The Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure on earth, is dying.
The reef experienced unprecedented coral bleaching in 2016, with a 2017 study finding large sections had died due to climate change, poor water quality and pollution. Another recent report has helped raise awareness of issues plaguing the reef, partly due to a valuation of the reef at an estimated $56 billion. This figure is being touted throughout the media as a timely call to action, to the point where even Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore has remarked on it, noting that government support of the Carmichael mine is directly at odds with any action to save the reef.
Despite a long history of evidence showing threats to the reef and its clear social, cultural and environmental significance, it has taken a dollar valuation to highlight the importance of saving it. A Gizmodo article on the report aptly notes: “by putting the loss of the Great Barrier Reef into economic terms, it’s hoped that people might finally start to take note and respond accordingly. Which is actually kind of sad.” This is the unfortunate side effect of the current neoliberal mindset, which leaves us emphasising just the things that we can easily count, rather than the things that count.
A shift toward holistic measurement – and the ability to count things other than dollars and cents – could have broad implications for what we fund and why. This is not without challenges, however. Sweeping changes to the way we measure and discuss value are required. In order to truly appreciate something’s value, due consideration needs to be given to a broad range of impact areas – cultural, social, civic, and environmental, as well as economic – with an overarching framework that allows fair comparison between potential investments.
Many are already adopting frameworks with the hope that they can make more meaningful decisions. Were such systems already in place, we may have seen further action to prevent the Great Barrier Reef’s decline. While the reef’s financial value is sizeable, it’s sad to think investment to save it only occurs because of a perceived financial return. Instead, we should be considering what it means to individuals, communities and the environment—and acting accordingly before it’s too late.