Should music put a price on nature?

Have you ever tried to put a price on a walk through a forest or the inspiration from a river you cross on the way to work everyday? Probably not, but the value of nature is something we should pay more attention to and even incorporate into our economy according to environmental scientists. A new paper in Ecosystem Services estimates that inspiration from Mother Nature has made the music industry over $600 million since 2003. This figure is based on the average number of times 1.37 million songs about nature, or inspired by nature were downloaded multiplied by the average price of an iTunes download. 28 keywords were entered into the database of 30 million songs and focused on ecosystem types and their synonyms. Lakes, rivers, streams and forests (including jungles) resulted in over 200,000 songs each. Prairies, steppes, farms, grasslands and deserts came in with a haul of over 100,000 songs per ecosystem and coral reefs, seas, beaches and bays turned up 15,000 to 70,000 songs each. Seagrass ecosystems and seaweeds weren’t so popular in song lyrics.

The lead author of the paper, Dr. Luca Coscieme of Trinity College Dublin, said that the figure of $600 million downplays the real value of nature to the music industry as the keywords did not include animals or groups of animals. The price was not what was important to him however as the point of the research was to show that our current economic system does not account for the inspirational and cultural value of nature and this is something we need to be talking about. I met up with Luca to talk about nature and his research and paired the discussion with a fine selection of ecosystem-inspired music suggested by the HeadStuff team. 

Neasa McGarrigle for HeadStuff: Can you describe the main point of your paper?

Dr. Luca Coscieme: The overall meaning of the paper is not about a number, I’m not really interested in that, it is more about talking about ecosystem services and ecosystem valuation. It’s more about the cooler stuff – about science

For me it’s important that people think about it and talk about it beyond the number. It’s more than a number. And in particular this kind of service has inspirational value and that is what I focus my research on. The education value, the spiritual value, the so-called cultural ecosystem services, of non-material benefits that we get from nature are almost never evaluated because it’s not easy. That was the the overall point. To keep alive this research and keep talking about it because I think it’s important.

The non-material benefits of ecosystems, does that exclude say, food supply, or that aspect of it? Is it just the non-visible elements?

Yes, it is just counting the sense of place or the educational value of nature to explain something or the inspirational value in songs in my case but also other scientific fields or technical fields like biomimetics. So it includes all these kinds of things. I come from a small city in Italy in the middle of the mountains and when I see those mountains… for me they have a very big value because they remind me of my childhood. These things are difficult to evaluate and most of the time it doesn’t make much sense to evaluate them but inspiration is the main ingredient in things like songs or art or whole other sets of cultural things. You need the talent of the artist but the main ingredient is the inspiration, you cannot have the product if you don’t have that.

So it’s not about putting a price of nature but recognising the value of it…

I think the value of nature is infinite. Things like water are infinite but we are unwilling to put an infinite value on them. Value is important in the moment when you have to value different resources which can be used for different things. Nowadays everything is in monetary terms and I don’t like it, you probably don’t like it either, but it’s how the world is. The fact that inspiration doesn’t have associated an economic value is one of the reasons why that has never been considered much by politicians and policy makers. Its not about putting a price on nature it’s about giving it a voice.

Your search terms were based on key ecosystem words. How did you decide to limit it?

Ok, you could use any kind of terms and the potential is almost infinite. So I related my keywords to this paper that was published in 1997, the main paper that moved forward research of ecosystem services. so it basically evaluated all the kind of  services made by the different ecosystem types on Earth and it got this number at the end of the overall economic value provided by the ecosystems. The strongest result was actually when it was compared with the GDP and it was, double or more than double. So the outcome was like, ok, we’re not considering it and we’re not evaluating it, but if we do – and that was the minimal estimate –  nature is producing twice as much as economy and is doing it using renewable resources and so it is also more sustainable. So I used this same list of ecosystem types. Some of the terms were very technical or not very common in everyday language and for example, lakes and rivers were grouped together where I prefer to split them in two. That was the starting point and then I related a synonym to each word, a more common word, for example not tropical forest but jungle. Then in each ecosystem I summed together the number of songs for each keyword. So 14 ecosystems or 28 keywords.

[iframe id=”” parameters=””]

The dates run from 2003-2014. Why this specific period?

iTunes was released in 2003 so I had the number of downloads for that period.

Did you have a favourite ecosystem song?

Most of my musical references are actually Italian. I like a lot how rivers are used in music, because they are almost always involved with in the passing of time, and the irreversible single direction of time. So I was thinking that somehow each ecosystem has some kind of a main message. If you take the Bruce Springsteen song, The River, he tells the story of when he was very young and he met this girl and they were really in love and they made big plans but in the end it is this broken dream. The river is a single moment and it is just in that moment and then passes away and if you don’t get it or catch it it’s gone. So it’s kind of a common language and every aspect of nature is telling us something and we can all understand it.

What language did you look for songs in? Just English?

Just English but it could be done in many languages.

Your work is really relatable for a general audience because Music and Nature are things that we understand and they like but a lot of the work that’s done on ecosystems may not be as instantly communicable. How can scientists work to getting their message out more and really press that message of the value of nature is immense and we can’t just destroy it like we do.

The economic evaluation is one way. It is more understandable for politicians and policy makers, but also for normal people, especially if you compare an economic good to the value of some environmental thing. Probably we need both things, we need services and goods from the economy and services and goods directly from the environment but whatever comes from the economy is immediately based on the environment. To me it is important to communicate these two things that may seem obvious to some people but apparently not to policy makers. The environment is the base of everything and that it provides high value in economic terms.

How can we deal with the disconnect between our modern lives when we live in cities and buildings and even if we walk where there are trees we have our phones. How can we encourage people to reconnect with our surroundings.

It’s not very easy. Everyone knows that you take a guy who always lives in a city and put him in a forest or a beach or something and he feels connected immediately. It’s not easy when we live everyday in a grey environment but we just need some green areas. Every morning I walk through St. Stephen’s Green you know it’s just beautiful and I feel I can be in nature everyday.

What kind of music do you like?

I like a lot of music. If it’s good. I don’t like metal, or I don’t like techno. I listen to a lot of music because of the lyrics. I like a lot of lyrics and the writing.

What platform do you use to listen to music?

Recently I’m using a website called 8tracks where people create playlists based on themes.

What kind of search words do you use? Are there nature ones?

I should tell you ecosystems (chuckles), actually no, but you can write it if you want. As with other people it depends on my mood. Sometimes I’m missing Italy and I listen to Italian music.

[iframe id=””]

Follow @lucacoscieme @NeasaMcG @ThisHeadStuff
Photo: Neasa McGarrigle ‘Reflection of German Alps in Christlesee lake’.