How Bees Save the Global Economy £100 Billion a Year, and More Interesting Facts from the 'Earth Index'

The BBC and the United Nations have put together a report that puts financial figures on all of mother nature's unpaid labour.

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08 October 2015, 2:41pm

(Photo by Maciej A Czyzewski via)

It's the economy, stupid. Or so goes the logic when it comes to running the world. Growth is king and, as David Cameron is keen to point out, a robust economy is the bedrock upon which all else is built.

But what if there's bedrock below the bedrock, something even more fundamental than the convoluted barter system we call money? Today, the "Earth Index" is appearing alongside the usual stock indexes in financial pages around the world, in The Times, The Wall Street Journal and many others.

Why? It's part of a project spearheaded by the BBC and the United Nations, aimed at putting a figure on mother nature's unpaid labour. The logic being, if the moral argument about why we should respect the environment rather than destroy it isn't getting through to the suits, maybe one about cold hard cash will.

Neil Nightingale, creative director at BBC Earth, explains: "We see this as an additional way of looking of things, that brings the contribution of nature into sharp focus. If you were running any business or a country, you would not destroy your capital base and impair your ability to operate successfully in the future, so why do it with a part of the economy which these figures show is at least as large and important as the conventional one we usually look at."

It's a good question and the figures are intriguing. The Index estimates that bees save the economy more than £100 billion worth of wages annually by pollinating plant species free of charge.

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe – but humankind in all its wisdom has already decimated the global bee population to such an extent that in Western regions of China the sight of agricultural workers contorting themselves around fruit trees to manually pollinate blossoms has become commonplace. The report estimates that one hive of bees can do as much pollinating as 20 adult workers. And all without salaries to pay, pesky unions to deal with or workers' rights to uphold. You'd think the captains of industry would be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of all that untapped labour.

Likewise, it's estimated that vultures, in their role as the world's disposers of the dead, save millions by doing a job that basically nobody else wants to do, and also by mitigating the disease risk posed by leaving dead things lying around – leading to further savings on the cost of global healthcare.

Even the humble plankton, long regarded as merely something for whales to gargle, saves the global economy nearly £140 billion annually by sustaining fish populations, replenishing the atmosphere with oxygen and absorbing CO2.

So is the idea to develop a more wide-ranging version of carbon credits, like ecological credits, bee credits, coral credits?

Neil explains: "I don't think we're necessarily qualified to tell people what to do with this data, except first of all sit up and take notice – these are huge figures we're talking about. By any normal economic reckoning, the scale of these figures demonstrates that the health of nature – preserving its capital, if you will – is absolutely essential to our future. If the science and practice is developed further then I'm sure that it can help in more detail to shape policy to ensure the services nature provides to us continue."

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It's symbolic of a society indebted to Mammon that the only way to convince people not to burn the planet is by telling them their money will burn too. Still, these figures are food for thought.

But will the right people be thinking about them? The people at the Paris climate conference (COP) in November, for example.

Neil explains: "I hope that a holistic view of the world's future, including the enormous contribution that nature and natural services make to the well-being and prosperity of all humanity, will be very much factored into the thinking at COP."

Time will tell.

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