Environment & the World

Monday, November 27, 2006

Clarification by Kai

Filed under: Economics — kwolfgan @ 1:59 am

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.



  1. First, thanks to Kai for his thoughtful response and clarification. I agree that the idea of analyzing ecosystem services is valuable for prioritizing conservation efforts. I also fully appreciate his point about needing to extend any sort of economic analysis or ecosystem valuation to include issues of equity – both in current societies and across time and species (a difficult task indeed!). In a perfectly sustainable world, of course, we would not be drawing down our stock of natural resources and so there would not be any situations “when the interests of current people should take precedence over nature”, but I am willing to concede that this concept of ecosystem service valuation may be one step towards moving us towards that perfect world.

    Also, since Kai brought it up, I’d like to touch on this idea of inter-species equity, which addresses the lingering concerns I still have about the concept of valuing ecosystems in terms of their services to people. That is, suppose there is some ecosystem with absolutely no value to humans whatsoever, but only to the species that live in it; I think we would all agree that it should not be destroyed. I grant that there almost certainly is no such ecosystem, thereby removing this debate into the realm of the purely philosophical. However, my point is that a significant amount of value may be lost by only concentrating on those services which matter to humans. It sounds like Kai is already thinking about this point with his concern over inter-species equity. I would be interested in hearing more on this subject, as it seems to me that it is extremely difficult to quantify.

    Comment by ckunkel — Saturday, December 2, 2006 @ 1:55 am

  2. Karen, thank you for contacting Kai and getting him involved in this discussion. Kai, thank you so much for taking the time to address our questions. It’s a privilege to engage with the person whose researched sparked this debate!

    After reading through your comments and your academic paper, I realize that the article I originally cited unfortunately misrepresented your research with regard to the notion of valuing ecosystem “services” in dollar terms. Your approach is much more complex and nuanced than simply trying to translate nature into dollars, so I’m glad and relieved that you brought this to our attention.

    Furthermore, I agree that we share many of the same concerns regarding conservation, and I think that the stance you’re taking could be quite fruitful in trying to “value nature” in the sense of making explicit the various “services” it provides such as carbon storage, flood control, etc. Like you mention, inter-generational and inter-species equity are paramount and your research does aim to reinforce those ideals.

    My main concern in this discussion is mostly about the impulse to value nature in dollar terms and the repercussions of letting economic analysis dictate future conservation and development plans. These issues seem more tangential to your research than the article I read, which situated them more at the core. Along those lines, then, I really don’t have much to quibble about.

    You do employ the terms “value” and “ecosystem services” and those might be worth dwelling on a little. My thoughts about value appear as a comment to Karen’s “Armchair response” post. I also remain uneasy about the term “ecosystem services,” if only because it seems to appropriate a term from the heart of “the service industry/society economics” and apply it to nature. Nevertheless, I cannot fault you for using it, nor am I confident that I could come up with something better if I were in your position.

    Since “services” comes from economic parlance, it implies filling some sort of demand, which perhaps unintentionally could tend to superimpose an economic framework on the way we talk about and view the environment. Jonathan Rowe has a very nuanced and well-articulated take on the differences between “demand” and “need” when it comes to economics, which might be worth reading. I linked to it on my post “More Thoughts on Envt’lism &…”

    Lastly, mobilizing the terms “value” and “ecosystem services” begs the question: In the broadest and final level of analysis, who do these values of nature you seek to characterize fundamentally serve? The fact that you’re concerned about biodiversity, for example, shows that you’re not falling into the trap of trying to pass off as objective something that really serves the interests of a certain group of people or even the entire human race over other species and ecosystems. At the same time, many of the ecosystem services you outlined such as flood control, water provision, and outdoor recreation most explicitly, and carbon storage and crop pollination perhaps to lesser degrees all seem to emanate from an anthropocentric concern rather than a more disinterested stance (I write this acknowledging that defining something as “disinterested” is itself a problematic issue). Therefore, it’s worth cautiously recognizing that much of the environmental destruction we have seen was committed in the name of the interests of people winning out over other interests (namely the benefits from destroying nature for whatever purpose winning out over the obligation to protect and preserve it). In a certain, convoluted way, then, valuing “ecosystem services” with an anthropocentric bias could unintentionally incorporate/legitimize environmental destruction into the process of environmental protection. It’s a fine line with a slippery slope to tread, and I don’t necessarily think you’ve fallen down it, but perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind (which you may already be doing).

    Comment by Amir — Wednesday, December 6, 2006 @ 6:42 pm

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