Last fall, I gave a presentation titled ‘Valuing Ecosystem Services.’ It was for Professor Bob Minckley’s class, BIO 104K: Ecosystem Conservation & Human Society. Lasting the entirety of the class period, the presentation aimed to define ecosystem services and to explore the various ways in which they are valued. Depending on one’s perspective and expertise, we are bound to consider these topics in quite different terms.
In short, an ecosystem service is a natural process or product that occurs naturally; humans also happen to need it to survive. Examples include clean water, clean air, climate regulation, pollination… the list goes on. Humans tend to take from these systems at a faster rate than the system functions, causing environmental damage, or at least causing inconvenience to humans and other animals alike.
There are many ways to assign value to an ecosystem service, and these are important, because how we choose to value the service determines how it will be used. Generally, the options for humans are to preserve, harvest, or develop an ecosystem service.
I compared viewpoints from classical economics, moral philosophy, and environmental economics for the sake of this presentation. While classical economists consider value in terms of money and profit, environmental economists value ecosystem services based on their importance to various ways of life. Money is a much simpler measuring tool to use than “importance,” making classical economics easier to apply in valuing ecosystem services. Additionally, moral philosophy provides a basis for making the best, most ethical decision. Currently we mostly borrow from utilitarianism (what is best for the most humans; this view doesn’t take other organisms into account). Utilitarianism aligns well with classical economics.
One key idea I found most interesting was the Water-Diamond Paradox, also known as the Paradox of Value. Though water is more valuable (as it is essential to nearly all life forms), diamonds are regarded are far more valuable (in that they cost much more, despite meeting no needs of any life form for survival). This is because rarity affects how we interpret value: the less there is of something, the more we perceive it to be worth. This line of thinking directly affects how we value and treat the environment.
Another interesting concept I came across was the possible incompatibility of economics and environmentalism. Environmentalists recognize that the environment has a carrying capacity (K), and so it has a limit to how much it can hold, create, sustain, etc. However, economists focus primarily on progress, development, and short-term gains and losses. Classical economists are inclined to believe in infinite growth and progress, which the environment cannot sustain.
Though economics provides us with a simple mechanism by which to value ecosystem services (money), there are many properties of nature that can’t be quantified, such as the religious, therapeutic, and spiritual.
What do you think? Are economics and environmentalism incompatible as they stand? Comment below!
Note: the full presentation is linked in the first sentence. Access it by clicking on ‘presentation.’
Written by Melissa Kullman, class of 2014