The biodiversity value of money: my two cents in

By Dalia D'Amato

As a reaction to the current biodiversity crisis, today more than ever, there is a strive in academia and policy making to highlight the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services to human economy and society.

In particular, the concept of ecosystem services has contributed to bridge natural, social and economic sciences, by delivering a shared language for the analysis of interlinked sustainability issues (Braat and de Groot, 2012; Teeb, 2010; van den Belt, M., Stevens, 2016). Monetary valuation has come to be a popular academic exercise to advocate the importance of ecosystem services and underpinning biodiversity. The appeal of monetary valuation consist in synthesizing a single currency that enables the comparison of ecosystem services, and the analysis of inevitable trade-offs occurring between and across sustainability dimensions (de Groot et al., 2012). Monetary valuation, however, is increasingly at risk of being transformed from useful tool to end goal, especially when not properly framed. The risk is erosion of intrinsic conservation values, and nature commodification (Gomez-Baggethun and Ruiz-Perez, 2011). Monetary value is only one way to approach valuation, while research is emerging that describes value as phenomenological and pluralistic (Pascual et al., 2017). A phenomenological understanding of value postulates that this changes according to different socio-cultural and historical contexts.

Nature has exerted immense fascination on any culture worldwide. “The perception that man used to have [of nature] and the deep meaning of choices [are] seemingly only aesthetic”. Representation of plant or animal subjects have been used by many cultures in monuments, paintings and other means of art as “tool of a real language [by upper or regnant classes], probably as the only way to communication with illiterate” (Caneva and Kumbaric, 2011). Cultural diversity seems associated with biological diversity on many levels, globally (Gorenflo et al., 2012; Pilgrim et al., 2009).

Based on these premises, this brief commentary article explores the other side of the coin (pun intended) featuring nature and its monetary value, with a reversed perspective to value and valuation through the analysis of biodiversity in numismatics. Numismatics is the study and collection of currency, that includes coins, paper money or other payment media used in transactions for the exchange of goods. The following is a non-systematic, but exemplificatory analysis of Italian coins previous to the European single currency.

Italy is characterized by thousands-years-long traditions of deeply intertwined cultural and naturalistic values. From the Romans’ denarius to Florence’s fiorino (featuring the notorious fleur-de-lis), numerous and different coinage systems have been in use in the Italian peninsula. In March 1861, a united Italian kingdom was declared, and with that the Italian lira came to be coined.

The 1 lira cent, released under Vittorio Emanuele II’s reign, featured a branch of laurel and one of oak. These symbols surround almost any official emblems in Italy, and they are repeated in numerous Italian coins. Oak signifies strength and dignity. Laurel, representing glory, is historically ever present on triumphants’ - emperors, warriors, poets and academics - heads. Spikes of wheat are represented on the 5, 10 and 20 cents emitted between 1905 and 1943 during the reign Vittorio Emanuele III, as well as on the 2 lire (1946-1950) and 10 lire (1946-2001) coined just after the second world war. Grains represent spring, as in rebirth, hope and prosperity. It is sometimes coupled with the plough, as a symbol of challenging work and dependency on agriculture.

A bee is featured on the 10 cents (1919-1937) and the 2 lire (1953-2001). Also, a symbol of laboriousness, and perhaps the representation of an ecosystem service ante litteram? The 1 lira (1951-2001) and the 50 lire (1996-1999) feature a cornucopia on its reverse and a scale on its obverse. The cornucopia, symbol of earthly abundance, associated with the scale, recalls distributive justice. Other nature-related symbols include a grape cluster in the 5 (1946-1950) and 50 (1996-2001) lire, a dolphin in the 5 lire (1951-2001), and an olive branch in the 10 lire (1946-1950). Explicit reference to nature conservation are found in the 500 and 1000 lire coins, dedicated in the early 90’s to flora and fauna, and to wildlife protection, respectively.

Profound and chord-striking symbolism in art and in ordinary objects, such as coins, reminds us that nature is a omni-present value embedded in our society. It is not simply a heritage from pre-industrial times, but it accompanies us in our turbulent, but indissoluble, co-evolution with the natural dimension. What should we keep in mind from this lesson, as our perception of nature changes with times?

My father, as an occasional collector of coins, and my husband, as a meticulous collector of stamps, would say that what a token is valued is different from what it is worth. Furthermore, a piece is even more valuable when embedded within the series it belongs to, meaning its appropriate context. In the same way, biodiversity and ecosystems are characterized by emerging properties that rely on the complexity and continuity of a system. These non-linear characteristics enhance their value as well as and functionality (Balvanera et al., 2014; Cardinale et al., 2012). Naturalists have been often ridiculed as “mere stamp collectors” (Maier, 2012, p.63). Indeed, these two groups – naturalists and collectors – share the rare gift to see beauty beyond mere usefulness. An efficiency-based approach to ecosystem management, sometimes, may feel like treating these issues as in a “Jenga game”: how many blocks can be removed before the tower collapses?

Monetary estimation of biodiversity and ecosystem services can provide, in certain contexts, a useful tool to highlight and advocate their importance to economy and society. Clearly it cannot attempt to represent billion-years-unfolding biodiversity and millennia of related cultural value. That is perhaps why the use of an ephemeral token like money to represent something so complex and mesmerizing as biodiversity seems so preposterous to many.

Dalia D'Amato works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Forest Bioeconomy, Business and Sustainabiliry Research (FBBS) group at the University of Helsinki.


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