Ecosystem Disservices Revisited

Some months ago, I wrote a post here about the concept of ecosystem disservices. My conclusion was the following:

Ecosystem services are of tremendous importance and benefit to humanity. But, seen from the human perspective, these same ecosystems also generate disservices. This is something that is not accounted for in economic valuation efforts going by the name of “ecosystem services valuation”. However, it should be. If we count all the positive services Nature provides us with, we should be realistic and honest enough to count the numerous disservices against them.

Recently, however, I engaged in a discussion of this concept (under this blog post by Joern Fischer), which made clear to me that the matter is much more complicated than I initially thought. I would like to reflect on that point a bit today. Continue reading

On Economic Valuation and Sick Mothers

I have spent most time this week at the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, which takes place in Leipzig. In one of the sessions today, my doctoral father had the pleasure(?) to defend the economic (valuation) approach to environmental problems in a panel discussion. Most arguments used in this discussion against the economic approach were, I say it frankly, nonsense. Either they resulted from misunderstanding or from confusion or they just didn’t have anything to do with the issue. The only two valid arguments I was able to filter out were: a) that economists often treat ecosystems atomistically in that they value single ecosystem services and then just “add them up”, which is a practice I am very concerned about, too, and b) that the economic approach hasn’t achieved anything so far (which is debatable, but still a valid critique, as there is no systematic assessment of this issue to be checked against). Today, however, I would like to respond to one of the misconception-based arguments, for I think that it shows in an impressive way what economics is (not) and why we need economic analysis. Continue reading

What’s So Good About Biodiversity?

Sometimes, there are books you wish you wouldn’t have read. Mostly, these are bad books. Recently, I read a quite good book that I nevertheless first wished had escaped my attention. It’s Donald S. Maier’s What’s So Good About Biodiversity: A Call for Better Reasoning About Nature’s Value. It’s shaken up my view of why biodiversity is valuable (although not as much as initially thought). As I had to think a lot about Maier’s provocative and very polemic argumentation, for it has posed a challenge to the core of my PhD thesis, I would like to attempt a “self-therapeutic” review of his book’s first part, in which he attacks the status of biodiversity as carrier of nature’s value (I haven’t yet read his exposition of an own account why nature is valuable). Continue reading

Is Economic Valuation a “Neoliberal Road to Ruin”? A Response to George Monbiot

George Monbiot is actually an environmental journalist I esteem highly. But I do not agree with his aggressive criticism of what he calls a “neoliberal road to ruin”, which I would prefer calling economic valuation of environmental goods and services [the linked article is a transcript of Monbiot’s talk, which you can see below]. While he does make important points, I see his criticism as mistaken in many respects. In what follows, I would like to respond to some of the points he made. Continue reading

Ecosystem Services or The Downsides of Choosing the Wrong Namesake

Just a few days ago I published a post in which, among other things, I criticised economists for using the term “value of a statistical life”, as it begs to be misinterpreted and opens up space for criticism that is actually based on misconception. Today, I realised that often I must deal with a similar issue in my own research field. “Ecosystem services”, while arguably originally an eye-opening metaphor, seen from today’s perspective was a badly chosen term. It invites criticisms of the approach that are at odds with its essence, but are suggested by its name. Continue reading

Some key areas of “group think” among scientists

Another insightful post by Jörn Fischer. In my work I encounter most of the “group think” phenomena mentioned here, and I can only confirm that they do exist and that they constitute serious problems in the area of sustainability research.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Researchers operate within networks, and people within those networks tend to share certain worldviews. None of us are free of this — different researchers see the world through different analytical lenses, which one might also call “paradigms”. My sense is that we’d get a lot further in terms of insight if relatively less research energy was put into developing sophistication within paradigms, instead focusing on the differences between paradigms and ways to learn from multiple paradigms. One might also call this “epistemological pluralism“, or less technically, it would be nice if scientists were a little more open-minded.

This phenomenon of “group think” amongst different sets of research groups is something I have found fascinating for a long time, and I think it exists in various topic areas. I list some of those areas here where “group think” appears quite strong, and potentially this causes some problems. These topic…

View original post 592 more words

Putting a Price on Nature’s Beauty

In a recent Guardian piece George Monbiot was quite hard on my profession–or rather, on the issue of how politicians use the ideas behind the concept of economic valuation of ecosystems:

As Ronald Reagan remarked, when contemplating the destruction of California’s giant redwoods, “a tree is a tree”. Who, for that matter, would care if the old masters in the National Gallery were replaced by the prints being sold in its shop? In swapping our ancient places for generic clusters of chainstores and generic lines of saplings, the offsetters would also destroy our stories.

While I do not think that economic valuation is useless, an important question implicitly posed by Monbiot is: even if economists know what they’re doing and where the limits of their work are, is it justified to expect that politicians do? To price or not to price: That is the question…

How and Why: Economic Valuation of Nature

Since I started working on my PhD thesis, I have been asked many times what it is about. I must admit that it is hard for me to explain. First, because attaching price tags to forests or wetlands is not quite something that people expect to be done by scientists. It is strange. Second, because most people do not like the idea. Even if they are not aware of this term, what they fear is going by the name of “commodification” and is a highly controversial topic in scientific literature, including a famous commentary in the prestigious journal Nature by Douglas McCauley, aptly titled Selling Out on Nature. While I do have some answers to the questions and doubts of my friends and relatives, they are too complicated and comprehensive for a casual conversation at the coffee table. Therefore, I decided to write a blog piece about this, at least for those of my friends and relatives who understand English. Continue reading

Getting Prices Right vs. Getting Morals Right

One major justification of my work on the economic valuation of ecosystems is that we need to “get the prices right”. Economists think that factoring the value of ecosystem services into the prices of goods and services traded in markets is one important way of creating incentives to use these ecosystems sustainably. Opponents of the economic approach, however, fear the resulting “commodification of Nature”. Instead, the Douglas McCauleys and Mark Sagoffs of this world suggest that, instead of getting the prices right, we should attempt at getting morals right. In their view, this is the right approach to end the ongoing destruction of Nature, rather than the harmful valuation exercises conducted by economists. Continue reading

Is Some Number Assigned to Nature Better Than No Number?

Imagine the following situation: a 6-year old approaches you holding in his hands a picture – he drew a dolphin. Then you see a number above the dolphin, with an €-sign at its end, and the child tells you that the dolphin costs this amount of money. When you ask him, however: Where does the number come from? Who is to pay this to whom? And what is the expected result of the transaction?, he knows no answer.  This situation is not so much dissimilar from what sometimes happens when economists attempt to assign a value to ecosystems. Continue reading

The Economics of Endangered Species Rescues

Anthropocene. The era of human dominance. Many commentators agree that anthropocene is a proper name for the current geological era (formally we still live in the Holocene). Human activities are the all-dominant factor influencing natural systems all over the Earth. Climate change, mass extinction of species, biodiversity loss, peak everything, widespread soil degradation and, as a result, erosion and desertification… There are many phenomena caused, at least partly, by human activities, especially over the last 2 centuries, that are critical for the state of the Earth ecosystem. A phenomenon of particular “media potential” is the continued loss of species across the world. Just think of the media buzz around Lonesome George. Extinction of whole species mobilizes many people to action. The question, however, is whether the actions finally undertaken are always sensible. One may call this the economics (and ethics) of endangered species rescue. Continue reading

Fred Pearce on “True Nature”

A quite interesting article by Fred Pearce on Yale 360, offering a fresh perspective on the issues of invasive species, ecosystem stability and Man being an integral part of Nature. See here.

Ecosystems begin to look a lot more accidental, random, and transient than niche theory would suggest. They are constantly being remade by fire and flood, disease, and the arrival of new species. They are a hodgepodge of native and alien species. This fits a rival model for how ecosystems work called “ecological fitting,” first articulated by the legendary U.S. ecologist Daniel Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania. He said that co-evolution is a bit-part player in ecosystems; most of the time, species muddle along and fit in as best they can. […] The good news from all this is that nature emerges as resilient and adaptable, able to bounce back from the worst we can throw at it. And that raises a final heretical question. In an era of coming rapid climate change, if any species are going to thrive surely it will be the desperadoes, stowaways, and vagabonds that have been hitching a ride around the world with humans — species that, in some respects, closely resemble us. So if novel is the new normal, should we be encouraging their travels, rather than stopping them at the border?

Nature’s Disservices

There is much talk in ecological and environmental economics about ecosystem services – all the things Nature contributes to human well-being, such as pollination, climate regulation, aesthetic values or food. Indeed, my own master’s thesis dealt with the ecosystem services approach to valuation of Nature. Even though I wrote about the problems generated by this approach (and there are many), I still am rather a proponent of it. Recently, however, I realized that there exists an important flaw in the way ecosystem services are valued. I owe this insight partly to Bjørn Lomborg and Douglas McCauley. Particularly the latter mentions explicitly the fact that not all Nature “does” is good for human beings. Indeed, along with ecosystem services, Nature provides us with many disservices, too. Continue reading

Yasuní in Master’s Thesis

I already once mentioned that I was going to write a master’s thesis about economic valuation of ecosystems and the Yasuní rainforest of Ecuador. I submitted the thesis some months ago and wanted to make it available to anyone interested in the subject. It can be downloaded here: http://ubuntuone.com/6lkeCkyV4R9LLW9wx8VQLZ I make it available under under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, so you are free to use it with the restriction of no changes and no commercial use.

[UPDATE: As UbuntuOne, where I had uploaded my thesis, has gone offline, the thesis is no longer available. In case you are interested in getting it, write a comment.]

[UPDATE2: The thesis can be downloaded from ResearchGate here.]

Yasuní – A Model for the Future?

How much is a pristine ecosystem worth to us? And a stable climate? These are questions that are very controversial among many environmentalists, as I recently discussed. However, economic valuation of Nature and its “services” is not just a theoretical possibility, it is a fact. A particularly interesting example of an (implicit) valuation of an ecosystem is the Ecuadorian Yasuní-ITT Initiative. Continue reading