Your life is worth $7.4 million. Don’t agree? Ask the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets its current valuation of a statistical human life at that amount. It’s not only humans that get a dollar amount — anything from an urban street tree (around $170 according to one study) to the U.S.’s supply of pollinators ($1 billion of crops dependent on insect pollination) have been assessed and priced by summing up their conferred benefits on the world (e.g. energy savings from tree shading) and comparing these to the assumed costs of production (e.g. initial planting cost for a tree).
As an environmental engineer, I’ve been trained to think about the world in terms of these numbers; indeed, nothing matters more to my academic field than the economic valuation of nature. Why put a price on things as arbitrary as trees and bumblebees? The official reason taught to me by my professors and through my internships is that these valuations make complex cost-benefit analyses possible. For instance, if a pipeline company bulldozes 100 acres of forest, destroying three colonies of the endangered rusty patched bumble bee in the process, one can calculate the amount of money to be lost due to this ecological destruction and compare this to the potential economic benefits of the project.
More and more, however, I’ve been questioning the validity of relying on quantification to fully capture what we lose or gain. Not only is quantification controversial because of its subjectivity (for instance, the U.S.’s price for a ton of greenhouse gas emissions has been heavily debated ever since the 2016 elections), it also fails to communicate the equally-significant emotional losses. How would you price the joy you receive from seeing a beautiful sunset or the ethereal sense of wonder from witnessing the Rocky Mountains for the first time?
Quantification, in many cases, has brought us nothing. To use a more recent example, the Amazon rainforest was recently valued at $8.2 billion a year, capturing both the profits possible from sustainable agricultural practices applied within the rainforest as well as the ecological benefits (e.g. stored carbon dioxide, stormwater filtration, etc.). Removing the entire rainforest would result in $422 million in annual damages due to reduced rainfall. Yet has this figure stopped the rampant uptick in deforestation and burning instigated by the Bolsonaro administration? Absolutely not. Will it ever? Probably not — short-term profits tend to win out.
Why, then, must we stoop to the level of blatant ignorance of decision-makers who claim to rely on dollar amounts yet may, through political and economic motivations, choose to ignore or manipulate these valuations? There is so much more to be lost in the Amazon rainforest than $8.2 billion, from its ecological beauty to its medicinal plants — not to mention the 900,000 native peoples currently living there (whose lives I could value using the EPA statistic cited above, but I think we all recognize the absurdity and danger behind pricing human lives).
I worry for all of us trained in the art of quantification in our increasingly quantified world. Stumbling through my problem sets and blindly typing figures into a calculator, I find myself getting lost in a maze of numbers, unable to clearly see my topic of study. It is why I frequently turn to my humanities classes to get a fresh perspective on what we’re really losing when we talk about environmental destruction or any decision-making on a larger level. I’m grateful that Princeton with its liberal arts curriculum makes it easier for me to get a break from the numbers, and I hope that Princetonians also take advantage of this opportunity to qualify the quantitative, to contextualize the implications of their numerical analyses.
There are certainly benefits to statistics and dollar amounts — they help us make quick assessments of the worth of a project or the costs of certain actions. Yet it is also up to us to constantly remember what is lost in the quantification process and to learn to recognize and communicate those losses when we can.
Claire Wayner is a sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland, majoring in civil and environmental engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.