Environment & the World

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Environmental Economics: An Armchair Response

Filed under: Economics — kwolfgan @ 2:33 am

After reading Cathy and Amir’s exchange on the subject of Economics x Environmentalism, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off some reference materials to help me think. Wendell Berry’s A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (turned to the last essay, “Mayhem in Industrial Paradise”) and Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, ed. Donald Worster, are now sitting next to me on our new green recliner, keeping me company as I address this particularly thorny topic. I am in the thick of finishing up assignments for this term, so I intend for my response to be relevant for some other papers I’m needing to write.


First things first. Let us recall the beginning of this discussion: Amir’s citation of research done by Kai Chan, coincidentally a friend of mine from Princeton. I do not doubt in the slightest Kai’s good intentions, as he is one of the kindest and most honest—not to mention most thoroughly pragmatic—people of my acquaintance. I am inclined to recognize that pragmatism as a motivating factor in his research, and will try in the rest of this entry to make clear how assigning a dollar value to ecosystem services has great practical importance, despite the lingering distaste some (myself included, truth be told) feel at the mere suggestion of doing so.


I wonder, when we talk about putting a price tag on nature, whether we are nervous about the act of recognizing or assigning the value of ecosystem services, or whether we are really concerned about the pattern of putting price tags on everything that got us to where we are in the first place. My guess is that we are upset about the latter and worried that the former will be an extension of this trend instead of a way to move past it. This is totally legitimate, but brings us to an impasse: in theory, we dislike it, but we don’t know of a better valuation alternative that will bring about the results we hope for. My suggestion is to think about the dollar sign as a metaphor—one that, for better or for worse, makes sense to most people embroiled in the system(s) causing/exacerbating environmental problems.


It is true that the profit motive can drive people to do terrible things: patent indigenous people’s genes; strip-mine mountaintops completely off; build dams that create thousands of ecological refugees; do a shitty job of post-war “reconstruction”; destroy everything from entire species of organism to entire ways of life. When making money is the most important pursuit and highest goal, there arise serious problems. In the pursuit of wealth, though, we have trained ourselves to think in terms of money. My time currently has a dollar value when I work, which I sometimes have to do; the home that I have lovingly decorated could be assigned one for insurance purposes (if I could afford insurance). The $ is an indicator of value, however abstract. And value is what we should be concerned with. How we determine that value is another question entirely—one I trust Kai Chan to be thinking through.


So when we’re talking about price tags, the point should not necessarily be the price tag itself. Valuing ecosystem services in this way is a means to an end. If the environment is appropriately valued, gross violations of the natural order—an order in which people have a role to play, which cannot be played by any other creatures—will cease to exist. Perceiving (economic) value in “nature” does, indeed, entail a change of mindset, and a radical one, at that. If monetary value can be used as the metaphor to catalyze that transformation, in my view it should be, along with any other system of valuation that can make the immensity of the present situation at once fathomable and deeply significant.


Putting a price tag on nature can definitely be identified as a step in the wrong direction. But if putting a price tag on nature can lead to ecologically preferable activities and cause us to really consider what the environment is worth in non-monetary terms—if putting a $ in front of clean water, clean air, etc. enables people who might otherwise destroy in the name of profit to understand that their actions have negatively-valued effects beyond their wildest imaginations—it might be worth the discomfort: not as a be-all end-all solution, but as a piece in a dynamic puzzle, a step in the right direction.


1 Comment »

  1. Karen, I’m really glad that you shared your insights on this issue. Although I have to admit this wasn’t the position I expected of you, you laid out your reasoning clearly and convincingly. I think you really “hit the jackpot” (don’t you wish you could assign dollars to that) when you singled out “value” as central to this discussion.

    While it is indeed pragmatic to assign dollars to natural “services” in the hopes of engaging in better actions, I don’t necessarily believe it would be a step in the right direction. In fact, I fear that “a step in the right direction” and “a lesser degree of bad” tend to get confused in many discussions, and that the issue at hand represents the latter.

    You can probably wax better than I can over the anthropological take on value. When we talk about value, we often do it in an anthropocentric way–what is it worth for humans? Value is imbued into an object by humans. A rock, a song, or a card’s value can deviate from its “material” value depending on the relationship of the people among whom it was exchanged. Furthermore, even the “material value” is determined by the market, which purports to represent the average desirability of something in human eyes. The point is, things can be indexical of a human relationship, or carry additional symbolic meaning beyond its material value, and value is more subjective than objective.

    The other sticking point is that nature is not necessarily an anthropocentric realm. Therefore, employing the term “value” seems out of context: How do we value something in human terms when the values we seek to characterize are not necessarily generated in the context of human exchange?

    Furthermore, the dollar (or any other currency) possesses something fundamentally different than other symbols/objects of exchange, and perhaps this is part of what marked the industrial revolution and the rise of global capitalism as such extraordinary events/processes in history.

    Once you assign a dollar value, you commoditize. So while assigning a dollar value may indeed help us make better decisions in how to protect and preserve the environment, it also opens the doors to more sinister and perhaps equally likely possibilities. Imagine, for example, the incorporation of clean water and clean air as commodities traded on a stock exchange. This has already happened to oil, metals, and other products of the earth. There is a sort of logic to the market–as the scarcity of oil increases, so will its price on the market… Nevertheless, this hasn’t, and probably won’t, prevent us from pumping it out of the planet till the last drop. Nor has it prevented (much less helped us effectively address) the petrol perils leading to global warming.

    Comment by Amir — Thursday, November 30, 2006 @ 3:47 pm

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