Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Divorce, Ecocide and Economics
distributed 6/11/04 - ©2004

(This issue of "Notes" revises and updates one distributed on February 1, 2002.)

What is a wife worth? The question seems crass by today's standards.

But 30 years ago -- in a time of shifting roles and social structures -- that question was a hot topic. The debate was stirred by many factors, but the most important was divorce.

In the US of the early 1970s, divorce was becoming more common and more socially acceptable. What had been seen as a shameful and private process became more public, and those involved in it became more assertive. Women who were negotiating alimony and the division of property raised fresh questions about the economic contributions that "stay at home" housewives made to the marriage.

Before the 1970s, the assumption in law and practice was that the husband made important contributions to the family through his paying work. The stay-at-home wife, however, was just there -- a helper, but not a significant contributor to the household economics. Thus, she had little claim to the family's assets of the house or bank account.

In those early days of feminism, advocates for women voiced a different economic view. Although no paychecks were issued, they insisted that the work of a housewife must be seen as having measurable value. In addition to her immediate domestic service (cleaning and administering the household; raising children), she frequently provided services essential to her husband's status and career advancement (hosting and appearing at social functions; volunteer service in the community). However routine, invisible or involuntary, her work was essential. Women asserted that their unpaid work must be taken into account when allocating the family assets.

Ironically, the women's case was validated when some men complained that they could not afford to share their wealth, because after the divorce they would have to hire housekeepers, nannies and caterers to replace the "free" work of the wife.

In 2004, it is still hard to calculate a value for household work. But the need to make those calculations has settled into our laws and our awareness.

+     +     +     +     +

What is nature worth? What is the value of a forest, or a wetland? What price tag can we put on the invisible work of insects and bacteria? The difficulty in answering those questions shows that, for the most part, our valuing of the natural world today is as ignorant and unjust as what took place in divorces of the 1960s.

Natural processes do things that we have taken for granted, and assumed will always be there. Just like "the wife" could be counted on to cook the meals, raise the kids and be a sexual partner, we've assumed that we can count on nature to provide us with clean air and water, with food, fuel, and innumerable "housekeeping" services. Most economic calculations assume that we don't have to pay or account for nature's work -- it just comes as an expected part of our life on Earth. But that assumption blinds to the real worth of nature's service.

A good friend of Eco-Justice Ministries wrote to me this week with a dramatic example.

Deforestation precipitated the devastating flooding and erosion of China's Yangtze basin in 1998 that killed 3,700 people, dislocated 223 million others, and inundated 60 million acres of cropland. That $30 billion disaster forced a logging moratorium and a $12 billion crash program of reforestation. All because the 'free' ecological services of water and soil retention furnished by forests had been flagrantly compromised in favor of immediate profits from logging. The official policy of the Chinese government now, belatedly, is that a tree standing is regarded as worth three times the value of a tree logged.
It is a far bigger issue than trees in China. According to a 1997 estimate published in the journal Nature, every year humanity uses around US$33 trillion worth of natural resources and ecosystem services. That figure includes the obvious physical resources we use (trees, water, and land). It also assigns value to the capacity of the earth to clean the air, store water, control the climate, pollinate crops, provide habitat and deal with pollution. By that estimate, the value of services provided by nature is nearly twice the value of humanity's global gross national product of US$18 trillion.

To return to the family image, the unpaid "housewife" is contributing twice as much value as the "wage earner." Two thirds of our global economy is invisible and unmeasured. Most of the Earth's productivity is not derived from human effort.

In the 1970s, divorce highlighted the economic value of unpaid domestic work. The dispute focused on economic justice for the housewife. The current discussion about the value of ecosystem services is far more crass.

These new economic calculations are not about justice for the rest of creation. They are more like a warning to a husband who is poisoning his loving wife. Humanity's impact on the planet is killing off the species and the systems that have provided services for us. As we commit that ecocide, the economists are begging us to consider a very selfish question. Can we afford to replace the services that we have always taken for granted? Indeed, is it even possible to replace many of those valuable services with other technologies, no matter how much we might be willing to pay?

There are theological, spiritual and moral reasons for humanity to live in a sustainable relationship with the natural world. But there are also self-serving economic reasons to acknowledge, treasure and preserve the marvelous systems that God has created.

May we pay attention to the economic warnings, and save our productive Earth.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form