A little over a month ago I coughed up a brief nugget of grousing with regards to some particularly macabre accountancy being undertaken by the folks at EPA. Instead of setting their bean counters to the task of devaluing the human life by approximately $1,000,000—presumably to lay a surreptitious thumb on the industry-friendly side of the cost-benefit scales—the EPA would be far better used, and we’d be better served, were they to approach the task of more accurately valuing intact, productive natural systems, and to account for losses—real monetary losses—borne by those impacted by natural systems’ destruction.
We look at a forest and count board feet at some projected market value. What’s the replacement cost on the carbon dioxide-to-oxygen exchange?
That’s the sort of economic challenge that I’d much rather the folks at EPA sink their teeth into.
So, needless to say, it pleased me to no end to catch this article in today’s paper as I rode BART work this morning.
Gretchen Daily wants to protect the planet by convincing governments and big investors there’s money to be made – or at least saved – in preserving nature instead of exploiting it.
It’s a fresh approach to conservation that is drawing international attention to this unpretentious Stanford biologist who has garnered some of the world’s most prestigious scientific honors. At its most basic, Daily is figuring out how to put a price tag on the natural world. And colleagues say she has done what many scientists have not: connected theory to practice.
Duly noted that this research is taking place within academia as opposed to the public sector, but fine. It’s underway, and it’s receiving section-front, above-fold coverage. Right the hell on.
Admission / full-disclosure: I bailed, running and screaming, on my early intentions to pursue an undergraduate major in economics. Having rather enjoyed my freshman year introductory micro- and macro- classes, and having come to an early though not well articulated sense for the extent to which our environmental challenges were economic at their root, I thought (briefly) that a geology and economics double major might set me up quite nicely for a professional life in the environmental field.
Then I hit intermediate microeconomics.
I think it was a lecture on diminishing marginal utility that caused something in my cerebellum to snap. The example the professor used to illustrate his point was leaving the water running while brushing your teeth, as there’s no appreciable value to the (wasted) resource. Even in moist New England, more than 20 years ago, this just struck me as completely perverse. And it dawned on me that any field of study so deeply rooted in “all other things being equal,” and that is predicated upon assumption after assumption—none of which are likely to actually pan out when you bother to ground truth them—is probably not where I should focus my energy.
I became more convinced of the fact that environmental challenges were economic in nature, but in addition, going further, of the likelihood that many of them were exacerbated if not caused altogether by the deep flaws in the western economics toolbox, and the damage done through their application.
But, so long as growth is unquestioned king—and unfortunately it is—it’s the toolbox that we have. And I am heartened to see that the need to recognize the very real, and quite irreplaceable, value delivered by viable natural systems is being undertaken, and is being given notice.
Oh, man, I just love this… me:
We continue to treat our resource base as an ATM machine tied to an account whose balance is always assumed to be well in the black. We have a long way to go in seeing to it that cost benefit analysis adequately captures the value of resources and systems.
and Gretchen Daily:
“Here’s how I often think about it: If you look at nature today, it’s almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet: Unless you set a price tag on the different things on the table … people are going to go whole hog like we are now and eat all they can as fast as they can.”
Go git ’em Gretchen. And thank you for giving me cause to get my gloat on this Monday morning.