I find this both wildly perverse and perversely intriguing:
Ecological economist Robert Costanza… and his team of researchers have already released one study claiming to have commoditized the world’s biosphere. The total value: $33 trillion…
There’s a big part of me—the mountain-climbing, Edward Abbey-reading part—that finds this simply appalling. The natural world is so astonishing and beautiful that I can’t stomach the thought of putting a monetary value on it. Then there’s the other part of me—the pragmatic, Sightline-researcher part—that tells me that we already put a monetary value on nature. We just don’t do it systematically; and we often to do it in order to exploit rather than conserve.
Even though $33 trillion is more than the combined world GDP, and even though the researchers believe the estimate to be conservative, there’s still something dissonant about putting a price on what feels priceless. Or, is it really the best way we have to quantify, and therefore protect, natural systems? After all, prices have a way of clarifying in a way that few things can.
Costanza will be speaking in Seattle next Wednesday. I doubt I’ll be able to make it, but I’d love to hear what people think.
I share your pain, Eric. Some things are priceless. And one of the biggest problems with modern society is we’ve come to believe if we can’t find a way to make something profitable then it must not be something we should do.At the same time, this valuation of our natural capital does serve a purpose in helping us talk with extremist defenders of free-market capitalism, who seem to believe profit is the ultimate deity and speak only in dollars and cents. Speaking their language may help us get through. For example, I’ve taken to defining sustainability as living on the interest of our natural capital account, not liquidating the principal.Dave GardnerProducer/DirectorHooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperitywww.growthbusters.com
I completely agree with you Eric. Putting a price tag on the natural world makes me queasy. Placing a quantifiable valuable on the ecosystem as a whole leads to a slippery slope as we quantify smaller and smaller portions of nature, and I fear it places all natural systems in risk of being commodified under the almighty dollar.Dave, I see the value in your comments about being able to communicate with free-market capitalists. I am also a fan of explaining sustainability as living on the interest of natural capital. However, I see a large difference between using economic metaphors and placing a dollar value on the planet. Instead of catering to their economic terminology, we should be emphasizing alternate economic values that don’t boil down to nickels and dimes. After all, can you really put a dollar value on systems that sustain life?
Eric,Rather than bemoaning a method of assesssment, it should be readily apparent that trying to put ecosystem services into categories that people understand is a good thing. And it should also be readily apparent that the value of ecosystem services is more than world GDP. What can we learn from this? What happens to societies when the world GDP is greater than the sum of ecosystem services’ value? Is this point when we decline, or when the decline is irreversible?
As advocates of wildness we should not speak the language of the advocates of capitalism. It immediately shapes the conversation or debate in their favor.
I’m going to be the black hat here. When it comes to making intelligent choices and trade offs about the environment strong cost benefit analysis is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately we have limited funds – both capital and political and we can’t afford to spend a million dollars on saving resource x which is the cause of the day, when the same capital could be put to use to much much greater benefit elsewhere. I don’t think this shapes the debate in “their” favor. It shows you can prioritize and make sensible choices and trade offs. It also can attract professional business talent and backing to your causes, which IMHO is sorely needed.
As advocates of wildness we should not speak the language of the advocates of capitalism. It immediately shapes the conversation or debate in their favor. Folks might want to start funding a study that values ecosystem services in another way, and do it quick. See, Costanza’s figures Eric uses came out over ten years ago. Where are the other valuations? Nowhere? Why are there no others? Until there is something else, one must do what you can, with what you have, where you are. And why would you not want to use the language of the people whose impacts are the one of the stressors on the environment when you talk to them about their impacts? What other language would you use to have them understand? Urdu? This is exactly what Schellenberger and Nordhaus were talking about when they described why the environmental movement has had few successes in recent decades – the movement no longer speaks in ways that resonate.
Huh. Not sure why last para got cut off. As advocates of wildness we should not speak the language of the advocates of capitalism. It immediately shapes the conversation or debate in their favor. Folks might want to start funding a study that values ecosystem services in another way, and do it quick. See, Costanza’s figures Eric uses came out over ten years ago. Where are the other valuations? Nowhere? Why are there no others? Until there is something else, one must do what you can, with what you have, where you are. And why would you not want to use the language of the people whose impacts are the one of the stressors on the environment when you talk to them about their impacts? What other language would you use to have them understand? Urdu?This is exactly what Schellenberger and Nordhaus were talking about when they described why the environmental movement has had few successes in recent decades – the movement no longer speaks in ways that resonate.
This discussion captures the ambivalence many people have about the trend towards the ecological services paradigm. Eric, I think you get it exactly right though in that we either put a value on nature explicitly and systematically or it’s done implicitly, often in favor of the more concrete short-term economic interests. It’ll never be possible to put a perfect dollar figure on everything we value about nature—like rare species, beautiful landscapes—but I do think it can be used beneficially in certain circumstances (e.g., drinking water, carbon sinks).Finally, I was surprised to hear a story on NPR’s Marketplace earlier this month about New Jersey’s use of environmental valuation techniques. Not that I’m an expert in the area, but this was the first time I’ve heard the idea escape academia and policy circles and enter the realm of actual on-the-ground decision making (the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment seems to be its other big appearance). They did a study that valued their “natural assets” at $26 billion a year ($850 billion in net present value), but according to the story, “the state has yet to use its report to challenge a developer’s plans.”
I find it a bit awkward to think that “professional business talent” is what the environmental movement needs. I don’t believe we need money to save wildness. In my opinion the only way money is involved is that it needs to stop in order to save or preserve specific areas of wildness. I think this is a rather shallow way to look at the movement though (thinking we need to save so many acres or bears or fish…). I think we’re collectively missing some respect and humility, which would make this whole think a piece of cake.
Sorry, ‘…this whole thing a piece of cake.’
I think we’re collectively missing some respect and humility, which would make this whole think a piece of cake. Sure, but the Creation Care movement is appealing to their group on that score. Just as the “save all the fuzzy bunnies/charismatic megafauna!!! *heart*” is appealing to their group. The “we need greenness” is doing a good job at appealing to a certain sector. Just as the “ecosystem services” paradigm appeals to a certain group. And it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Nor does “creation care” or “cute widdle fuzzy bunnies should all live” or “nearby nature” appeal to everyone. Nothing appeals to everyone. Why must we act like it should? Why must solutioning be one-size-fits-all? One size does not fit all. Ecosystem services helps some to understand. Brown-eyed widdle polar bear cubs helps others to understand. What’s appealing to the cuddly crowd doesn’t necessarily translate to the economy crowd (wall-to-wall on NPR today about the Fed rate cut anyone?). Please, let us stop thinking that one way or one key phrase or that one perfect policy is gonna work for everyone. Please.
Dan, I don’t think we’re necessarily speaking to the same points, which is fine. I don’t disagree with you for the very most part and I don’t think you’re following what I’m meaning to say, which could be my fault for not being clear. I don’t have any problem with a variance of types of messages or methods to compel folks find a more respectful relationship with the bears. However, I am suspect of a message largely based around putting dollar values on the bears. In that case I feel like the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.
Charles, I used your italicized as a jumping-off point, so my message could easily be unclear (esp. in blog comments). Apologies.However, I am suspect of a message largely based around putting dollar values on the bears. In that case I feel like the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.First, let us not confuse ecosystem services with ecosystem valuation. The valuation of services is apparently what is the issue here. Next, Costanza’s paper was a first paper. I think it is a very good first paper. Does it capture everything? No. Do most first papers? No. Does it help decision-making? Yes, as explained here:Whatever the eventual number, ecological economists consider the global dollar figure itself less important to policy than to the potential application of this valuation concept to local and regional land use decisions. Although the average value of wetland services may not be the same per hectare in Brazil, Indonesia, or Uganda, the very existence of the global estimates calculated in the study should broaden the context of local decision making (Pimm 1997:232). In fact, in a small but growing number of cases around the world, the benefits of proposed projects are being weighed against the social costs of lost ecosystem services.In some parts of the United States, for instance, attention is now focused on the benefits of protecting natural watersheds to assure safe and plentiful drinking water supplies, rather than on building expensive filtration plants to purify water from degraded watersheds. New York City recently found it could avoid spending US$6-8 billion on the construction of new water treatment plants by protecting the upstate watershed that has traditionally accomplished these purification services for free. Based on this economic assessment, the city invested US$1.5 billion in buying land around its reservoirs and instituting other protective measures, actions that will not only keep its water pure at a bargain price but also enhance recreation, wildlife habitat, and other ecological benefits (Stapleton 1997:5-6).We can also see how valuation aids decision-making here. In my first field, urban forestry, we commonly use how single trees’ monetary value increases property values, how shade increases pavement life leading to lower public works expenditures, how properly sited trees around buildings reduces energy consumption & saves money, how greenness may possibly increase worker productivity thus possibly increasing profits, how…
For those who didn’t make it to town hall last night and are familiar with enviro economics and ecological economics—you didn’t miss that much in Bob’s 30 or 40 slide presentation, in part, because he presented so much. I wouldn’t say that ecosystem service valuation was more than a part of his presentation.Constanza covered + Principles of EE, which concern macro-economic scale, income distribution, resource allocation + Our economic worldview. K Boulding’s transition from empty-world to full-world economics (aka cowboy economy to spaceship economy) and our need for economic paradigms derived from a full-world world-view. + H Daly’s transition from economic wealth to economic illth using the GPI as an example (aka What is the economy for?)+ decreasing returns of happiness to economic growth+ new research about the value of public goods as compared to private goods+ the value of a balanced capital portfolio (natural, social, built, human)+ concurrence of climate stability and human civilization (a la Diamond’s Collapse)After just one cup of coffee, this is all I can remember.I recommend Joshua Farley’s ‘lecture’ in the downstairs room on April 30th. He’s a wonderful presenter and educator who can draw a colorful story and talk a compelling picture without 35 slides.