Saturday, February 28, 2009

Personal comments on ecosystem services

From Aguanomics:

Discuss the possibility of monetizing the value of the environment, i.e., ecosystem services

One thing that I feel needs to be included in an analysis of ecosystem services is the issue of existence value, and without trying to sound like I'm setting up a strawman argument, I think this sets up a situation that I don't think is suitable to economics.

What is the existence value of human life? What is the existence value of a blue whale or even a fire ant? What is the existence value of those individuals compared to each other? Would you say the blue whale is worth less than the human since it does not produce goods and services to others? Could economics turn the question on its head and ask if the blue whale is not more valuable than the human, since the human's impact upon the resources of the blue whale are greater than the other way around?

How can any of this this be equally calculated while taking into account the fact that members in an ecosystem (including humans) work upon each other? The cards are stacked on the sides of favoring humans, since economics -- not to mention law, governance, etc -- is geared toward the benefit toward humans (and because of our biological perspective as humans).

What is the benefit of any human conscious action for an ecosystem? Taken from the point-of-view of economics, an ecosystem has no needs other than existence. An ecosystem is always operating at 100%. If you change something in an ecosystem so that it is producing more of some product, then that ecosystem is still operating at 100%, but as a different ecosystem than previously. The fact that there is a measurable difference is of significance to us, but not to that of the ecosystem.

The concept of "ecosystem services", however, is that we can measure benefits to us from the ecosystem. Looking at benefits to us is still working within the paradigm of how ecosystems benefit humans, not how humans benefit ecosystems. Trying to figure out how to conduct an exchange between ecosystems and humans (which we could well argue are key drivers of ecosystem change) would be more useful, imho, than discussing the topic of "ecosystem services", which is ultimately a discussion of determining how ecosystems are of greater or lesser benefit to us.

Even if we use the arguement that measuring ecosystem services is a good method of determining conservation agendas, it ultimately embraces the concept of not paying the ecosystem for its services (again, unless I am wildly mistaken).

Am I making an argument that we should not cause impacts to nature? Well, I think that no matter what we do, we make impacts. I think, though, that before we take a view of "ecosystem services" as a general benefit to humans that we look at ameliorating "human costs" to ecosystems and figure a way of paying for them, either through improving efficiency, decreasing population, or both.

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