Thursday, April 12, 2007

Skillful Management

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love/hate relationship with the idea of valuing ecosystem services. I recognize that it’s important to quantify the benefits we gain from bats who eat insects, or marshes that filter contaminated water, and that the most effective, attention-grabbing way of quantifying these benefits - at least for now - is to assign a dollar value to them.

But I also recognize that once a dollar value has been assigned, it tends to crowd other types of value out of the picture. And I’m not even talking, as the objectivists have forbidden me to do, about intrinsic value; I’m talking about the difficulty of putting a dollar value on the quality of life, or on survival itself.

An article on apiculture in WorldChanging raises my hackles to the limited extent that it promotes this giddy, reductionist approach to the natural world. I’m not naïve enough to believe there’s such a thing as “wilderness” anymore. But I’m also not naïve enough to believe that “entrepreneurial thrill and DIY satisfaction” are a plausible solution to the loss of biodiversity.

Sarah Rich and David Zaks note that the population of bees has plummeted, and that this spells trouble for farmers who rely on “pollination services”:

From a strictly financial perspective, pollination is an invaluable service, provided by bees at no cost. But the cost we'd incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.
That’s a fairly wide range, which goes to show you that valuing ecosystem services is a very inexact science. Still, as I’ve said before, it’s better to argue over the amount of value provided than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

They mention the “entrepreneurial opportunities" offered by declining bee populations, but concede that hand pollination, at least, really isn’t a viable business niche. And they briefly discuss other natural pollinators, while noting that many of them, too, are in decline. Without faulting the authors’ concern, or grasp of the big picture, the problem with ecosystem services is precisely that it encourages people to think about "services" in the everyday sense: service providers compete for our business, and if we can’t get what we want from one, we’ll simply go to another. As long as we wear shoes, or eat bread, someone will seek to profit by making shoes or running a bakery. World without end, amen.

But "nature" doesn’t care whether we need our crops pollinated; it has no incentive to give us what we need to survive.

Another problem with ecosystem services is that once we’ve identified a “provider,” we tend to assume that a state of symbiosis will be maintained. Because it’s in our best interest to have pollination services, we’ll look after our pollinators, and they’ll thrive accordingly. Unfortunately, species that don’t enter into this “contract” may then be undervalued, as a professor quoted in the WorldChanging article explains:
To some extent, historically, there have been feral bees, wild bees that people haven’t domesticated that contribute pollination services. But when verola mites were introduced, feral populations all over the country crashed; nobody was there to protect them. And as a consequence, nobody has been there monitoring them, we have no idea what the feral bee population is in this country, whether there are bees that can fill in for the missing bees is just an open question.
In the end, though, my quarrel with the article really comes down to this claim:
Bees are a fantastic example of taking an ecosystem service and through skillful management, turning it into a commodity. As the delivery of this service is put in jeopardy, it is essential that we look for ways to maintain our pollination needs.
Perhaps “fantastic” is intended as a mischievous reference to chapter one of Das Kapital. And perhaps “skillful management” is intended as irony of an especially dour sort. But I don’t think so.

I don't see anything “world changing” about reducing ecosystem ecology, however tentatively or temporarily, to a branch of microeconomics; commodification of our environment is what got us into a good deal of the mess we’re in. And while it may indeed be “essential” for us to “maintain our pollination needs," what’s essential remains constrained by what’s possible. And what’s possible decreases with the loss of biodiversity.

I should add that having read other articles by Rich and Zaks, I believe they understand these issues as well as I do, if not better. I'm not questioning their knowledge or intentions, so much as their choice of language.

(Illustration by Edward Julius Detmold, circa 1911.)


olvlzl said...

I'll bet that the widespread trucking of enormous numbers of bees all over the country will turn out to have had a part in this. There was an attack of throat mites in the 80s, as I recall.

Commodification of nature is the heart of the problem. There are some things that can't be a commodity, nature, people, democracy, the truth. The absurd idea of economics, that everything is reducible to an economic analysis of is leading us to extinction. Increasingly, the problems of distorion inherent in any analysis is becoming important. The means chosen to look at something will end up having at least a large part in the conclusions drawn. In economics, as in other alleged sciences, the analysis seems to drive the outcomes. That's not unexpected, the methods are subjective, often chosen for reasons of ideology, professional and financial interest instead of rigor and objectivity. It took abolitionists a long time to overcome these biases in dealing with slavery. The obvious horror of that system eventuall broke through the pseudo-science and the smokescreen sent up by financial interest. In the near future the same horrors will give the world a slap in the face that won't be able to be ignored. The question is if it will come in time.

You're having a great week, Phila.

Anonymous said...

Very nice commentary, and thanks for reading Worldchanging! While I don't have the energy to go point by point through your analysis, I just wanted to make some general clarifications. The concept of ecosystem services has emerged as a new way to view the world that we live in and the services that nature provides us that are sometimes taken for granted. In most cases economics does not have the tools to properly value these goods and services, as we are quickly finding out in the research community. Also, how does one compare the services of pollination with air quality, for example? There is no framework (yet) that exists that allows us to compare the benefits of a suite of services and how they might change through human management. What we do have is a set of tools (economics) which has been used for many years (I will let you decide whether the outcome has been positive or negative) that is now being applied to ecosystems. That said, what we really need is a way to value ecosystems differently. Whether the economic system shifts to incorporate the intricacies of ecology or a wholly new system emerges, only time will tell. Regardless, it is still important to grasp the magnitude of changes that are happening and try to understand them in the frameworks that are available today, acknowledging they might not be perfect.

Best Regards-
~David Zaks

juniper pearl said...

the committee report on colony collapse disorder cited stress from frequent relocation (well done, olvlzl) and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides as probable causes for the sudden and nationwide drops in commercial bee populations, as well as hive splitting, overcrowding, and forced pollination of crops with minimal nutritional value. so, yeah, the use of the phrase "skillful management" here raises my eybrows a bit, in much the same way the phrase "heck of a job" did back in the late summer of 2005.

valuing an ecosystem should mean recognizing the inherent value of every aspect of it, as opposed to simply applying a dollar value to what human beings stand to reap from it. we'll blow it every time if we can't stop approaching the process in our traditionally egocentric manner, because it blinds us to a lot of small but essential things--such as, apparently, the notion that dusting crops that will be pollinated by commercial bee colonies with pesticides that are known to have profoundly damaging and disorienting effects on those bees might be a bad idea, or that working animals, even insects, need to be healthy in order to work.

Phila said...

Hi David,

Thanks for your comment! As I said in my post, I agree that there's a need for ecosystem valuation, and I understand that it's a work in progress (or, hopefully, a transition towards a better approach).

Again, my quarrel was ultimately just with the statement that bees are a "fantastic" example of "skillful management." I don't see it.

That said, I agree with everything you've said here, as well as with other posts you've written on the subject at WC.