Human Resources-- an idea whose time has come?

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

Back in geologic time, when I was in graduate school in the new discipline of Environmental Science, we were introduced to the even newer fields of Environmental Economics. Coming from both a science background with no appreciation for economics as well as being a treehugger, I was repulsed by the very notion of seeking to evaluate the environment in any sort of ecomomic sense. I mean, really, what is the value of a black bear in Asheville, where I live, or, as was a hot issue at that time, of a spotted owl? Of a species at all? Earth’s species have inherent value—that is infinite and unquantifiable!

I thought, “how do you assign a dollar value to the very ground that you walk on, the air that one breathes?” Or the massive material content - i.e. the biomass of an ecosystem, the species richness…really, it was a preposterous idea to me. In the film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” there is a slide in Al Gore’s slidedeck showing a cartoon of a stack of gold bars on one side and the whole globe in the other, purported to be drawn from a climate-change denier publication. The idea that money can outweigh the value of the earth on which it is created deserves derision.

However, as I learned more about environmental accounting, I came to understand the depth and importance of trying to put values on the environment, and particularly, of methodologies like, “ecosystem benefits analysis,” which examines and value the specific services provided by the environment. For example, what is the value of wetlands that buffer a city from the full brunt of a category 3 or 4 hurricane? If the wetlands have been destroyed and then such a hurricane hits, what losses are incurred due to the non-existence of those buffering services (lives lost, destruction of infrastructure and buildings, lives and work disrupted)? Another way to assign a value to the environment (“replacement value”) is to consider what a human-made entity that served the same buffering functions as the wetlands would cost to construct. Yet a third methodology is, “willingness to pay”, which uses surveys to determine how much would a group of people be willing to pay to know that the Grand Canyon, or the Everglades exist, regardless of whether they visit them.

Each of these methods has its pluses and drawbacks. Depending on the context for which valuation is needed, one may yield more insights than another. However, what I came to appreciate is that economic valuation of the Earth and its composite environments helps, and has helped us determine without doubt that the value of the earth IS NOT ZERO. To say that something has infinite is like saying the value is unquantifiable. If the discussion off-limits, then the value of the environment shows up as zero in an accounting ledger or cost-benefit analysis. Although valuation is relative, inaccurate and imprecise, we now know that in the case of the environment, it is something greater than 0.

Decades after I learned about environmental accounting, it occurred to me that there may be a parallel in our valuation of human beings. We like to say that human life is inherently precious, priceless, even. Although we eschew valuing a human life, life insurance industry as well as automobile safety regulations do make highly precise valuations. What is interesting to me is that we don’t spend much time elucidating WHY a person's life is so infinitely valuable. We don’t take the time to consider deeply what we gain from the existence and work and lives of other people. Thus, just like the environment, we can be blind to and ignore these assets. Worse, since these benefits are not apparent to us, as a society we all too easily dispose of people, rather unconscious of the real losses we all incur as a result.

What if we made more efforts at Human Resource accounting? Might we act more intentionally to appreciate the gifts that people bring to this world by virtue of their unique existence. One example might be our use of prisons as punitive dumping grounds where people’s lives are wasted—as a society we might recognize how much we need these people as fathers, brothers, or workers, each contributing to their fullest. In a world that truly valued people, we would not throw anyone away. Children would not languish, waiting for foster and/or adoptive homes, because they would be seen as resources for families who would benefit by their addition. Oppressive, warring regimes would stop massacring people, realizing that we all lose when by an early death. Consider the recent years of bombing in Syria, resulting in hundreds of thousands dead and/or become refugees. Sure, this is bad for the victims of such horror, but we all lose in such instances. What contributions might these people have been able to make to the world had their lives not been early terminated?

Every day, all over the world, we lose people, our greatest resource, to war, poverty, mental illness, various oppressions that prevent them from accessing the gifts they have to offer the world. How many inventors, mothers, fathers, lovers, artists, visionaries, leaders, followers, etc, etc, are we losing, because we fail to see how each of us contributes to the whole?

Much of the dialogue that promote justice centers around what people deserve as humans—a conversation about rights and entitlement. While important, this definition of just only goes so far. A more expansive view is found in William F. Schulz’ In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All. The author articulates profoundly how protecting individuals offers dividends that accrue and resonate around the globe. While I don’t deny that we have a moral duty to protect human rights, society stands to gain in very real ways from the contributions that every human life can and does make. In the current immigration debate in the United States, activists have worked hard to point out the tangible contributions that immigrants from all over the world have made to our culture, economy, and well-being; it is an argument that we need to make stronger.

In the early 2000s I had the privilege of teaching college environmental science in 3 different men’s prisons. I quickly became aware that my students each possessed intellects, talents, experiences and possibilities that were literally locked away, inaccessible to the rest of us, due to a system that didn’t value what they could offer, despite having made mistakes. In the Trump administration's ordering the tear gassing of desperate migrants lined up at the Tijuana border, we see that there is little appreciation for the value that these human beings might hold—for their families, for the U.S., Mexican, Guatemalan, or any economy, the contributions that they are capable of making. The Nazis, in gassing 6 million Jews and others it deemed “undesirable” were sadly and pathetically ignorant of the fact that these human beings were in fact deeply valuable, having skills, intellects and capabilities far beyond their use as political scapegoats, research subjects, or starving laborers.

In my faith, Unitarian Universalism, we say that each person has inherent worth and dignity. It is a beautiful sentiment, one that I think we should consider deeply. The worth we each offer is incredibly subjective and is, to any accurate degree, immeasurable. But immeasurable is doesn’t mean nonexistent. However, what will be possible when we all perceive the value of human beings as something quantifiable, real, not zero?

Right now, who is perceived to be without value, whose lives do we see as liabilities, rather than assets? People who commit crimes, the elderly, the homeless, mentally ill people, those in poverty, those who are refugees? My daughter serves in the Peace Corps at the moment, with the mission of impacting the malnutrition rampant in her region. She describes a population all too frequently handicapped by its effects on their health and intelligence. In a world where people are seen not as a desperate “challenges” or “problems” that need solving, but rather as resources that, when optimized, will be a blessing to their countries and world, what will be possible? More motivating than saying these people have a right to improved nutrition is to say that we eagerly await their full contribution to our world.

Human resource accounting will be imperfect, and maybe, just like trying to affix values to the environment, preposterous at first glance. But, just as environmental accounting has helped transform how we perceive the earth, it could help revolutionize our appreciation of human beings. We can start the human resource conversation, and we need look no farther than our last meal. Whose labor, discoveries, talents, contributed to that? Leave alone our clothing, the buildings we enter, the services upon services we used this week. The number of hands that had a role in me sitting here today, typing out this post on my laptop, may be impossible to count, but it is certainly not zero, and each was integral to sending this essay to you, leave alone the hands that have enabled you to be out there, reading. Start enumerating the gifts humans bring, and we'll truly create a world that values all.