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Putting a value on the invaluable

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Author: Jocelyne Sze

Conservation, which I take to mean saving species from extinction (in the wild?), in its earliest earliest form involved protecting wild areas, usually from people (e.g. Yellowstone National Park). As we realised some really amazing and magnificent species were declining, we started protecting them and trying to breed them, usually in captivity, and when possible, re-introducing them back to the wild (e.g. whooping crane). However, despite having protected areas and protected species, populations are still declining and species are still disappearing, and in the 1990s, some conservationists started defining the benefits humans get from nature (i.e. ecosystem services) and putting a (monetary) value on them (Daily 1997 and Costanza et al 1997).

There are many (sensible) people who agree and disagree about the issue of putting a price on nature (biodiversity and ecosystems) as a means of protecting it. Although I am not a fan of our current economic system, based on economic growth and unsatisfiable wants, I think there are merits to valuing nature on economic terms, but that should not be our primary reason for conservation.

Humans, society and civilisation (if there are any differences between those terms) are reliant on nature, that is a fact that one cannot ignore, and one that I think should be as widely known as the fact that we all need water to survive. People, especially governments and corporations (those in power), however, don’t always realise this. The concept of ecosystem services helps non-ecologists to understand how we are reliant on nature – provisioning of food, drugs; regulating of climate, diseases; supporting by pollination, pest control; cultural aesthetics and recreation. Keeping a tropical rainforest intact, instead of logging or razing it and turning it into an oil palm plantation, will help keep the region cool, ensure rainfall, sequester carbon and help with pollination of crops. A government that needs money might see the forest as being a warehouse for timber, and once that’s gone, the oil palm plantation as a bank. By acknowledging formally the existence of all the other services ecosystems provide us (apart from direct provisioning which most people usually understand cos they can physically see it), it forces the stakeholders to realise the full cost of deforestation and the potential drawbacks.

But because these people often speak on monetary terms (I can make $x by selling the timber, and $y from the oil palm plantation over z years), to get through to them, we find ourselves having to speak on their level, in their language, by putting a price on various ecosystem services. The value of ecosystem services, globally, was estimated by Costanza et al (1997) to be $33 trillion/year, and revised upward in 2014 to $125-145 trillion/year. This contrasts with McCarthy et al (2012)‘s estimates of the costs of protecting all of the world’s important sites for biodiversity of $76.1 billion/year. There are of course, issues with estimations and extrapolations to get at these numbers, but they tend to be on the conservative side of estimations and we like to think these people know what they are doing. And you can see that what we get from nature is roughly three orders of magnitude more than what we need to put in. This, I think, is one of the reasons why putting a value on nature is useful; it helps people weigh out more easily the pros/cons and tradeoffs involved. And those big numbers and estimations for the world, while not necessarily useful or applicable in local contexts (which is usually the level conservation is working at), can help bring across the point to world leaders and politicians that nature is of value (global GDP in 2014 was $77.3 trillion) and they need to get their shit together.

Aww so cute. Of course we want to save it. Image from sodahead.

People innately like nature – whether it’s the idea of ‘wilderness’, wandering in the outdoors, the fluffy bunny you have at home, the cute panda in the zoo, or the awe-inspiring eagle soaring. But as you noticed, I listed charismatic, ‘cute’ species – because those are the things that universally, across all subjects and all cultures and all classes, are well-liked (usually). I often get emails from our welfare reps with a cute animal video attached, and I’m sure they don’t study zoology. I don’t often get people sharing about how cute the spiders that have been raining down in parts of Australia are, or awe-inspiring the little critters mucking about the garden litter are, or how cool the microbes that live in the soil are (barring actual zoologists). But they are a part of nature, they are cool and cute and awesome and vital to the ecosystems they live in. Ecosystem services, to me, are a way of making them valued and important and ‘selling’ their conservation worth.

Ugh much gross. Why would we want them. Image from envocare.

Being able to value them in monetary terms is even more important for conservation success in developing countries. When faced with developments to increase economic growth or protecting a biodiverse habitat, governments in developing countries usually choose the former. Costa Rica is perhaps an exception, and has made it a point to conserve as much as possible for ecotourism and (possible?) research income. However, in many other countries, that doesn’t work and there is a need to show that conservation will bring in money (or result in less cost) compared to development.

But there are opponents to this ‘new’ method of conservation, which sees ecosystem valuation as siding with the devil. Perhaps the most practical concern is that it could backfire. If protecting the forest has been evaluated to help bring is $x every year, but building an airport and transit hub would bring in $x+y amount, then well, development would win on the terms that we agreed to play with. Or if we calculated that bees are important pollinators for this crop, and so should be protected, but then something changes in the economy and suddenly this crop is out of fashion – and bees aren’t worth saving anymore. Of course it’s not that simple and bees are useful for many things, but the idea is that even by ‘joining them’ in putting a price on nature, that can still result in massive losses for nature.

An outcome from valuing ecosystem services and putting a price on it is that you could then use Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) as a tool for conservation, where people who benefit from the ecosystem service (e.g. everyone if we’re talking about carbon sequestration/climate regulation) pay those who maintain the ecosystem. One of the most well-known examples is that of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries (REDD) which eventually morphed into REDD+ which includes degradation and safeguards for biodiversity. The ecosystem service in question here is that of carbon sequestration (because of its implications on climate change). Up till now, I have talked mostly about biodiversity and ecosystem services as though they are synonymous and interchangeable. They are not, and REDD+ quite clearly illustrates this. In the original proposal, countries could replace natural forests with trees that sequester more carbon, which would contribute to biodiversity loss. Other examples of conflict between ecosystem services and conservation of biodiversity would be the loss of native ladybirds due to the introduction of exotic ladybirds which were brought in for soybean pest control in the US (Macfadyen et al. 2012). On the other hand, though the link between species richness and ecosystem functioning (and by extension, services) is not entirely clear yet, it is generally agreed that higher biodiversity results in greater ecosystem functioning. So perhaps, focusing on ecosystem services isn’t the best idea.

There is also the parallel notion that economics (or the failure of economics, in terms of externalities) is the major reason for the destruction we’re observing now, and it’s ironic/stupid that we should expect it to be able to reverse the situation.

A more spiritual reason against putting a price on nature is that is undermines the true and holistic relationship between humans and nature. People should value nature for its intrinsic value and its own sake, and not still see dollar signs when they look at an intact forest or freshwater ecosystem. I agree, I fully believe that the only way we can resolve this crisis is if people (particularly urbanites) rediscover their connection with nature and understand the intricate web of being we’re all in when we’re born into the world. But as mentioned, in developing countries (which are mostly located in the tropics, where most of the world’s remaining biodiversity resides), they’re not gonna care about the intrinsic right of some species to exist, when they can’t even feed themselves or their family. And that’s why arguments for conservation in developing and developed countries are slightly different, since people have different priorities.

My take on ecosystem services and putting a value on nature, is ultimately that it is one of many tools available to conservationists to ensure we succeed. It shouldn’t be the main reason why we conserve, and it definitely is not why I’m interested in conservation, but it nonetheless can be useful. In the long run though, I do think a change in the way we think and live is needed, but that’s a post for another time.

Why mangrove deforestation is a bad idea, apart from the loss of mangrove species. Image taken from nulakagunawardene (taken from the Philippine Star)

I’ve definitely not gone into as much depth into this rather tricky and morally-loaded issue as I could/should have, but there are many articles on this topic out there, many of which are put across quite a bit more eloquently than I have. Here’s a few:
Yale environment 360 on what’s wrong with putting a price on nature
Marcus Ng in the Singaporean context
Pavan Sukhdev, an environmental economist, in a TED talk
Bill Adams, from the Dept of Geography in Cambridge. This is a scientific paper but it’s really readable. And it’s why I’m convinced of the benefits to conservation by valuing nature.
Valuing the oceans

“We’ve been actively trying to stem the decline of nature for many decades now, with protected areas, with protected species legislation, pollution controls, all the rest of it. Yet if you look at the across the world, the list of endangered species just gets longer and I think this is not so much to do with people not liking nature or not thinking these things are beautiful and should be protected, it’s much more to do with the mindset that says we have to sacrifice nature in order to advance economic growth and development and I think until we can show that nature is essential for economic growth and development, I fear that balancing act, that trade off bet human needs and nature will continue and it’s a complete misperception. It’s based on falsehoods and I think the more we can expose those falsehoods, including with economic numbers then I think the quicker we win all of the arguments, not just those concerned with why nature is beautiful, worth protecting for its own sake, has spiritual value, is aesthetically pleasing, is scientifically fascinating; we have to add all of that the economic argument.” – Tony Juniper (I can’t remember where I heard and transcribed this quote from, and I clearly lacked the foresight at that time to note the url, but here’s a similar video, and check out his website for more resources)

NB: this is actually based on a draft from 2012, that’s been hiding in the folder collecting dust (triggered by the Bukit Brown saga in Singapore). But since I got bored of practising essays for exams, and this is related to conservation science anyway, I decided to get it out of the way. At that time, I believe I was rather ambivalent/unsure of which side of the fence I was on. That’s what three years of university has done I guess, it’s shaped some of my opinion and made me a little less ignorant than I was before!

Tagged: Biodiversity, Bukit Brown, Conservation, ecosystem services, valuing nature

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