Cold beer, clean water and natural capital

Barely a day goes by that I don’t read a news article about the economic values of the natural world. The most recent one was the Forest Service’s estimate that the economic worth of all the urban trees in the United States could be as much as $50 billion based upon their capacity to store carbon. Although I understand it in principal, I find much of it abstract. The numbers are so large and the concepts far removed from my everyday life.

But this weekend down on the Big Sur Coast I finally got it. My beer had got warm. And even though I am from England I really don’t like warm beer (that’s another story in itself). Like you, I like it cold. Especially on a hot sunny day. What to do when the nearest refrigerator was miles away? Simple: plunk the warm beer down in the cold river and let nature do the rest. After half an hour the beer was the cold and delicious. I’d have paid good money for a cold beer — and that in essence is the concept behind “ecosystem services” or “natural capital.” If we take care of nature, it will take care of us and provide us valuable services that we’d otherwise have to pay for.

Warm beer cooling in Big Creek
Warm beer cooling in Big Creek

The constant flow of cold, clear water cooled the beer down as effectively as any refrigerator. If it didn’t require electricity to cool, what did it require? In this instance, all of the water flowing past my beer originated in the Big Creek watershed. This watershed, located south of the town of Big Sur, is part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve system. Between the Reserve and the adjacent Los Padres National Forest all of the land that surrounding the creek — from 3,000 foot plus ridge to rocky Pacific Shore — is protected from development, logging and conversion thanks to a purchase completed in the 1970s by The Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League.

The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest
The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest

In addition to cooling my beer, the cold clear water provides a home for native steelhead trout; the surrounding land is home to condor, ring tailed cats, bob cats, rubber boa snakes, and a myriad of plants and animals — some common, others rare; the trees capture and store carbon; and the Reserve as a whole provides an important place for scientists studying redwoods, chaparral, geology, marine life and river life and other facets of coastal California.

I am sure an economist could calculate the economic value of all these services and assign a net value to the Reserve. That would certainly be interesting. But so what? Could you ever really realize that value?   To me it was simpler than that. For a few hours on a warm sunday afternoon it was cooling my beer: for free. And that was priceless.

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