Valued or Valueless?

By John Humphreys

Why do we care about nature? The answer might simply be, “Because it is God’s creation”. In other words, the natural world is a gift beyond price that we are duty-bound to treasure. Alas, much of the world does not share this view. As Pope Francis put it so movingly in his encyclical, Laudato Si, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

Or, as Dr. John Stott said, more pithily, “extinction is blasphemy”.

The marketplace sees things differently. Forests and wetlands must be proven to have long-term financial benefits, or else we’ll plant oil palm or build on them. It was very timely to read in Birdlife magazine a debate between Tris Allinson (Global Science Officer for BirdLife International) and Pepe Clarke (BirdLife’s Global Head of Policy). Allinson is concerned that the moral case for conservation is being squeezed out by arguments that wildlife should “pay its way”. He reminds us that the great ethical/social concern movements of the past, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s suffrage, never had the economy as their raison d’être. The enlightened campaigners just knew that what they were fighting for was right; it might or might not affect GDP.

On the other hand, while not dismissing the moral underpinning of creation care, Clarke posits “prospects for the conservation of nature rest on our ability to inform and influence the decisions of consumers, producers, policy makers and the broader public.” In other words, the language of economics is both accessible and effective in fighting for conservation. For example, the upstream watersheds for New York City were a lot less expensive to preserve than achieving the same result by purchasing a new water purification plant. Manhattan’s residents benefited from the natural upstate cleansing of the river water, and keeping that resource in pristine condition cost much less than trying to clean the water any other way – and it keeps northern forests and water sources unspoiled for everyone and every creature to enjoy. Another example?  In the developing world, where short-termism is as common as it is in the rich West, there has been a trend of clearing mangroves to establish shrimp farms; this was difficult to stop until someone proved – economically – that intact mangrove forests act as fish “nurseries”, generating ten times more income for fishermen when left intact.

However, as conservationist and author Tony Juniper says, “there are cases where it’s very hard to see an economic value. Saving the rare Blue-eyed Ground-Dove might be an example [a critically rare bird recently rediscovered hanging on to existence in the Brazilian savannah].” For an individual species, unless it is a keystone animal such as the sea otter in the Californian kelp forests, or a photogenic creature that tourists will pay top dollar to see, one might struggle to find an economic worth attached. Nevertheless, as Jared Diamond puts it in his book Collapse, “Elimination of lots of ‘lousy little creatures’ regularly causes big harmful consequences for us humans … just as does randomly knocking out many of the ‘lousy little rivets’ holding together an airplane.” That is to say: never write off one of God’s creatures as disposable.

One of my most prized t-shirts is an A Rocha USA one which has the tagline, “We hug trees for Jesus”. It’s very important to use every type of argument to protect wildlife and places – esthetic, moral and economic. Yet in the end, for me, respect for nature is hand-in-glove with our respect for the Creator.

John Humphreys is a scientist and conservationist who also loves wildlife gardening. He has a website,

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