travel. But she didn’t pull away. They walked on for a while like this as the trail looped through the planted woods, and, not wanting to say any more, he silently counted the steps they took. It averaged at one and a half of hers to every one of his.
They ate their designated picnic in the designated picnic area, where wooden tables and benches were set alongside recycling bins shaped like hedgehogs and common toads. They were near the edge of the woods again, within proximity of the road, but the trees were rustling with wind energy so the traffic was less audible than it had been before. Anders sat on one side of the table, and Sasha on the other. The picnic was comprised of cheese and pickle sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate bars, banana yoghurts and carton drinks. Anders wasn’t remotely hungry, but Sasha consumed her share with quiet diligence. He offered her his chocolate bar, but she shook her head and averted her eyes in a manner that seemed almost chaste.
‘It’s meant to be for you,’ she said.
He put it in his top pocket.
Despite the fact he had held her hand, which made him glow when he thought of it, he still didn’t know what to say to her, how to keep a conversation running beyond the initial sentences. He had no practice with her at all. She looked so much like her mother, so little like him – although perhaps he didn’t have the ability to judge. He hadn’t known her for the greater proportion of her life. He had sent cards, of course, birthday and suitable seasonal presents, and he had paid the appropriate legal share towards her upbringing. But until very recently, when Sophie’s force of will had impelled them back into contact, he had accepted the fact of his daughter’s existence only in the abstract. Part of him had assumed he deserved this – part of him had been happy to escape. Now the gratitude he felt was rather startling.
It was already too late, he supposed, for his presence to ever seem normal to her. She understood the world through his absence – this condition was fixed in her now, and probably could not be changed, no matter how many recreational walks they might engage in. Shifting baseline syndrome was what they called it once. What you consider normal as a child is what you consider normal as an adult, whether your background habitat is severely degraded or anything else. Certainly his own baseline had shifted more than once in his lifetime – for two decades he’d managed to keep pace with it, the peak and plateau of his career, before that grand systemic wobble that had ended everything. He could hardly claim to be keeping up now, keeping up with any of it – a hermit, Sophie had said. Was that a joke? He supposed it was funny, considering the intricate involvement of his life before. But the system had grown too complicated. His course over the last few years was less a retreat than a simplification.
He watched his daughter as she ate, secretly, as if looking for clues. She was a self-contained unit, an existence entirely separate from his. She was wearing a purple coat. She had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth. The merest fact of her sitting there was astonishing to him. He felt a small pulse of despair: surely he would never understand her life, as she would never understand his. Today he might be obsolete, a historical irrelevance in the Green Bang’s fading afterglow – but, once upon a time, he had added value to the world. That was the worth of his life, no matter what her mother might say.
It was the last great liberalisation, deregulation’s final frontier. He had started off in carbon credits, like most of his contemporaries, buying and selling the right to emit sanctioned units of pollution. It was hardly groundbreaking work, but the theoretical sleight of hand that such an industry involved – transforming a negative externality into a tradable asset – had put him in a good position to expand into the other derivative markets taking shape at the time: pollination service provision, biodiversity offsetting, riparian and wetland banking, endangered species credits. He had been in the right place at the right time. All he had done, along with perhaps a thousand other bright young things in no more than half a dozen fortuitously placed companies, was to take the next logical step. The dominant global trend was comprehensive deregulation – the climate was highly favourable. He made good money. He travelled a lot. It was around this time he’d met Sophie. There was a sense that the world was changing, that he was a part of that change. How many people could say that, looking back on their lives? Once natural units were quantified, once they were fully fungible, it became possible to trade across different markets – to exchange endangered species credits, say, for carbon equivalent or peat bog futures, depending on the market rate. As more and more assets of natural capital were absorbed and integrated, there was exponential expansion. A critical mass was achieved: the green economy exploded. He and Sophie were living together. His office overlooked the Thames – itself transformed, in the new paradigm, from a greasy tidal river to a super-prime provisioning and regulating water service provider. He was one of the Men Who Sold the World, as the media unimaginatively had it. He and Sophie argued a lot. The market grew to include streams and mountains, icecaps, wetlands and high chaparrals, every conceivable biotic unit from apex predators to bottom-feeders. Speculation had even begun on complex systems such as ocean currents, forest biomes, mycelium networks, wholesale ecosystems – there was no upper limit. He was a high-net-worth individual. Of course, there were warning signs. Was Sophie pregnant around then? It was all a little disordered.
When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast. Anders couldn’t actually recall… he felt very tired all of a sudden. The day was warm, and leaves were falling. Sasha still had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth.
‘Dad?’ She was glancing down into her hand at what he realised was a mobile phone. ‘Mum wants to know what time we’ll be back.’
‘Oh.’ It was an effort to think. ‘What… what time is it now?’
‘It’s twenty to three. She’s coming at three.’
‘Oh. Yes. We’ll be home by then.’ He watched as her thumbs tapped out a message. It made her look unexpectedly older. He noticed, for the first time, that she had earrings in her ears, and wondered if they had been there before. ‘You have yoghurt…’ She raised her head. ‘Yoghurt, just beside your mouth.’
She wiped it away with a solemn expression, which made her look like a child again. She put the phone in her pocket. Anders slowly put the rubbish in the bag. A yoghurt pot. A small plastic spoon. It felt too soon to leave.
‘Yes?’ Her solemnity grew, as if she sensed they were nearing that time – one of those adult conversations she’d probably learned to dread already. A siren whooped once, far away. She sat there very still.
‘There was a time, before you were born, when a tree was just a tree… that’s all it was, just that. And it was the same for other things. A mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass were once just a mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass. A bee was once just a bee. There was no reason for them.’
She gazed at him with worried eyes. He knotted his hands on the picnic table and concentrated on the words, on simplifying the complexity.
‘And even longer before you were born – before there were any bees, or dinosaurs, or single-celled organisms, or anything else you might have heard about – the world itself, the planet we live on, that had no reason either. It was only a ball of minerals waiting for something to happen to it, for something to give it meaning.
‘Then people came along, and for a long time they had no meaning either – they just happened to exist, like all the other things. But eventually, people gained reason. They learned how to value each other. Then they learned how to value the things around them – the trees, the waterfalls, the bees, the very world they lived on. Everything was given a purpose that it didn’t have before. Now, nothing exists for no reason, everything is working together – it’s a functioning part of a system that makes people happier. Of course, things go up and down, that’s part of the natural cycle – you’ll understand this some day. But the world has gained… a kind of reason, just like people once did. They used to call this Gaia. Well, we gave Gaia currency. Sasha, do you know what value is?’
It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer.
‘It’s another word for meaning. The higher the value, the higher the meaning. The meaning of the world is the total value of the world, all its units added up – all its leaves, its blades of grass, its reserves and its carbon sinks, its networks, systems, processes… everything together.’ Anders took a steadying breath. His hands felt rather far away, and something was happening to his eyes – a familiar throbbing. Sasha hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved. Wind energy was stirring the trees, rustling the natural capital. Everything would be alright. ‘Sasha, value is the same as love. How can we love what has no value? That is to say… what I mean…’ The phenomenon was occurring again. Water was coming from his eyes, turning the world into rainbow prisms, yet once again he did not feel sad – instead, he felt quite elated. He wiped and snorted, and managed to say, ‘I value you very much,’ before covering up his face and breathing wetly into his hands. He stayed that way for a while.
When he had taken his hands away, Sasha was no longer at the table. But she hadn’t gone very far. Blearily he made her out, over by the recycling bins. He rose a little unsteadily and made his way to join her.
Hey. It’s alright,’ he said.
‘Everything will be fine.’
She shrugged unhappily. She looked even more like a child.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Clearing up. It’s ten to three. Mum’s coming at three.’
‘Yes, we should be getting back.’ He watched as she separated the rubbish and fed it through the appropriate mouths, paper and cardboard in the hedgehog, plastic in the common toad. The colours stood out bright and strong. The hedgehog looked very brown, and the toad looked very green. Even after this natural habitat area had been exchanged, its services transposed to another sector of the world, Anders knew this was one of those moments that he would always remember.
Sophie’s car was in the drive, and she was sitting by the door. She gave Anders a funny look, but didn’t say anything. They went inside, and Anders made tea. They drank the tea in the living room. Sasha had a fizzy drink instead. Sophie asked Sasha if she’d enjoyed the walk, and she said that she had. The woods were pretty, she said again. They talked about this and that.
‘I’ll ring you,’ Sophie said as they left. ‘Look after yourself.’
‘Thanks for having me,’ said Sasha. They hugged on the step.
Two minutes after they’d gone, Anders remembered the present he’d bought. But by the time he’d located it, in a bag hanging on the kitchen door, the car had disappeared from the drive. It was a woolly hat and gloves, with animals knitted in – bobbly penguins and polar bears, grey things that were likely seals. It would have to wait until next time. Anyway, it was too warm.
He went upstairs and had a shower, then dressed again in the same set of clothes. There was mud on the trouser legs. He made his way back downstairs. He felt something against his chest and discovered the chocolate bar in his pocket, not melted yet, but on its way. He unwrapped it standing up, gazing around the familiar room. Dark, heavy furniture, expensive but a little worn. On the shelf, a squeezy rubber globe he’d once had on an office desk. He wandered to the garden again and took a seat in his usual chair. The rowans and oaks bordered the lawn. He slowly consumed the chocolate bar, watching the trees and the light.
He hadn’t finished the story, of course. Sophie would probably do it for him, one of these days when Sasha was grown – when their relationship involved more than watching cartoon films and going on recreational walks. She would tell the other side, if Sasha didn’t know it already. But at least he had attempted to give her the bigger picture.
It was all a little disordered. When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast – or perhaps they’d been going wrong for a while. He’d already moved out by then. A temporary thing, as he recalled – they couldn’t be in the same house together. The baby was due in several months, and he couldn’t think of that. There was a downturn in floodplain banking that was concerning, but manageable. A few analysts were warning that rainforest credit ratings in certain sectors of the market were unrealistically high, that low quality assets had been parcelled up with higher ones, but these concerns were ignored. There had been warning signs, but he hadn’t paid attention.
It was commonly said that no-one saw it coming, but that wasn’t entirely true. Some people had seen it coming, as some people always did. Some people made outrageous fortunes, as some people always did. A few canny hedge funds made a killing – humans were an infinitely adaptive species, after all. He just hadn’t been one of them when positive feedback mechanisms turned millions of square miles of rainforest into tinder in an astoundingly short space of time, wiping billions of ecos off the market – sequestration, species, services, existence, the whole portfolio. The Amazon Basin Credit Crash, as it was later to be known, precipitated the other collapses: icecap reserves, coral reef futures, a whole raft of obscure derivatives like Sahel desertification mitigation credits, some of which he’d never even heard of – everything was interlinked. He hadn’t moved fast enough. He had been wiped out.
Of course it wasn’t the end of the world. A rush immediately began on remaining forest credits, in what was left of Indonesia and Congo, while the released option value of the desiccated Amazon created entirely different bubbles for a new generation of bright young things to make their fortunes on. That was part of the rise and fall, the natural rhythm of capital. Even then, with everything gone, Anders could have got back in the game. But something fundamental had changed. The Amazon crash spelled the end of that phase of multiplying possibilities that seemed to have no limitation, and expansion had been replaced by horse-trading over what was left. It was a new financial climate, one he did not understand. Once-dependable carbon stocks disappeared in a puff of smoke, species banks of least concern suddenly plunged into negative value, speculation grew ever more wild – things were not predictable. The baseline had skewed too far, and he had not adapted.
Anders removed his shoes and his socks, spread his long toes on the lawn. The blades of grass tickled his feet. His generation had opened the world. No-one could take that away from him. He stared at the lawn, his vision drifting from the nearest blades of grass to the grass that spread beyond his feet, softening and widening, speckled with lurid dandelions, until his focus slipped and all he could see was green. The effect was a bit like going blind, or what he imagined might be the first second of the realisation of blindness occurring. The greenness was entirely abstract, not a colour but a sensation – stripped of meaning, stripped of value. It was the outermost edge of panic. He held it as long as he could.
The garden came into focus again, dazzlingly sharp and defined. Nothing had changed. There was no going back. He watched the trees. He watched the light. He finished the last of the chocolate bar. The ache was behind his collarbones, and the leaves were falling.
This story was originally commissioned by TippingPoint Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell, supported by the Free Word Centre. You can download the full PDF of the Weatherfronts commissions here
The problem is in valuing nature according to the perceptions of the ideas attached to growth. If we value things in money, the tools of economists, then $54 trillion is a meaningless term, compared to unquantifiable ($2?) quadrillions of derivatives that we can spin up symbolically to represent the things in our world. We have to build value from the bottom up using real measures rather than from the top down.
But if we don’t value it in our society, then it is free and limitless and vulnerable. Take your pick.