Monday, July 11, 2005

What Are Bats Worth?

I've written before on attempts to place a dollar value on ecosystem services, a trend I feel is necessary in theory, but increasingly troubling in practice.

In Texas, researchers are currently attempting to calculate the value to farmers of the Mexican free-tailed bat, based on the number of destructive insect pests the bats eat.

Up until now...estimates assigning a dollar value to Mexican free-tailed bats have been roundabout guesses, based on rudimentary counts of the bats' population, research into their diet and analysis of the quantity of pests in fields. The current study would be the first to quantify it....A local agronomist said that in Frio County alone the bats save farmers $2.5 million in pesticide.
What continues to bother me about market-based ecosystem valuation - apart from the fact that it assumes markets are rational, instead of seeing them as a ritualized, socially sanctioned form of hysteria - is that it commodifies things like free-tailed bats. If these bats do indeed save farmers $2.5 million, it's very likely that farmers will support bat conservation. However, it's also likely that they'll see bats as their property, in some obscure but vehement sense, and will view future developments from that standpoint. In other words, in a conflict between what benefits bats as self-directed entities, and what benefits farmers as "consumers" of bat-provided services, decisions are likely to be based on the onerous economics of pesticide application.

Can super-bats be genetically engineered, or made to eat different sorts of pests? Might we see Mexican free-tailed bat populations fall victim to downsizing and right-sizing, as more effective predators are bred or introduced? The problem with valuing ecosystem services is that it runs the risk of reifying a haphazard economic arrangement into a law of nature. Further, it has a normative tendency that can lead to pseudo-objective distinctions being made between "useful" and "non-useful" bats...those who pull their weight, and those who don't. The notion of life as an end in itself remains disturbingly alien to homo economicus.

10 comments:

GrrlScientist said...

I use these sorts of economic analyses (when they are available) to make my points regarding the value of wildlife and conserving it, etc., but like you, I am also bothered by this sort of "pricing". Why? I think that many things have an inherent value, a value that does not command a price tag (nor should it), a value that is beyond money and mere economics. So .. if I believe this to be true, then why do I still use economic comparisons in a fair number of my arguments? I use them because there are so many people "out there" who are completely incapable of valuing anything except in terms of money or in terms of what that object can do to improve their own tiny little lives. Basically, they are incapable of comprehending anything that does not have a monetary/economic value.

So, by seemingly giving in to market forces, I am at the same time, pointing out the shallowness and narrow mindedness of those very people who make such far-reaching decisions that affect ALL of our lives. I am, in my own nearly incomprehensibly subtle way, making fun of them for their lack of humanity, empathy and for their inability to appreciate anything that does not fit neatly into their stock portfolios or wallets. Perhaps one day, I will be a better writer (well, I can always hope, right?) and thus, will be better able to argue the value of wildlife and wild places on their own merits, that perhaps I will be able to communicate the depth of my distaste for such a shallow philosophy of life.

Long-winded, I know, but I wanted to let you know that I do understand what you are saying and I do empathize with your discomfort as well.

GrrlScientist

Phila said...

Hedwig,

I agree with you completely, and I've made use of a similar stance in some of the economic stuff I've had to write. The best I can do is hope that this focus on commodification is a necessary transitional phase that'll someday end in a more biocentric worldview. It may be that in paying lip service to this stuff, these people will end up sparking a general change in values that'll undermine their position in the long run. Crazy, probably...but I can dream!

GrrlScientist said...

Until that happy day arrives, think of it as "translation services": you are translating life into dollars so the life-challenged among us can appreciate it at some butt-cheek level (I would have said "visceral level" but the wallet is not located in that region of human anatomy).

But somewhat more seriously, I do think that stating your position about using economic-based arguments is a valid part of any argument you make, too. I suppose one could drive the point home by making an argument for the monetary value of any one human being, especially since monetary value is partially determined by rarity of the object and the human species is anything but rare!

GrrlScientist

Eli said...

Sigh.

I too look forward to the day when the natural world is valued for something other than its utility to humans (oxygen production, as-yet-undiscovered miracle cures, peaceful refuges, etc.).

Using today's thinking, if someone could categorically state that there we have extracted all the medicinal value we can from the Amazon, and that there are artifical means of converting CO2 into oxygen, then it would be perfectly acceptable to flatten and pave over the whole shebang overnight, with maybe some wee reservations for the indigenous peoples.

Value to man is an awfully tenuous toehold on the right to exist, and all but encourages man to come up with artificial alternatives as quickly as possible so we can keep pushing nature back. Of course, at some point, we will disrupt the natural balance beyond repair, and the Earth will simply reboot and start again with the roaches. Such is the price we will pay for our hubris and arrogance in believing that the entire Earth is our possession and we can do what we wish with it.

Eli said...

Moonbats, of course, should be valued *especially* highly...

Cervantes said...

Indeed, there are many technical and philosophical problems with efforts to put a monetary price on non-monetized goods and services. This is like the arguments about the value of non-working spouses' services (we used to say "housewives" but what the heck, let's start counting househusbands now also), the money price of negative externalities such as air pollution -- which includes health effects on humans, which are to some extent quantifiable but, see below, what are they worth? -- but which also includes less obvious effects such as the negative esthetic properties of smog and soot on your azaleas. And then there's that value of a human life and/or quality adjusted life years. They can't, obviously, hold an auction for an extra three years of life so they try surveying people -- how much would you pay for it? -- but, well, I don't have to spell out for y'all how and why that gets really weird really fast.

The so-called "free market" is a myth. It has never existed, and never could exist. Markets are not forces of nature, they are human social constructions. They only exist with extensive, ongoing intervention -- in complex, modern societies that of course means government intervention. Governments create markets, sustain markets, regulate markets. The only question is how they are regulated, and for whose benefit, not whether they are "free." We should resolutely oppose and condemn any use of the term "free market." That phrase, all by itself, hits 10 on the bullshitometer. There is no such thing.

Phila said...

Great comments, thanks.

Cervantes, your mention of "spouse services" is something I was thinking about in response to Hedwig's first comment. One could easily put a monetary value on cleaning, cooking, sex, and do forth. But to do so would be irrelevant to the actual purpose and meaning of the relationship. In my view, that's the proper view to take of ecosystems...it's not a service relationship, but an emotional and physical one.

I view education and public health similarly. All these things are essentially spiritual endeavors, in a sense that I doubt you'd dispute: they have to do with the kind of people we want to be, morally speaking, in our relations with others.

Good old Adam Smith said it nicely: "[W]hat is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?....It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration."

carla said...

Part of my job entails working teaching children about natural resources, specifically having to do with trees and forest products.

One exercise I do with older middle school and high school students is having them "manage" a plot of land. They must make decisions regarding the use of land.

One of the more difficult concepts to get across to them is "intrinsic value". I've extended the exercise now by applying concepts of the large ecosystem and what happens if they obliterate the land for the short term economic gain.

It's gratifying to see young people being to grasp the need for long term, sustainable land practices.

It's baby steps. But it's steps.

Cervantes said...

BTW, in this context, you should definitely check out the millenium ecosystem assessment project, if you haven't already. Not exactly likely to cheer you up . . .

roger said...

reminds me of “the tragedy of the commons” with the natural world, roughly speaking, as the commons. greed and the limited usefullness of “market forces” will trash the place for all of us. the larger commons is the entire planet and we are seeing evidence that human activity is degrading large swathes of the planet. the coral reefs that are dying might be hard to “value,” but the value of the north sea cod fishery that has collapsed is easier to understand. living organisms seem to expand till stopped by “natural” boundaries such as space, water, and nutriments. hmmm. what will be the boundaries of human expansion?