Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Valuing Nature
In an eloquent and passionate piece in the journal Nature (Vol 443, 7 September 2006), Douglas J. McCauley argues that conservation strategies based on the market value of ecosystem services are not working to protect our wildlife. He urges a return to the protection of nature for nature's sake, rather than as a life support system for the human species. As conservation tools, ecosystem services have gained an importance that far outweighs their usefulness and ignores their limitations.
  • We assume that ecosystems are essentially benevolent, and ignore the fact that they work for the benefit of all species not just us.
  • By incorporating ecosystems into our economic fabric, we leave them vulnerable to the whims of the market, which operate on time scales often too short for the environment to respond.
  • There is an implicit assumption that nature conservation is only worth doing if it turns a profit.
  • There is nothing to prevent a "devaluation of nature" if the economic or tecnological climate changes.
  • Making money and protecting the environment are all too often mutually exclusive.
I wish I'd written this piece. I've made no secret of my dislike of the idea that the only way forward for conservation is to assign an economic value to the 'environment' , whether whole eco-systems or individual species, and then use cost-benefit analysis and market forces to prioritise work and allocate resources. In a previous thread discussing the work of Bjorn Lomborg, I asked why we have no mechanism to assign a monetary value to human beings if it's acceptable to do so for any other living species that might be of use to humans. I was accused of being, amongst other things, a Malthusian and possibly a racist. It seems that however far you extend the reach of economic value, there comes a point at which a leap of faith must occur, that the human race has value which cannot be expressed in monetary terms and should be protected for its own sake. Why is it so difficult to make that call for other living beings as well?

Link to article

20 Comments:

At 5:31 pm, Blogger Matt Burge said...

> 'Why is it so difficult to make that call for other living beings as well?'

.....because as a species we have our heads up our own collective arse!

Sitting in a car at a shopping trading estate recently I did wonder if human progress had really come to this....one giant, dirty, unexciting shopping mall. Guess it has.

Still, the best thing I did with my family recently was to visit an out-of-the-way beach on a beautiful day. Just the sound of the waves. Better than an ipod any day and free!!

 
At 4:48 am, Blogger Daniel said...

"Douglas J. McCauley argues that conservation strategies based on the market value of ecosystem services are not working to protect our wildlife"

Well neither are classical conservation strategies...

It strikes me that it would be more useful to devise and employ additional strategies rather than attacking those who come up with new ideas.

 
At 8:22 am, Blogger Pete Smith said...

<<< Well neither are classical conservation strategies...
It strikes me that it would be more useful to devise and employ additional strategies rather than attacking those who come up with new ideas. >>>

Hi Daniel, did you read the whole article? He accepts that ecosystem services (ES) can play a limited role in conservation. Individual ES can be used as "bargaining chips" in specific conservation plans. But his major point is that ES have assumed too great an importance, at the expense of value-based policies, and I echoed this in my initial post.

 
At 1:53 pm, Blogger sushil yadav said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.


Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.


When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.



A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.



FAST VISUALS /WORDS MAKE SLOW EMOTIONS EXTINCT.

SCIENTIFIC /INDUSTRIAL /FINANCIAL THINKING DESTROYS EMOTIONAL CIRCUITS.

A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY CANNOT FEEL PAIN / REMORSE / EMPATHY.

A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY WILL ALWAYS BE CRUEL TO ANIMALS/ TREES/ AIR/ WATER/ LAND AND TO ITSELF.


To read the complete article please follow either of these links :

PlanetSave

EarthNewsWire


sushil_yadav

 
At 5:30 pm, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Hi Sushil

An interesting angle to the debate on 'valuing nature'. There is that thing about our modern societies where one always feels they must 'keep busy'. For what I increasingly wonder....to dig yet more and bigger holes into the earth's crust, to extract ever more resources to feed our factories, that churn out our little gadgets?!

Whose countries that have hived off their factories out east are told to rely on the 'knowledge economy'. What knowledge and for what purpose? There are so many 'think tanks' and bio-start-ups around now who bombard us with their latest discoveries on human nature/behaviour and the like. Often they say nothing particularly revelationary or useful but, they must be seen to be saying something otherwise their funding and their precious 'knowledge' jobs would disappear overnight!

Back to sitting beside the sea for me! :-) Arh, the peace.....

 
At 6:46 pm, Blogger Daniel said...

"did you read the whole article? He accepts that ecosystem services (ES) can play a limited role in conservation"

No, I don't receive "Nature" and you provided no link.

"As conservation tools, ecosystem services have gained an importance that far outweighs their usefulness and ignores their limitations"

and

"conservation strategies based on the market value of ecosystem services are not working"

I must have misunderstood. I read that as rather an attack on ES.

So ES is over-rated and limited but useful? or does it not work?

Maybe I'll just have to hunt down this article and read it...sigh!

 
At 7:16 pm, Blogger Pete Smith said...

<<< I must have misunderstood. I read that as rather an attack on ES. >>>

An attack on their indiscriminate use, certainly.

<<< No, I don't receive "Nature" and you provided no link >>>

There's a link to the article at the bottom of my original post

 
At 10:51 pm, Blogger Daniel said...

Sorry I did not see the link the first 5 times I visited the site.

"An attack on their indiscriminate use, certainly."

Well since McCauley admits no legitmate use (other than as chips for playing eco-poker apparently) it makes it hard to see where their discriminate use is warranted.

After reading the piece, all I can say is that McCauley is a cheap shot artist.

He puts up a straw man that the only "success" is the Catskills project, which he then argues is not a success. On this basis he concludes that ES doesn't work.

What about the fact that traditional conservation efforts have been underway for a hundred years or more (and many efforts have failed), and yet here we are on the brink of the 6th great extinction (or so some people say).

For one thing ecosystem services is a rather new concept (I bet few if any such projects existed much more than a decade ago). At least none of the works he cites is more than 15 years old. For a naturalist with a long view, you might allow the idea a bit longer before you rubbish it.

Moreover, it is easy to say that nature is priceless, but just saying it doesn't make it so. Especially when the opposition is willing to offer politicians cold hard cash to back up the "price" they assign to nature.

McCauley should by all means appeal to people's hearts, but he is a fool to ignore people's wallets. He considers nature akin to "art" and assigns it infinite value. All well and good, if you already own that bit of nature. But ultimately useless if someone else owns that bit and does not share you sensibility.

His concluding sentence boggles my mind. Ecosystems ARE important because they provide services. In fact I would argue that ecosystems are VITAL to our survival as a species because they provide services that we are not even aware of yet (in many cases). Perhaps McCauley's biggest failure is to assume that by focusing on one benefit ES programs ignore or devalue all other benefits. Nonsense...these ES programs are just one way to highlight one or other of the benefits of ecosystems, nobody then assumes that ecosystems offer no other benefit.

 
At 10:01 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Not sure I see an argument here really. Obviously services and materials available from an ecosystem (e.g. virgin forest) will have some monetary value, especially in today's industrialist/capitalist world. Timber and minerals for example.

Valuing the forest as a carbon sink as opposed to its timber is more interesting. If they can work out how to value the former and from that it is decided that the trees should stay because, they are more valuable as a carbon sink, then ES may make sense. But I'm not sure such a system of economic analysis is necessary. We already have the scientists telling us that carbon sinks are highly valuable to life on this planet. The economists should learn to step aside.......to go and play monopoly or something. ;-)

 
At 11:59 am, Blogger Pete Smith said...

Hi Daniel,
It's ironic isn't it that people who care passionately about the environment can end up arguing vehemently about the best way to protect it. I must admit I'm surprised that you sound so angry about the article. McCauley is essentially making a plea for the current emphasis on economic valuations of ecosystem services to be balanced by non-economic valuations as a justification for conservation.
I agree with you that we don't understand the full range of functions and services within ecosystems. Focussing on the economic value of the one or two that we can both understand and find a use for seems very blinkered to me, and increases the vulnerability of the ecosystem as a whole. There's a danger that we'll lose sight of the fact that the benefits of most ecosystem services are experienced locally. In our globalised world, economic forces operate over the entire planet.

<<< For a naturalist with a long view, you might allow the idea a bit longer before you rubbish it >>>
Yes naturalists tend to take a long-term view, in line with natural systems, whereas economists only think as far ahead as the next financial report and AGM.

<<< For one thing ecosystem services is a rather new concept (I bet few if any such projects existed much more than a decade ago) >>>
I would turn your remark around and say that as ES is such a new idea, perhaps we should allow it a bit longer before anointing it as a panacea for all conservation situations.

<<< all I can say is that McCauley is a cheap shot artist >>>
Your criticism that he only quotes one example of a successful ES project might be seen as a cheap shot, especially as he isn't here to defend himself. Remember that this is a two-page article in a prestige journal, and there would probably been some editing behind the scenes to shrink-to-fit. I suspect Mr McCauley could provide us with more examples if we asked him. In fact, why don't I do just that ...... ?

 
At 7:55 pm, Blogger Daniel said...

"Focussing on the economic value of the one or two...increases the vulnerability of the ecosystem as a whole."

Compared to what? The default these past 100 years seems to be to ignore any value that can't be exploited by a single company. At least ES programs are trying to translate the value that they know exists so more companies will be aware of the extra value.

"perhaps we should allow it a bit longer before anointing it as a panacea for all conservation situations"

Perhaps, but your strawman is currently floating without support. Who anointed it? who is claiming it is a panacea? who believes it will fix ALL conservation situations?

McCauley, on the basis of rather scant data (and I admit the total data set is limited thus far) concludes that ES are not working.

I merely point out that conservation for the sake of nature is a losing battle. Yes one can delay exploitation in some limited locations by "ownership" or "national parks" but that works best in a world of abundant resources, and will ultimatly fail in a world of scarce resources. Moreover the looming climate crisis will ravage/damage even good "old-style conservation" programs.

My "anger" such as it is, (I'm mad about a lot of things but McCauley's piece hardly rates...it just seems spiteful) is primarily directed at a guy who says the new idea doesn't work, because the problem's not fixed yet. (While ignoring the fact that none of the old ideas has solved the problem either.) New idea's need nurturing not attacks, they invite experimentation (and many experiments will not work). As if ES was a magic lamp that all you have to do is rub a few times to heal the planet's woes.

 
At 8:25 am, Blogger Pete Smith said...

<<< As if ES was a magic lamp that all you have to do is rub a few times to heal the planet's woes >>>

I think this was the main point of the article, that ES is seen as exactly that by a large and growing number of environmental academics, governments, businesses and NGOs. Judging by the number of web search hits for "ecosystem services" he has a point.

I've run out of things to say I'm afraid. You think ES is a great idea, I don't. We could go on disputing this for ever, but we wouldn't get anywhere. I'm sure we'll all go forward from here and try to 'save the planet' in whatever's the best way for us, and that's all anyone can ask.
It's been an interesting debate, and it's led me down avenues of thought I might never have entered otherwise, so that's good, but to paraphrase "Dragons' Den", I'm not investing any more time in this thread, I'm out.

 
At 6:37 am, Blogger Douglas McCauley said...

My thanks to Mr. Smith for facilitating this discussion and for the invitation to join in.

Apologies for my belated entry. Not sure I have much new to add, Mr. Smith has done a better job than I could of speaking to some of the issues at hand.

Some brief thoughts:

my purpose in writing this commentary was stimulate a reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of ecosystem services as a conservation tool; for there are both. i rather regret myself needing to write such a one-sided argument, but that fact of the matter is, as Mr. Smith points, there has been much arguably equally single minded attention given recently in the mass media and scientific literature to the virtues of ES and its promise. i felt compelled to make a strong cautionary statement that drew attention to the weakness of these tools.

if in fact we all agree that ES is not a panacea for our conservation ills, fabulous. i maintain that any working their way through this literature may be left believing, as i was, that its advocates would like ES to play more than just a supporting role in the future of conservation.

the point was brought up regarding the relationship of timescale to our selection of conservation strategies. from my vantage point ES can sometimes provide effective short term fixes for conservation problems. i'm a biologist, by trade more accustomed to thinking about the state of nature over longer time scales, thus am more inclined to favor protection strategies that also afford longer term protection. backing conservation motivated by the imperative to protect nature for it inherent values is a slow moving long term strategy, but as i argue what it lacks in speed, it makes up for in force.

the ES "movement" is young, only about 15 years in the making. there have been some successes and some failures in these years. i could provide more examples but let me suggest a better exercise: Gretchen Daily is a talented thinker who has contributed much to the progress of ES ideas, in fact many use her writings to define what ES are. pick up her book:

The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable. 2002. Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison. Island Press

she gives a handful of what one might call textbook cases of ES successes (including the Catskill/Delaware case). follow up on each and decide for yourself whether each has achieved the success it promised.

this is not to deny that conservation of nature for nature sake is not without its disappointments and failures. it surely has not solved all of the problems at hand and will not ever if only because new problems will arise as we continuously renegotiate our relationship with nature. but it has during its tenure produced real successes, some of the most high profile of which mentioned in the commentary. If i can be forgiven recourse to a economic metaphor: long term investment strategies require a lot of capital. With a limited amount of time and energy available in the conservation community i am sincerely concerned to see any amount of resources being diverted from a strategy that works but needs much effort continously invested in it in order to keep working. Or, put another way, if less than half the world can be convinced that nature has intrinsic worth, we might as well let this idea go. And frankly i'm not willing to let go of an idea that has some successes in exchange for ideas that sound good.

i may be coming down too hard on a young strategy, but the bottom line is that i like nature too much and think it in too much peril to feel comfortable for very long watching others experiment with risky strategies that will affect its fate.

this discussion provokes some very visceral responses, no doubt because we all care about the future of nature. the task ahead is daunting and we need the best tools available. critically assessing together the merits of the tools before us is important. i appreciate the thoughts given here.

 
At 8:01 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Thanks Pete for bringing this debate to the attention of 'The Coffee House' and thank you to Douglas McCauley for taking the time to reply.

Pete, you made a point in your original blog entry as follows;

> '... why we have no mechanism to assign a monetary value to human beings if it's acceptable to do so for any other living species...'

Watching an undercover report from the BBC last night on the selling of body parts from executed prisoners within China, made me realise that there are in fact systems in place that put a monetary value to human beings. In this case £50,000 for a liver transplant, care of an executed Chinese citizen. What hope for a stay of execution for a Chinese prisoner when such wealth from a transplant conveyor belt system awaits the money man further on?

I wonder therefore really what chance there is on relying on the 'intrinsic value' of nature (let alone ES) when little value is given to human life. Dafur/Rawanda are other cases in point.

I believe the argument is more about how much force should be used to counteract 'illegal' poaching (e.g. of game or timber or minerals). In Kenya & South Africa there are shoot to kill policies. Should illegal tree fellers in Borneo be shot in order to protect the Orangutan? Should illegal fishing trawlers be blown out of the water?

You get my drift!.....just how far do we go in protecting other species from our own? Many species simply do not have the time anymore to wait for debates on conservation approaches to sort themselves out. I believe the world of conservation currently sits on the cliff's edge, options narrowing....with its back against the wall.

 
At 6:25 pm, Blogger Daniel said...

Thank you for taking the time to reply Mr. McCauley.

I appologize for saying, based on a single article, that you are a cheap shot artist. Such silly attacks generally reflect more (and poorly) on the attacker.

You obviously care deeply about conservation and believe that existing conservation tools are sufficient for the job.

Perhaps, for the Nature audience (I'm not a subscriber) such concern is a given and any flaws of existing tools are too well understood to re-iterate. The latest National Geographic has a set of articles on National Parks, and what more needs to be done, so they also think the topic is timely.

I do not consider myself a member of the conservation community, but the idea of ES appealed to me as a way to broaden interest in conservation programs and allow conservationists to harness market forces to do some of the work of protecting ecosystems (in certain limited settings). In general conservationists tend to simply fight market forces which takes so much more effort than redirecting them.

"With a limited amount of time and energy available in the conservation community i am sincerely concerned to see any amount of resources being diverted from a strategy that works but needs much effort continously invested in it in order to keep working"

I recognize that a significant amount of time and effort needs to be invested in getting an ES opperation up and running (especially if you are trying to do it right) just like any enterprise. But I think the net result can be a greater number of people participating (intentionally) in conservation activities going forward. You create more "job descripitions for environmentalist" and therefore allow more people with different skills to participate.

What I'm saying is that if you redefine the conservation community to include more people (which I believe ES does if implemented properly) you will not face the same/current limits to time and energy.

Perhaps you already understand all this and still believe ES is a distraction. So be it.


Matt Burge! Your last two paragraphs are shocking. I hope you don't advocate using deadly force to discourage poaching.

 
At 8:31 pm, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Hello Daniel

>Matt Burge! Your last two paragraphs are shocking. I hope you don't advocate using deadly force to discourage poaching.

I'm not sure I advocate it but, I've thrown it into the debate because it is the most controversial approach tried within recent times. I believe it was first instigated in Kenya and done so out of desperation to stop poaching. The thing is, the poachers are also desperate, for income, for food.

Surely conservation is a resource thing; want for minerals, need for firewood or food, competition for markets. The increased pressure for resources within conserved areas (e.g. oil from the Arctic) is increasing as; population grows; climate changes destroy crop outputs; growing middle classes want more gadgets to keep them occupied. Whatever reason, the sum total is that the pressure for resources is now huge and conserved areas are ripe for development in most people's eyes.

So, back to the Orangutan. As we move closer to their numbers being wiped out, what do we do? Mourn their impending(?) passing? Ask the UN agencies to come up with a plan to fund alternative income streams?; this will take years of meetings and academic debate and will probably not catch those lured to the idea of poaching. Or does someone encourage the Kenyan solution?

I don't know which approach is going to work if any, but, I do know one thing with the example I've used with Borneo, the situation is hyper-critical and all attempts to conserve the Orangutan has failed to stem their rapid decline thus far. With a corrupt government in Jakarta I guess we shouldn't be surprised but, lets remember one thing, it is we in the 'west' who consume the palm oil in vast quantites that comes from plantations within those cleared forests that the Orangutan live within. So, what does ES value?; the palm oil or the Orangutan?........ Your call.

......The clocks ticking.

 
At 9:54 am, Blogger Pete Smith said...

In arguing the pros and cons of Ecosystem Services and their economic value as a conservation strategy, it occurs to me that there is a tension between opposing ES because it doesn't work, and opposing it because it's not philosophically right.
If we concentrate on arguing against ES because it's a failing strategy, we imply that it'll become acceptable if future development shows that it does work after all.
The Dark Green community might well argue that, by sticking a price tag on all aspects of what remains of the natural world, we demean it and ourselves. By making natural species and processes just another commodity, we increase the gap between Man and Nature still further. For conservation to have a long term future, we have to care.

 
At 10:03 am, Blogger Pete Smith said...

As for the use of "deadly force" to discourage poaching:

It appears to be legitimate for the UK and her allies to safeguard their interests by trashing large chunks of the Middle East and killing thousands of our own species. What's wrong with shooting a few poachers in order to safeguard the interests of other species who have no way of fighting back?

 
At 6:25 pm, Blogger Daniel said...

Pete says "there is a tension between opposing ES because it doesn't work, and opposing it because it's not philosophically right"

Now you are saying there is a "philosophically right way" and a wrong way to practice conservation?

Conserving properly depends on your motivation not the result?

Pete says "What's wrong with shooting a few poachers in order to safeguard the interests of other species who have no way of fighting back?"

It is totally illegimate (not to mention foolhardy) for the US and the UK to be trashing the Mid-east. But now I'm curious, by analogy, since the Sudan is attempting genocide in Darfur, why stop at killing just a few poachers to safeguard a species?

Apparently you are suggesting that two wrongs make a right. What happened to philosophical rightness?

 
At 11:21 pm, Blogger Pete Smith said...

Sorry Daniel, I don't understand what you're trying to say.

 

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