Assigning a monetary value to our natural assets helps point toward their more profound meaning, writes Ngāi Tahu economist Jay Whitehead. (Photo: Tobias Tullius for Unsplash)

Jay Whitehead (Ōraka Aparima, Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe) is an economist whose job it is to put dollar values on social and environmental impacts. Here he argues in favour of trying to put a price tag on the intangible.


Science and wisdom are not the same. Wisdom is built on traditional knowledge, experience, and ethical considerations, while science is driven by systematic inquiry, empirical evidence, and the pursuit of understanding through experimentation and observation.

As a scientist, perhaps more importantly, as an economist, I am all too aware of the absence of wisdom in my field, often where it is most critical. Scientists have magpie tendencies, becoming mesmerised by the shiny method or insight, frequently overlooking the broader context it needs to be considered within.

Conversely, working with my whānau in Murihiku on complex social and environmental challenges, I find that while they have great wisdom in understanding the broad context of their challenges, they often lack the tools and resources to find the best path forward. A fusion of science and wisdom is required to truly understand and find solutions for modern social and economic challenges.

Much of my work is called “impact assessment”, which typically estimates monetary values for social or environmental impacts. This work blends mātauranga Māori and economics. More specifically, it is based on the ethic of tauutuutu, which has sustained high-value economic relationships for numerous generations.

Tauutuutu is a reciprocity ethic based on a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of the human and natural world. This ethic facilitates the exchange of goods and services and fortifies social unity through an ever-escalating exchange system.

On the surface, there may seem to be tension between assigning monetary values to people and nature, and mātauranga Māori. People and nature hold deep, intrinsic values rooted in cultural, ethical, and emotional significance. Assigning a monetary value might seem to commodify these multifaceted aspects, leading to concerns about dehumanisation and environmental exploitation.

However, this position puts too much weight on the ability of any symbolic expression, like numbers or words, to explain the world adequately. Money is simply a symbol or a way to conceptualise value, much like the words mountain or maunga, which are convenient representations incapable of genuinely capturing the fullness of what a mountain is.

An analogy from the great sage Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon helps illustrate this. “It is like the finger pointing to the moon…” — Bruce Lee.

Or a more complete version courtesy of Buddhism: “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.” — Tich Nhat Hanh.

Monetary valuation is the finger pointing towards a more profound value.

To keep this analogy going: “The common error …. [is] to look at the finger pointing the way and then to suck it for comfort rather than follow it.” — Alan Watts.

Our economic system speaks in the language of dollars. When organisations communicate their positive impacts in dollars, these impacts become visible to the economy and, therefore, become capable of attracting the significant power it holds to drive change.

If our economic systems could adequately understand and account for non-market values, then monetary valuation of social and environmental impacts would not be required. However, this is not the reality that organisations are operating within.

The wisdom of valuing social and environmental goods, particularly through the mātauranga Māori lens of mauri and mana, provides a foundation to guide the science of valuation methods while remaining aware of the true meaning and limitations of the outputs.

I have worked with organisations deeply embedded in te ao Māori to assign monetary values to their impacts, for example, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and the Pūhoro STEMM Academy. In these two cases, the focus has been on understanding the social value produced by the organisation or specific projects.

Understanding social value gives organisations a powerful tool to communicate their positive impact. It can help attract funding and investment and enables decision-makers to make more informed choices, ensuring that resources are allocated efficiently and effectively to initiatives that generate the greatest positive impact.

By communicating in the language of markets, funders, and investors, organisations can clearly demonstrate the good they create to entities with the power to boost this impact significantly.

Assigning monetary values to, for example, a mountain forest’s air filtering services is no less reductive than describing a mountain as ‘beautiful’. In both cases, we are only ever pointing towards a more profound importance and signalling that the mountain deserves our attention.


Jay Whitehead is the Managing Director of Matatihi and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s Ngāi Tahu Centre. Matatihi focuses on using data-driven economics to enhance environmental, social, and Māori economic enhancement.

Jay combines economic science with mātauranga Māori and technology, aiding organisations in sustainability, capital raising, and market intelligence. His decision-making systems, rooted in behavioural economics, support management and strategy for various organisations, particularly in agriculture and rūnanga businesses.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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