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What's It Worth?
I saw a tiger swallowtail butterfly today. These used to be abundant around here, and you'd see one about every week. Then the city grew out another ten miles, and they divided the intervening lands with roads, paved much of it and cut the rest into neat little blocks. On those blocks, you don't want a chaotic, feral, restless, atavistic, amoral natural field - you want a neat, even, conformist square of grass. So you kill everything, including the habitat of the butterfly. And then, because your citizens fear mosquito-borne disease, you spray poison every night that finishes off most of everything else. There are a few natural patches left, here and there, usually unintentionally, and presumably my friend and ally the swallowtail grew up and lived near one of those.
The experience of seeing one of these butterflies is impossible to describe. First, that such a thing exists, being that it's delicate and beautiful in a world that often approaches functional, but I suppose nature has outpaced humanity in making things both attractive and useful. Second, watching it move is an experience in itself. Finally, that it has survived where so much has been torn up to make lookalike blocks of city, with the same liquor outlets and laundromats and convenience stores and Starbucks stands, is amazing. The thought one might have after the contemplations listed above is even simpler: in a world where everything is given a dollar value, how do you value the experience of seeing an uncommon butterfly?
Let me explain. In America, right now, it's easy to get an apartment. Any old place will do, and they're not expensive. But - you wanted the windows to work? You wanted to live outside the crime belt? You wanted to have a view of something other than parking lot, and not be in the flight path of an airport? Ah - those things will cost you. If a basic apartment is $500, one with working windows is $550, one outside the flight path $575, one far from crime $600. This six-hundred-dollar apartment is for all purposes one can put on paper identical to the $500 one, but the experience is different, in that you don't spend time fighting with windows, fending off muggers, holding hands over your ears until the planes pass. You can go out on your balcony and look over more pleasant surroundings. That experience carries a cost, in this case, $1200 per year.
One might assume that having wild butterflies is a consequence of having a nice view, or that there's a $700 "rustic" apartment where butterflies will probably exist. But there's no way to guarantee they'll be there, and if there were, it would be too expensive to mention - having a staff that cultivated and released butterflies through the garden, and dedicated land of several acres on all sides. It's going to get even more expensive in the future, when the only place you'll be able to find butterflies is in the small tracts of land that haven't yet been divided by fences, roads, stores, houses, churches. So there is no way to put a dollar value on the butterfly experience. That in itself should be expected. However, that soon such a thing would be required in order to see a butterfly should chill your blood.
The reason it will soon be required to pay extra for all services including butterflies is that, as humanity expands, we remove things that we took for granted, including open fields and butterflies. And in our society, nothing is recognized unless it is owned and/or paid for. This is how a consumer society works; capitalism is the same as communism, except that in communism all things are owned by "the people," but they're still owned. Both are consumer societies, driven by the desires of each individual and therefore, creating intense competition for a few nice things. In other words, you will always be able to afford a place to live which has butterflies near it, but the cost goes up every year as more humans join the flood of them already on the planet. Today it may be $1000 a month, but soon it may require a twenty million dollar home in the foothills.
I can't place a value on being able to walk out of an apartment and see a tiger swallowtail, or have them near a house where your children grow up. I don't think such things succumb to simple numerical value in the same way that one can assign a dollar value to having better windows, or a better patch of land outside the flightpath of an airport, or a plot far from the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-socioeconomic war zone of our inner cities. But we've now gone over a certain line drawn in the sand; 50% of the world's population lives in cities, and our population keeps expanding and taking more land. Soon being able to see a butterfly will be a luxury that costs plenty, and it's not the money that should bother you: it's that you should be able to appreciate nature without having to assign a dollar value to it.
June 3, 2005