What is the value of nature? “When we think about a commodity, it’s pretty simple,” says Marion Fourcade, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If I’m willing to pay $10 for a lamp, that’s the value that the lamp has to me. But for things that are not exchanged on the market, we have to produce technologies to reveal the supposedly underlying value.”

Comparing the economic valuation of damages from past oil spills in France and in the United States, Fourcade showed that there are many ways to put a price on the priceless. “Nature” turned out to be worth more in the United States. But even issues such as who is the victim and how to calculate damages differed sharply, “with the US government putting a lot of effort into valuing nature, and the French government sort of balking at the task,” she says.

In the case of the accidents involving the crude carriers Amoco Cadiz (1978) and the Erika (1999) off the coast of Brittany, the French coastal communities claimed the damages. They estimated the value of lost biomass on a price-per-pound basis, or guessed the amount the restoration would cost. In the case of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, Fourcade explains, “rather than going species by species and trying to put a price on each animal that had been killed, there was another injury that was much more important.” The rationale that drove the settlement negotiations between Exxon Corp. and the state of Alaska and the federal government was that the value of the Prince William Sound is actually the price an individual citizen would be willing to pay for unspoiled nature. The very idea of nature was given a value.

The median US household surveyed would pay $31 to keep the Prince William Sound pristine. If you conducted that survey in France, “you would have a lot more people rejecting the idea that you should put a price on certain things—like life, or nature, or love. But in the United States there is an assumption that money can be used as a yardstick for all kinds of things,” Fourcade says. That is a cultural assumption the French don’t share.

The French may be onto something. “There’s a whole series of problems in trying to attach dollar values to environmental harms,” says Amy Sinden, a law professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law. No matter what number you come up with, both sides can shoot it down for being too high or too low, and “you end up with something that’s so indeterminate and so subject to controversy that it takes the decision making outside of the realm of science and pushes it into the political realm,” where industry tends to have a much louder voice than the environment.

Marion Fourcade, “Cents and Sensibility: Economic Valuation and the Nature of ‘Nature,’” American Journal of Sociology, 116, 2011.

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