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Is a Tree Worth a Trillion Dollars? - Musings and Meditations

Updated: Apr 11

Seven-minute excerpt from an interview with eco/social/systems philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger, explaining why a tree is worth a trillion dollars.

Today I will let Daniel Schmachtenberger do the musing.

The previous musings I talked about Julia Butterfly Hill and her memorable action to prevent a ancient redwood from being cut down.

When, after two years, she climbed down from the makeshift wooden platform on which she had lived continuously all that time at a height of 180 feet in the estimated 1,500-year-old tree called Luna, it was because an agreement had been reached with Pacific Lumber Company, which wanted to cut down the tree.

Luna would be protected, as well as a buffer of some seventy meters around the tree. One of the conditions was that Julia and her supporters would pay some $50,000 to the company for the "economic loss" suffered.

So we can infer that that was pretty much the value that Luna, from an ‘economic’ standpoint, had for the firm. It was the ‘market value’ of Luna.

But is that a reflection of the real value of this tree, and of trees in general?

And how can we actually assign a 'market value' to things like trees or whales or cows?

In this excerpt from an interview, eco/social/systems philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger explains why one tree is actually worth a trillion dollars.  

Which is basically the same as saying that it is impossible to calculate the real value of a tree, and that is equally true for other aspects of our biosphere. Schmachtenberger is not arguing here for the notion of ‘ecosystem services’, and for expressing the value of nature in terms of money to encourage us to conserve nature; on the contrary, he is showing the absurdity of that idea: the value of a tree (or an animal, or any aspect of the natural world that we reduce to a ‘commodity’) cannot be calculated with our models. The real value of a tree lies in everything that makes a tree valuable to the entire ecosystem, including but not limited to ourselves: Not just storing CO2 and producing oxygen, but also things like protecting the soil from erosion, providing habitat for countless species of animals, birds and insects, cooperating with the mycelium that serves just about all life on earth (on land anyway), generating rain through the principle of 'biotic pump', facilitating countless forms of 'inter-ecosystem interactions', mitigating extremes in temperature, and so on and so forth. Trees are essential to the living fabric of our biosphere in endless ways, and it is impossible even to know (or measure) exactly what trees do.

Thus, if we had to do everything a tree does itself with our current technology, Schmachtenberger says, one tree would be worth a trillion dollars.

That number is a kind of witticism, but actually means: inestimable value.

Inestimable in the sense of: unknowable according to our current models of calculating value.

We cannot 'measure and know' everything, Schmachtenberger says, and all our measurements and models will therefore always be wrong and incomplete.

All we calculate is how much it costs us to cut down the tree, and the market value according to the game of supply and demand. All the rest, all the value of the tree to the whole ecosystem and to the other living things with whom we share that tree, all that the tree means to the biosphere, are 'externalities' that we don't take into account any further.

The term ‘externalities’ is one of the strangest words in our contemporary model of ‘economics’, and along with the concept of ‘interest’ it is also pre-eminently a concept that makes our model of economics untenable. But I won't go too far into that right now, and just let you listen in to Daniel Schmachtenberger, whom I think is an exceptional thinker and whom I will be talking about more often in the blog and project. Sometime I would like to share the entire interview of which this is an excerpt. The whole interview lasts about an hour and a half, but is doubly worthwhile, as an extraordinary thought exercise on capital and the metacrisis.

You can actually divide this seven-minute excerpt into two parts. In the first part, Daniel explains why our models for determining ‘economic value’ are hopelessly inadequate because they leave out most of the actual value as ‘externalities’. In the second part, Schmachtenberger goes even further and clarifies why any model of reality is necessarily limited and therefore wrong and can cause endless harm. Models can be useful, but if we confuse the models with reality itself, things will always go wrong.

It will always be necessary to sense reality outside the models, and to sense ("thinking-feeling-sensing") which action is the right one, Schmachtenberger said, because our models will therefore always necessarily be limited.

In his words, "The whole set of measurements I could ever have, the whole set of (natural) laws I could ever have, will be infinitely far away from the set that matters. So I want to regard it (the measurements) as useful, but also as infinitely wrong. The thing that is holy is unknowable.... but I must continue to sense it and not live within some kind of model of reality."

I will return to that second aspect a lot in the musings and in the blog, because it is important to what I am trying to clarify, and is also something I had my attention on for many years as a visual artist.

This excerpt originally appeared on the YouTube channel of Keith Gilmore, an author, writer and speaker from Portland, Oregon. Keith writes primarily on culture, ethics, psychology, spirituality, philosophy and psychedelics. More info on his website.

So how can we ever cut down a tree again?

I don't think Schmachtenberger's point is that no tree should ever be cut down, but that the ways in which we decide to cut down a tree, why or for what purpose, and the ways in which we determine the value of that tree in relation to other things, is a process that will have to be completely different than it is now, and that it follows that the whole way we think about money, about economics, about value...will have to change very radically if we want to find a path to a brighter future.

In the entire interview of which this is an excerpt, Schmachtenberger explains why money is something that cannot continue to exist in its current form anyway if we want a livable planet. But that's for another time.

Thanks for reading and watching, and until the next installment,

All the best to you,


Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven


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