Monday, April 25, 2005

Beyond Timber and Fish

Some folks may remember me discussing the concept of ecosystem services a while back.

The Economist has an interesting article on this subject. (If you haven't noticed yet, "interesting" tends to be my polite way of saying "thought-provoking in a not entirely pleasing way.")

The article should inspire me with hope, in theory. It promotes the valuation of ecosystems, after all, and describes a new willingness among economists to consider externalities. And yet I came away from it in a gloomy mood, because it shows just how deep-rooted and destructive certain attitudes are, and how much of our economic life is based on mere silliness.

Consider this grotesque attempt to explain why it's suddenly possible for economists to discuss ecosystem services without getting wedgies, purple nurples, and the dreaded "Rear Admiral" from the Kool Kids:

[S]cience is producing abundant evidence that the natural environment provides a wide range of economic benefits beyond the obvious ones of timber and fish.
To me, this statement betrays a really remarkable amount of alienation from everyday reality; I'm less relieved to see this attitude faltering, than unsettled to see it persisting. (Of course, it's always possible the author's being ironic, just as it's possible that Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Sylvester.)

Anyway, be it known: the natural environment is a source of more - far more - than timber and fish. Once you've grasped this fact, you may congratulate yourself on inhabiting the bleeding edge of economic heterodoxy.

Next, you may want to try wrapping your mind around the notion that better information can lead to better decisions:
[T]he more there is known about the ecology of, say, a forest, the better the valuation of the services it provides will be. Fortunately, according to two reports published by the World Bank at the end of 2004, significant progress has been made towards developing techniques for valuing environmental costs and benefits. There is, says one of these reports, no longer any excuse for considering them unquantifiable.
If any of you good people thought that my snotty comments about the Refusing-To-Pay-Any-Attention Principle were exaggerated, I invite you to re-read that last quote. Obviously, there's a perfectly good excuse for treating unquantifiable things as unquantifiable. What's problematic is treating unquantifiable things as irrelevant. This is something economists have been doing for centuries, unfortunately. What's more, they've occasionally presented it as hard-headed pragmatism, even when it's clearly bad-faith Candyland bullshit.

It's also problematic to internalize and promote obscure forms of paranoia, as thus:
Forests and swamps (or "wetlands", to give the latter their politically correct modern moniker) filter and purify water, and act as reservoirs to capture rain and melting snow.
"Politically correct"? That's an absolutely daft thing to say. "Wetlands" doesn't refer merely to swamps; it also refers to marshes, estuaries, floodplains, ponds, and any number of other combinations of land and water (including areas - like meadows - that are seasonally inundated).

I guess the word "swamp" is supposed to be pejorative - all good economists know, after all, that swamps are horrible places of no utility to anybody - and thus, the use of "wetlands" must be a devious attempt to hoodwink the public with feel-good PC platitudes. Well, let there be no more sugarcoating of the awful truth: from here on out, any damp locale that's neither a swimming pool, nor a lake, nor an ocean is a swamp, and is very likely to be populated by water moccasins, 'gators, and haints. Tell your friends.

The article goes on to describe - approvingly, mind you - the shortsighted misuse of ecosystem valuation:
Valuing ecosystem services can also point to places where inaction is best. After fires in Croatia had damaged many forests, a study was done to see if restoration was worthwhile given their value to the tourist industry. Examination of 11 sites revealed that the net benefits varied significantly. Some sites were not worthy candidates and were dropped.
Evidently, these forests - despite their handy ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen - didn't count as "public goods." But then again, so what if they had?
Public goods are those which are in everybody's interest to have, but in no one's interest to provide. Clean air, for example, or, more controversially, the preservation of rare species of plant or animal.
On the contrary, the interest of the public is to provide these goods to itself, through the medium of government, which is one of the reasons we pay taxes. If something is in "everyone's interest to have," then it's logically in everyone's interest to provide and protect it. If this doesn't work reliably in real life, it's not because the concept is flawed, but because economic considerations - which in this instance is simply a synonym for criminality - cause government to put the interests of business before the interests of the public, so that the tax money that should protect public goods goes instead to subsidies and bailouts for developers and their ilk.

By the way, the Economist would like you to know that just because economists are catching on to things that conservationists have been saying for decades, it doesn't mean any of us should listen to what conservationists are saying now:
[M]any conservationists dislike valuation. Some misunderstand it as an approach that ignores cultural and spiritual values. It does not.
That's debatable. If the decision as to whether a given forest should be saved depends wholly on whether it attracts tourists, one could certainly make a case that cultural and spiritual values are being ignored. Viable ones, at any rate.

All my ill-tempered ranting aside, the article's worth reading. It's more positive than I'm making it sound, and its occasional ethical and logical incoherence probably could've been a lot more glaring.


Thers said...

One of my all-time favorite benefits of the "natural environment" is that we live in it.

GrrlScientist said...

I always find it frustrating to think that the only value that many people place on things is economic. The implication being that we should exploit it in some ongoing way or else it isn't worth saving/having. I guess none of these economist-types have ever bought a rose simply because it smelled nice, they only purchased it to weasel their way into their lady-friend's heart (and bed).


Anonymous said...

Disclosure: I did not read the article in The Economist.

The post reminded me of a vacation we spent on the island of Guadaloupe several years ago. At the time we were there the authorities had just opened two hiking trails through what I believe were virgin forests on the island. The trails were quite rough in spots, and I remember having to be hauled down one stretch like a sack of potatoes. The forest was lovely, and though the authorities attempted to be ecologically responsible in developing the trails, the area was no longer pristine, erosion was already taking place, and the more people who hiked the trails, the more damage would be done.

On the other hand the area might have been logged and thus destroyed altogether. Better to save acres for the tourists than not at all, I suppose.

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