Sex, the City and nature

We can trust market economics to reveal the true value of chewing gum and Ferraris - but should take care with more complex matters such as conservation, writes Barrie Clarke

Every so often the Establishment gets its knickers tangled about prostitution. Now is one of those times. In a liberal academic (but public) corner of the mediablogosphere, there is a real hoo-ha about ‘people trafficking’. The origin was a journalist’s allegations that the number of women being transported and forced to work as ‘sex slaves’ had been grossly exaggerated. Citing research showing that most ‘sex workers’ were willing participants and even gained some ‘dignity’ from the job, the writer claimed that evidence was being distorted to back up a campaign for all prostitution to be outlawed (1).

As things warmed up, familiar complexities were rehearsed. Is the current legal position fit for purpose? Would more regulation reduce harm? Should there be a ‘crackdown’? Is the ‘sex industry’ a trade like any other? How different are the services it provides and the jobs it creates? Does the market show the true value of the offer? Or might it do so, if freed to function more normally? There are no easy answers. But it would be hard to argue with the commentator whose view is summed up in her heavily ironic reference to “the longed-for day when a young job-seeker loses benefit if she turns down a perfectly respectable place in the sex industry” (2).


Most people would probably agree that the market can be more trusted to reveal the true value of chewing gum, say, or Ferraris, than sex. But this raises an interesting debate about what we are happy to treat as commodities and what really lies outside the market economy, or at least in a more complex relationship with it. Leaving aside specialist definitions and Marxist theory, these questions are live and relevant in many areas of life. Take banking and ecology.

The future shape of the banking industry is under intense scrutiny. One focus is how much trust to put in regulation and/or markets to make different sectors work properly and protect ordinary people. Part of this is an argument about the wisdom of splitting “too big to fail” banks into ‘utilities’ and ‘casinos’. Utilities that offer vanilla services to you and me would be tightly regulated. Their exposure to market forces would be less than their investment bank cousins – they would be bailed out if the need arose. Even in banking the potential for commoditisation varies.

Valuing nature

In environment circles there is mounting anticipation about how the case for funding conservation projects could be strengthened by applying economic valuation methods to the benefits humanity derives from nature – ecosystem services.

Natural England (NE) has published a report which argues that biodiversity and the environment should be treated as critical infrastructure for investment purposes (3). It looks forward to embedding new valuation techniques in decision-making. As evidence NE includes case study projects with rather precise financial values. The benefits of ‘realigning’ some land on the Humber estuary in flood protection and in wildlife and habitats are assessed at £400,667 and £535,000 a year respectively.

However, NE is also realistic. It is clearly right to say that “it is not always possible to elicit monetary values for all eco-system services in every situation”; and “the public good characteristics of many eco-system services…make complete commoditisation impossible and undesirable in some cases”.

One true way?

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds too is enthusiastic about valuing eco-system services. In its new report on the subject it says “Economic valuation can provide a powerful reason to conserve” (4). But it is more aware of its limitations. It thinks that not everything that has a value can be traded, and cautions that “where valuation is used it should generally be one component of a broader decision-making process”. The problem, though is that free market economics is assumed by many to be the one true way of allocating resources.

One speaker at the launch of NE’s report asked why efforts to promote investment in nature had not been as successful as hoped. Answering himself, he asked another question – do stakeholders really believe that change is needed? He was right to ask. To reveal true value, economic and market mechanisms are all we need in many areas, have a useful part to play in some, but in others should not be expected to carry the day. In these last cases, some kind of belief framework or cultural consent is needed that cannot be created to order – even to fit the one true way.

[email protected]

1) Nick Davies, Prostitution and trafficking, The Guardian, 20 October 2009

2) Catherine Bennett, No trafficking? The Observer, 25 October 2009

3) No charge? Valuing the natural environment, Natural England, October 2009

4) Naturally, at your service: Why it pays to invest in nature, RSPB, October 2009

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie