Earth’s Real Treasure

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A 2018 paper by  Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.

But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.

What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.

Comparative Value

Notice that food labels, listing metabolic content and essential vitamins and minerals never mention gold: no recommended daily allowance. I point this out to justify the separability in the choice posed above: it seems that it is possible to have one without the other. Gold does not appear to be essential to the preservation of animal life on the planet, and of course gold doesn’t give a flip about whether animals exist. So I ask again: which is worth more to you as an individual, and to the human race?

I think it is far easier to argue that humans can survive and thrive without gold than to argue that we could exist without a single non-human animal participating in the web of life on this planet. Humans did not evolve in isolation, even if we partition ourselves in our narcissistic brains as being special, removed, above it all—certainly not mere animals. The intertwined ecosystems on this planet are evolved on the premise of animal existence, so that plants require services of animals to fulfill functions like pollination, seed dispersal, soil maintenance, and god knows what else. Remove the animals, and I suspect the rest of the ecosystem comes crashing down, taking humans with it.

Okay, then provisionally we’ll say that animals carry more value than all the accessible gold.

Now a neat quantitative coincidence falls into our laps. The mass of gold under land to a depth of 6 km (as deep as we might imagine mining) is about the same as the (wet; living) mass of animals: 10 Gt—4 times higher than dry carbon mass. This derives from gold’s crustal abundance of 4 parts per billion (by mass), about 150 million square kilometers of land, and crustal density around 3,000 kg/m3.

Having concluded that animal life is more valuable than gold, and that the masses are effectively the same, we conclude that animals are at least worth their weight in gold—if not considerably more.

Mayhem

That’s cute, but here’s where it gets ugly. Gold is valued at about $2,000 per ounce, or about $60,000 per kilogram. A large-ish gold coin is about an ounce, and therefore worth about $2,000. Imagine, for the sake of absorbing the meaning of this valuation, that every time an animal was destroyed, it left behind a pile of gold coins of equal weight—capturing the conclusion above that the value of the animal is at least that of gold. It’s like a video game where some quarry is made to go poof, turning into floating coins that make a satisfying bling sound.

What do you think would happen in that magical world? People would be out of their gourds looking for animals to smash. It would be bedlam. I don’t enjoy sharing the following mental images, but I want to make sure the horror that runs through my head is not lost on the reader. Stomp on a frog: bling bling. Shoot a bird innocently hulling seeds at a feeder and more than seed husks and feathers scatter to the ground: gold coins drop as well. Swerving to hit a deer easily pays for damages to your car.  Larger animals are a windfall—a lifetime of earnings. Can you imagine the mad rush on elephants ($60M) and whales ($2B)? How do you think our house pets would fare?

And OMG, before the frenzy even gets under full sway some will recognize that humans are no more than animals, and contribute to 10 Gt total animal mass. What is your body’s worth, at $60,000/kg?

It’s a truly dismal thought.  Of course, not every individual would act to cash out the animals, but surely enough money-mad people would exist to have a devastating impact.  The purpose of taking readers into this dark place is to highlight how completely misguided our values have become. Earth, and the life inhabiting a thin shell surrounding it, is of incalculable value. Yet we make almost all of our decisions, collectively, based on a dollar amount that does not come close to capturing the value of nature.  It is juvenile folly.

In our Mad-Max life-purging scenario, how long would it take before the survivors—giddy on their piles of gold—recognized their foolishness? What, of value, could they possibly buy with all this gold? No amount of money can recreate life. We’re not that smart. We’re the first species smart enough and powerful enough to destroy much of creation, but nowhere near smart enough to effect creation of life on our own. So be careful, there.

Flaws and Fixes

Some may object that a $60,000 chicken (1 kg of gold) is too outlandish to take seriously, and that the flaw lies in the fact that we can’t easily access all the gold atoms within 6 kilometers of the surface. If we could, the value of gold would surely be far less. But I would say that’s another way to make the broader point. No accumulation of material resources can hold value comparable to that of animal life, since we can’t trade in the direction of creating lost life (extinct species).

An alternative would be to compare the value of all our stuff: buildings, infrastructure, machinery, vehicles, and possessions. How much money would it take to replace every scrap of our “valuable” things if a tornado wiped it all off the face of the earth (miraculously sparing all life)? One way to answer is that it would take a long time to recover from something that catastrophic. In order-of-magnitude terms, maybe between 10 and 100 years—if not longer. We’ll say 60 years for comparative convenience.  60 years of global GDP is about 6 quadrillion dollars. If we again conclude that all animal life on the planet is more valuable than the sum-total of our dear stuff, then we’re at $600 per kilogram ($6 quadrillion for 10 Gt of animal mass), which is 100 times less than the flawed valuation of all gold down to 6 km depth. But still, a chicken is roughly $1,000, and an elephant will buy a $600,000 house. The mad rush is still on!

Take-Aways

Independent of the approach, or adjustments to make it more seem more reasonable, we probably always must conclude that life carries incredible, unappreciated value. Rather than getting hung up on the quantitative absurdity, try walking away with the following, more robust conclusions:

  1. Surely, the sum of animal life on Earth is worth more to us than any mined commodities—or even all of them combined! Consider that we’re not lusting after barren Mars—at least the sane or emotionally mature among us are not. It’s life that makes Earth especially special for humans.
  2. Given this high valuation of animal life, imagine the deplorable behaviors that would result if animal value could be monetized by its destruction. While this is mercifully not directly the case, the thought experiment exposes our twisted prioritization of an artificial and ultimately disastrous economic edifice over the splendid and life-sustaining natural world—which is the real treasure.

Flipping the Script

Now imagine for a minute the opposite conjecture, in which financial advantage accrued to those who protect and preserve wild animals and ecosystems.  Instead of a rush to destroy, people would be falling over themselves to reverse our destruction and create more wild space and biodiversity.  It’s worth imagining ways this might be brought about, as such a construct is more closely aligned with an ultimately successful future..  Currently, our economy is structured backwards: there’s no money (financial profit/gain) in restoring resources and wild spaces: just in hacking them down and exploiting the great inheritance.  Perhaps more troublesome is the inherent human desire to acquire personal stuff, so that the only reason to make money in the first place is to be able to afford personal gain at the expense of some unseen parcel of nature.  Maybe prioritizing nature over ourselves will always be hard, and against our core programming.

Additional Perspective

For what it’s worth, I took a stab at a crude dollar value of planet Earth in Box 19.1 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet textbook. The sums are staggering, amounting to something like a million times annual global world product. Even if the approach is dubious and raises quibbles, the margin is large enough to still make the point: the real treasure is Earth and its biology. As Box 14.3 in the textbook points out, all life on Earth would compress to a 4 mm uniform layer across the planet, emphasizing how thin and precious life is. Compared to the real value of earth and its organisms, our minuscule annual economy is like a flea on the dog, yet our decisions are always about maximizing short-term gain for the flea, as if it’s all that matters. Without the dog, the flea loses any worth it presumed it had.

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6 thoughts on “Earth’s Real Treasure

  1. Very good, thank you. It is absurd, indeed, but this kind of illustration may be needed, given the absurdity of human behavior. But even with this kind of illustration: how can the slaughter be stopped? How can all the chainsaws and bulldozers and drills be stopped? Why does it still seem rational, from an individual’s of community’s or region’s point of view, to “develop“ a piece of wilderness by destroying it and converting it into gold? Because, for now, gold can be traded for other things that people need or think they need? But for how long will this be possible? Stupid questions, perhaps, but nobody has really found an answer.

    And, thank you for resuming your great blog as one of the few places of remaining rationality and sanity.

  2. I have always wondered how indigenous cultures have been living with nature for thousands of years in a sustainable manner (after probably an initial period of destruction to establish themselves) in their present (wherever in a few places and numbers they exist in isolated existence) steady-state. How did the indigenous people decide to stop using their tools, however primitive, to stop growth and to start valuing nature more than the necklaces, beads, tools and other artifacts they may have considered wealth before their transition? It seems their "solution" was by coding sustainability indirectly in the form of rituals that sanctify nature. Why the indirection was so effective? Is there something about our brains that made ritualization of nature more effective? If indirect coding of sustainability is the answer, what are the codes/rituals we need to invent in the modern world to achieve the same result? I have always wondered why there is no ritual for fossil fuel (at least until we became widely aware of climate change), why we have never worshipped them just as older cultures worshipped Sun (Sun God)? Do these modern rituals exist somewhere on the planet but just not scaled up (need a marketing campaign)? Can reformation of the economic system do the job? Or is the solution technological – we use some genetic manipulation (Crisper-Cas9) to turn off our yet to be found growth obsession gene? Can we use the same methods and mindset (divide and conquer, reduce and quantify so we can achieve finer manipulation and control of nature) we used for converting nature to wealth (or illth as Herman Daly called it) to preserve and protect it?

    • "How did the indigenous people decide to stop using their tools, however primitive, to stop growth and to start valuing nature more than the necklaces, beads, tools and other artifacts they may have considered wealth before their transition?"

      I am skeptical that there was any such decision in general; I've seen it asserted rather more than I've seen in demonstrated.

      The limit on 'simple' hunter-gathering is their requisite mobility; they can't/won't accumulate anything more than they can carry.

      'complex' hunter-gathering, with richer food sources (salmon runs, delta shellfish, floodplain cereals), can be more sedentary and socially inequal, and perhaps less sustainable as well; Mideast agriculture likely grew out of complex hunter-gathering there.

      Far from "stopping growth", indigenous populations tend to manage their environment (e.g. by burns), live near carrying capacity for their technology, and fight each other over resources. If agricultural, marriage and thus childbirth was often limited by whether someone had access to land or other income: no global awareness, just "can I afford to have kids?"

      • I have questioned my thinking many times before and while I don't have definite answers, the reason why I infer that they put brakes on their own is a) It seems it was possible to expand into new territory through controlled fires and killing of more animals that may be competing with them for food b) Their rituals sanctify nature. Why would they have such rituals if they merely got limited by their technology?

        • …they *did* expand into new territory. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers occupied most of the planet before anyone developed agriculture, with the exception of some distant islands and maybe the high arctic. Human presence was low-density but pervasive. Where are the brakes?

          Originally you said "valuing nature more than the necklaces, beads, tools and other artifacts". Again, all that stuff has to be carried, so is naturally limited. The main growth available was in people, and that grew to fill Australia, Siberia, the Americas, invent jungle and Arctic lifestyles. And eventually invent farming, in multiple places.

  3. "imagine the deplorable behaviors that would result if animal value could be monetized by its destruction"

    Uh, we don't have to imagine that. Animal life has been "monetized" as meat and leather and other products since long before agriculture, with the result of the endangerment or extinction of anything easily huntable. Likewise, trees were "monetized" as fuel, timber, or potential farmland; I heard recently that Great Britain reached peak deforestation in the Bronze Age.

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