Price the job, not the trees

An alternative to pricing nature is pricing jobs. Here is a radical approach to stopping HS2 in its tracks.

You offer the CEO £10m to denounce the project and resign. By denouncing it and revealing its illegalities and lies, he undermines morale to the point that people won’t want to work for it. It makes it very hard, if not impossible, for the government to hire a replacement. And the venture loses its political mojo and grinds to a halt.

If you are working for HS2 you can’t be that rich – otherwise you would not do that job – so £10m is life-changing. This is a sum which the RPSB, the Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trusts could put together, with the support of a few, discreet, very rich donors.

It would need to be done with the help of a lawyer to be sure the guy is not breaking any rules. Probably presented as a mea culpa, a realisation that “I can’t go on living this lie any more.” Lawyers can get the wording right.

The key to this is that any organisation is the sum of its individuals. It does not exist without the people populating it. So go for the individuals not the institution. If you undermine the individuals, you undermine the organisation. But if you attack the organisation itself, the individuals will leap to its defence.

It would be a big bet – perhaps the project could recover after a high profile, damaging resignation. But perhaps not – perhaps it would be the perfect get out for a government which does not believe in the project, but, like a train, finds it difficult to do a u-turn.

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Some limitations in pricing nature

Nature is complicated and protecting it cannot be reduced to pricing a single species, place or chemical. Even if economists would like it so.

In the Netflix film, Social Dilemma, one of the interviewees, Justin Rosenstein, talks of a world where a whale is worth more dead than alive, a tree worth more cut down than living. His beautifully made point: people generally undervalue nature.

From time to time economists and policy people say that if you want to protect nature you have to put a price on it. Most recently Gillian Tett in her article in the weekend Financial Times 26/27 September 2020.

I have been doubtful about pricing nature. I wrote an article on this back in 2012:

The main reason is that I imagine that there is always a (newly) rich guy who can pay that bit more because he wants to kill the elephant or cut down the tree. So nature might have a price, but if someone can pay it, you’re no better off. As there is an infinite supply of nouveau riche thugs, bezerk engineers, insane town planners and various other categories of nature haters, spending their own or others’ money, nature will always get outbid and then, ripped apart.

But the FT article made me try and think more constructively.

The 300 year old oak tree

Recently there are horrible bits of news coming out of the UK where a demented railway scheme called HS2 is annihilating of dozens of ancient woods and thousands of venerable trees. Consider the case of a 300 year-old oak tree near Leamington ( cut down to make way for a service road.*

But back to the killing of trees.

Designers and planners of a railway line deem it appropriate that a 300 year old oak should be cut down to make way for a service road. How would pricing nature save the tree?

I assume there would be a charge and the charge could be so big that they decide it’s better to build their road elsewhere. Given the size and importance (to some delirious empire builders) of the project, and the relative cost of road-building, I think we need to be talking at a price of at least £100,000 for it not to be worth cutting down. Perhaps even £1 million.

If you take a £10 cost of planting a tree and compound it at 3% for 300 years, you get to around £70,000; compound it at 4%, you get to £1.3m. It’s somewhere around there.

If someone is ready to pay the price, the tree still gets cut down. How does that pricing scheme help nature?

It might help nature if the fee is earmarked for nature restoration projects. This is unlikely to work in the UK where I understand that the Treasury does not like “hypothecation”. Hypothecation is where tax revenues are earmarked for specific purposes instead of going into the general slop bucket for the political snouts to slurp up.

If someone is not ready to pay the price, the tree is saved.

But if you want to save that tree, you might as well just prohibit its felling. I don’t see why pricing it is better.

Either way, you still need an effective supervisory system to prevent someone breaking the rules. One of the big problems with any regulatory system – pricing or not – is that you need resources to track every tree and prevent lawbreakers; you need resources to gather evidence and prosecute them if you fail to prevent the crime. The odds of getting away with it are in favour of the tree-killer. There is no point having an economically clever regulatory scheme without plenty of resources to monitor compliance.

The Amazon rainforest

At the other end of nature you have the Amazon rainforest. How might pricing save that? You see. The problem is not pricing, it is Bolsonaro. If you want pricing you need good government first.

Pricing nature like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme

So how can we price nature? Could it be like the EU Emission Trading Scheme? Under the EU ETS we have a target level of CO2 emissions to reach. We have an agreed amount of CO2 which can be emitted each year. Permits are issued to the market in that amount, and companies trade them. If there are not enough permits to go round, the price goes up to the point that it is worthwhile for one of the companies not to emit.

Importantly, it does not matter where the emissions happen or do not happen. A tonne of CO2 from a Portuguese paper factory is the same as a tonne of CO2 from a Polish cement plant. Practically, too, the number of regulated entities is countable and power plants don’t move about, unlike golden eagles and elephants.

In some cases a scheme like this can work. The SOx NOx trading scheme in the USA in the 1980s did result in a reduction of acid rain at lower cost than anticipated. It works where there is a general area to be protected, but not where specific place matters. An oak tree in Leamington Spa cannot be replaced by a larch tree in Malmö. Equating the two would be like saying: “If your Granny in Glasgow passes away, it’s ok there’s a kid just been born in Shanghai.”

How would a scheme work, taking into account this constraint?

You could take a particular, ecologically homogenous area – say an area of mixed farmland outside a city. You would say: “Here there are 10,000 hectares of mixed forest and 8,000 hectares of wetland. And we want to increase that to 20,000 hectares of forest and 17,000 hectares of wetland by 2030. This means that every year for ten years we need to add 1,000 hectares of forest and 900 hectares of wetland.”

The government would each year run a reverse auction for suppliers of land for conversion to forest and wetland. The lowest bidders would give up their land for cash and the land would be converted. There might be features giving extra value for contiguous areas of land or for land which creates connectivity between other ecologically rich areas.

That could work. It would require a tremendous amount of study and data – an inventory of the entire natural capital of the region in question; a stop on all exploitation of existing “natural land” because otherwise you are just chasing your tail. It would also need a strong inspection system to be sure that there is no unrecorded, illegal destruction of nature.

It would also require a government which wants to protect nature. I haven’t seen any evidence recently of any government of a large country which is serious about protecting nature.

It is worth noting, that Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester has recently identified an area of peatland on which to build 6,000 houses. Even though the emissions of about 1 million tonnes of CO2 from destroying the peat would be valued at least €30 million under, say, the UK’s commitments under Paris, this clearly has not been taken into account. A pricing scheme is not worth much if people ignore it. [2]

Pricing through offsetting

Another approach to pricing nature is a certificate scheme – as in wetland or biodiversity certificates. If you want to chop down a tree you have to buy certificates from someone who has planted trees in compensation. This might have some applications. It is used in some places to make good damage from development. If the ecosystem being destroyed isn’t that special, and can be recreated elsewhere – preferably with double the area, then it’s a useful scheme.

As far as our 300 year old oak goes, such a scheme has a fundamental and unacceptable flaw: you cannot replace old with new when it comes to nature. A 300 year old oak in one place is not replaced by 20 saplings elsewhere. The richness of ecology above and below soil takes decades or centuries to achieve. By cutting it down you are setting us back hundreds of years. No clever engineer can make good on that, MIT or otherwise.

Pricing the cost of protecting nature into consumer products

There is a case to say that customers should pay for goods which are produced in a way to protect nature. Thus the cost of protecting nature is priced into the cost of retail products in the supermarket. If customers are ready to pay extra then that is great, but we know that markets don’t work on “should”.

We see this in certified organic foods or shade-grown coffee or dolphin friendly tuna (which is not very friendly to the tuna). A small portion of customers are aware and wealthy enough to choose these product. To build these markets to a scale where they will have a significant impact on protecting land will take a huge amount of work. It is underway with initiatives like OP2B – One Planet, Business for Biodiversity which involves 19 large companies mainly in food and agriculture (

Ultimately this is not about pricing. It is about enlightened businesses and enlightened consumers. It’s a purer route than pricing – but takes a long time to get there.

It will take more than money to overcome industrial interests

I think that talk of pricing nature is not going to get us very far. It might be useful to expand the area of some ecosystems, but it’s only a partial solution. It cannot save special places, special trees, and it cannot protect ancient things any better than tough laws.

Any scheme depends on politics and good government. Pricing nature is an idea from a dreamland now lost – where governments once wanted the right things and thought carefully about the policies needed to achieve those things.

Today there is no government of any large country on the planet which is serious about nature. It gets in the way of the interests of agrichemical companies, construction businesses, farmers, fishermen, manufacturers of cement and steel, miners, oil and gas companies, paper makers, peat extractors, plastic manufacturers, railway builders, road builders, wood products guys and any other people or businesses engaged in industrial activity. For any tree or square meter of wetland, there are dozens of entrepreneurs or bureaucrats queuing to cut it down or drain it.

Killing nature is too embedded in the workings of industry and commerce for the political system to be ready to do much about it.

It will take all sorts of things, no simple economic solution

It took policy people and economists several decades to realise that a single carbon price is not the silver bullet solution to tackling climate change. I remember conferences in the early 2000s when economists of some note would say it’s rather easy to solve climate change, just have a universal carbon price. Right. So let’s not make the same mistake with biodiversity.

Whatsmore the situation is burningly urgent. We have not got decades in hand for economists to realise they are wrong.

Nature needs our help in a complex medley:

- Everyone doing their thing in their garden, in spaces they influence or control

- Everyone doing their thing by not eating fish or industrially farmed meat, the consumption of which is destroying nature more than anything else

- There are many, many people who can afford not to worry about financial return – so use your spare cash to buy land and protect it

- Farmers restoring their land to mixed, regenerative farms with rotations and space for nature

- Some brave people ready to break rules and force issues [3]

- People to learn to love themselves so they stop taking their loathings out on nature – a kind of spiritual renewal

- Governments to implement strict rules; people to call governments on implement strict rules

- Businessmen tempted to cut down trees and destroy nature in the interests of becoming even richer, to resist that temptation and think of the interests of their children, their grandchildren, and, if fate smiles upon them, their great grandchildren [4]

- Children to be taught to love nature, to be in awe of it, and to take care of it

- Ruthless mockery of the brutish self-confidence of the nature destroying thugs out there, whether in offices or earth movers, yielding laptops or chainsaws.

- Invaders to listen to indigenous people to relearn how to live off the land and live from forests without destroying them

- Entrepreneurs and their financiers to invest their energies, brainpower and funds into businesses which care for nature and take its produce modestly

- A rejection of the nature-hating governments, their business friends and financiers, who insist on destroying nature at any cost, even if it means spoiling a dinner party.

- Some, limited pricing schemes


[1] Yes it is an unspeakable evil for which, one day, I hope the individuals all the way along the chain of command from the digger driver via the CEO of HS2 Ltd, Mark Thurston, all the way down to putrid mire in which the prime minister crawls, will be brought to justice. I also hope, for good measure, that on that day the judge presiding over the Court of Nature Justice will be as bilious as Judge Jeffreys and as compassionate as Genghis Khan, and his executioner’s sword will be rusty and skew.



[4] There are positive signs that business is starting, terribly slowly, to understand that change is needed. Recent announcements like OP2B (above), the plans by HSBC to invest $1bn in biodiversity, the plan by Cargill to convert 10 million acres to regenerative farming. These are great initiatives, incredibly late dawnings – I never understand how it takes all those really brainy people so long to twig, but it does – but they are happening and will be copied and multiplied and scaled up.

Beyond business there is a myriad of initiatives like Trillion Trees, Ark2030, Indigo or ReNature each with different ambitious plans to restore the natural world.

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Rebellion alphabet

When the laws of the land actively promote the destruction of nature and take other species to extinction ahead of us, it is obviously justified for brave people to rebel. We should all. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order:

- Architects and designers who say no to clients who want to replace nature rather than work around it

- Brave saboteurs able and willing to foul the engines and slash the tyres of vehicles and break machinery engaged in plundering nature

- Computer programmers able to disable laboratories manufacturing pesticides

- Doctors able discreetly to administer progressively larger doses of ketamine to nature-hating industrialists and politicians

- Ex-military guys roughing up the lobbyists of fossil fuel companies

- Fashion models who lure agrochemical executives into honeytraps

- Gamekeepers who don’t set their traps, and gunsmiths who sell reverse firing shotguns to trophy hunters

- Hypnotists skilled in imbuing love of nature into the most curdled hearts

- Indian gurus infecting men in suits with radical spirituality

- Judges with the right values or amenable to retirement improvement programmes funded by wealthy people intent on protecting nature

- Kleptocrats’ accountants secretly fleecing their bosses and wiring the cash – via offshore paradises – to projects which restore degraded forests and wetlands

- Lawyers able to defend the brave saboteurs, even if pro bono

- Municipal workers who accidentally break their infernal strimmers and let the grass and wildflowers grow

- Nice old ladies who suddenly decide to stop eating sea fish

- Organists who stand up and shout “If you’re really a Christian, then live as if God made the Earth” in the middle of mass

- Policeman ready to turn a blind eye to the other people on this list, with or without retirement improvement programmes

- Queens who rip up protocol and talk like it is about how bad their government is

- Retired generals who realise that all is not well and perhaps have granddaughters who can clearly, calmly and lucidly explain to them the desperate situation we are getting into; those good men might be ready to call in a few favours, and suggest to the current command that someone needs to do something

- Sewage workers who dump foul smelling sludge in the front gardens of executives of companies building maniac rail ventures

- Teachers who teach children to sing and paint and play and love nature and eschew STEM classes

- Undergradates who debag economics professors still rambling on about economic growth

- Vendor financiers who refuse to fund the purchase of chainsaws

- Workers who misunderstand instructions and dig the trench elsewhere

- Xylophonists who persuade the entire orchestra to stop mid-requiem and give a minute’s silence for the natural world

- Youth workers who help children discover nature in inner cities

- Zoo keepers who feed oil executives to crocodiles while people are all watching the sea lions performing

These are just a few of many ways in which we can rebel against the destruction of nature.

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Covd 19, bouncy castles and resilience.

I have written an essay on bouncy castles, Covid 19, resilience and efficiency. Mainly on resilience. Because it is much longer than normal articles, I have posted it as a pdf.


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To nurture the sanctity of trees in our hearts

A cherry tree in our garden, viewed from below.

Imagine a world where human life is cheap. If someone is in the queue in front of you and you are in a hurry, you take them out. If someone else is going for the dream job you want, or is bidding higher on a house you are after, put a bullet through them. No, she’s not getting the last grapefruit on the market stall. Bang! I don’t like the way you look at me – Swish, thump, ugh. If an old person is getting a bit dotty and incontinent, there’s a nearby cliff you can push them down.

You clear up the mess and move on. Get over it. Come on, there’s new kids being born every day.

A world like that horrifies us. At different times in history or in different places it has surely existed. But today it’s gross, inhumane, uncivilised, primitive, immoral. It is unthinkable.

And that is how we treat trees today. If they are in the way of our plans – a supermarket, a road or a railway – bulldoze them away. If the leaves they drop are too much to clear away (yes, there are nutcases that want leaves cleared awayl), call for the tree “surgeon” to take it out. If there’s not quite enough room to part your car, it’s a job for the chainsaw. If industry commands, clear cut hundreds of square kilometres. If you want to squeeze a bit more out of the farming subsidies, grub up Freda the old oak, you can always plant some token leylandii to make up. If your view over the lake isn’t perfect or you’re allergic to shade, down they come.

That is our world.

Until that world horrifies us, there’s little chance of saving the Earth. It needs to be as repulsive to chop up a tree as to slice up a human; to take the life of the tree as to take the life of a human being.

Trees, lone or in their forest homes are fundamental protagonists of life on Earth as we know and need. They have to become sacrosanct.

Is it conceivable? How much is the sanctity of human life built into our genes or how much is a product of nurture. Probably to a great part the latter – you can nurture killers if you want. Today our society nurtures killers of trees, everyman who doesn’t hold their sanctity in his heart. So we could nurture the sanctity of trees in the hearts of our young, and over time it would take root in our society.

So what about the myriad of products made of wood? Create new forests for them, but don’t take from the wild. The new forests must be designed to be rich in biodiversity, and draw from them carefully and with reverence, use the material sparingly and create from it beautiful and enduring things. Reuse and recycle every last scrap. Don’t burn it, but return waste material with its carbon and nitrogen intact, to the soil.

We need a deal with trees; it needs to be spiritual and the practical compromises need to be crafted carefully, erring on the side of caution and reverence.

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