I sent Kai Chan, author of the research cited in Amir’s original post, a note today about what I posted yesterday, and after reading it he sent back this insightful and on-point response. I publish it here because I think it points out some key tensions raised by this debate (and my contribution, specifically). Thank you, Kai!
Thanks very much for your kind comments and also for tipping me off about your exchange… Regarding that exchange, please recognize a few things:
(1) The media puts their own spin on stuff, and that is often at odds with the material itself. In particular here…we did *not* put a dollar value on ecosystem services, although that’s certainly how the media chose to spin it (anyone interested can check out the original study, as it’s publicly available. I actually doubt that they would have been as interested in the study if they couldn’t spin it that way! Yes, we attempted to value ecosystem services and we are in some cases using monetary values to help us do that, but we firmly resisted translating all the ecosystem services into a common metric like dollars. Instead, we set goals for each of the services and sought the most appropriate ways of meeting those goals through land conservation. We are concerned about the primacy of dollars, also, so our goals reflect not only the needs of current people but also equity and the needs of future people and biodiversity (see more below).
(2) There’s a sentence from your post that merits further discussion: “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.” The truth of this statement depends on what you mean by “appropriately valued”. If you mean—as most people do—the internalization of all externalities so that prices of goods and services reflect the impacts of their production (etc.) on other goods and services, then appropriate valuation does not ensure no gross violations of the natural order. Such a perfect economy would only look out for those who can impact market prices, and that means currently existing human beings, with an emphasis on the wealthy ones. If you’re concerned about non-human organisms and future people and issues of equity, the perfect economy just doesn’t help all that much. So those who resist the internalization of externalities have good reason to do so: it may help some things (the interests of people now) but it almost certainly won’t make our use of the world sustainable, equitable, or ecologically benign.
Now, if you mean for “appropriate valuation” to include these other three concerns (distribution across (1) time and (2) species and (3) within current societies), then we’ve got a lot of work to do. That endeavour is the gist of my entire research program and my life! I have a lot more to say on the topic, but it’ll have to wait for another day. But let’s keep up this conversation!
One other thing: As you can see, I’m concerned about many of the same things as you and your friends (e.g., as they express in saying, “What if, for example, we find a more “cost effective way” to protect coastal towns than protecting coastal wetlands?”). I agree that there would likely be a loss to nature itself if we found a more cost-effective way to protect coastal towns and probably also to future generations. Your friends ask why then we should seek a value for nature, if we already know that it matters? The response is that sometimes the interests of current people will and should win out over these other interests. This is especially true when those people who stand to benefit are desperately poor. The only way that we can figure out when the interests of current people should take precedence over nature and future generations, and vice versa, is to appropriately characterize the values of nature.