Until very recently, forests, freshwater lakes and plant and animal life were rarely thought of in terms of their worth to the world's well-being, or even survival. Nature, it was grandly and wrongly assumed, could take anything we threw at it: pollution, garbage, even global warming.
That attitude is changing, and not a moment too soon. As glaciers melt, deserts spread and freshwater bodies dry up, conservationists and economists alike have started to put a dollar figure on nature's irreplaceable "services" - the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land on which we grow food.
Canada's vast boreal forest, stretching across the top of nearly all the provinces and the northern territories, is one of the most valuable large-scale ecosystems left on Earth, the world's largest store of fresh water.
The value of our forest's services has been put at $700 billion a year. These are the services the forest provides: it stabilizes climate, stores carbon, filters water, controls pests, protects biodiversity and, as home to 25 per cent of the world's wetlands, provides clean water. The forest holds an estimated 400 trillion pounds of carbon in lakes and river-delta sediment, peat lands and wetlands - more than any other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth, and twice as much per square kilometre as tropical forests.
If these services had been included as part of Canada's Gross Domestic Product in 2002, they would have equalled 61 per cent of the country's wealth. In fact, these "non-market" services have a value 13.8 times greater than the net market value of the raw material extracted from the forest, such as minerals, oil, gas, timber and hydroelectric power.
These figures, from a report published last week by the Pew Environment Group, a U.S.based non-profit body, should help Canadians revise their thinking about the 1.2 millionsquare-kilometre boreal forest. Whatever we might have thought in the past, today its role as a unique, life-sustaining ecosystem outweighs by far the value of its extractable raw materials.
Canada can expect now to come under the same kind of pressure to conserve its forest as Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, and Borneo, where only five per cent of the primary rainforest is left. As recently as the 1960s, the Borneo rainforest was virtually untouched.
We might not be used to thinking of ourselves as guardians of a land and water mass of vital importance to the world - but we'll have to start. It has been easy to criticize Brazilians slashing and burning their way through the rainforest with no thought to the future safety of the Earth and all who live on it. But now it's our turn.
To date, the federal, provincial and territorial governments have acted to protect 185 million acres from development, a mass that equals 12 per cent of the total forest. Quebec's Plan Nord is held up as a model. It will protect 50 per cent of Quebec's 550,000 square kilometres of boreal forest and apply sustainabledevelopment standards to the other half.
As demand for Canada's gas, oil and timber continues to rise, the country will have to figure out a way of protecting the even more valuable services that the boreal forest provides.