Oil spills are back in vogue. Spills from offshore oil drills, ships running aground into pristine coral reefs have become daily news fodder. With the explosion of digital media (news channels), you can expect start-to-end coverage of environmental disasters anytime of the day. I guess environmental disaster grab eye balls – meaning higher TRP; higher TRP translates to strong advertisement which in turn equates to big money for news channels. Alfred Hitchcock once quipped that there was no business like show business; I bet in today’s world you might say there would be no business like news business!
News channels in their attempt to be dramatic often show stark images – of oil slick covered sea birds, dead bloated aquatic life washed ashore, etc. The other day, the Indian Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh demanded that perpetrators of the recent Mumbai oil spill pay for the environmental disaster they wrecked. On the other side of the world, the Government of US extracted a multi-billion dollar disaster fund from the beleaguered BP. That made me think; how did Jairam Ramesh or the Obama administration arrive upon that particular value? What all got included in the price tag?
For example, what is the price of a cormorant? A zoo manager could give an answer to the nearest paisa – it’s probably the cost incurred to maintain the habitat, procure food plus the salaries of the zoo keepers, vets etc. What about the cormorants those come to Pulicat Lake or Neelapattu bird sanctuary? You might have to factor in the opportunity cost to derive their price. What if Pulicat Lake was transformed into a real estate haven (marshlands, mangroves have historically been reclaimed for settlement)? So the price of each cormorant would be the aggregate total of all apartments divided by total number of cormorants. Now let’s think of the price of the cormorants that we see on the news – the black, oil slick covered cormorants. It’s difficult to put a price tag to them; they come from nowhere and don’t seem to encroach on human settlements. The media moguls though might think otherwise – after all those greasy black birds are worth a fortune in terms of TRP!
We can do the same mathematics for other species – the leopard, eagle, vulture; the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. Putting a price tag on the tiger can get complicated. For instance, the Chinese farm bred tigers would have a different price tag as compared to the price of a tiger in Bandipur National Park.
Today, inadvertently, economics is winning over. Extracting the economic worth of our wilderness has become important. Commercialization and profit booking have become the top priorities. International hotel chains, entrepreneurs, rich people are heading towards the jungle to make a quick buck. Eco tourism is the new “it” business. It’s fashionable, politically correct and profitable. I always thought ecotourism could not expand its base; at best it would be a no profit no gain business model; that ecotourism would have a peak carrying capacity. Alas; today volume seems to be the new mantra for the green entrepreneurs.
Man always thinks he can put a value to anything that is tangible or is empirical. A good economist is good because he knows how to assess the true value of a product / service. But the world is not all that we see. The impact of each tiny, large, static, moving living being is deeper than our current collective scientific wisdom. We still aren't there yet. With our limited knowledge, perhaps putting a price tag on the priceless is truly futile. I guess my exercise of putting a price tag to the wild was fatally flawed.