May 29, 2005

Ecosystems and human well-being

I like biodiversity and wild nature. If only for this reason, I welcome most efforts to preserve biodiversity and wild nature. A few years ago the regional government of Galicia, where I live, effectively expropriated without compensation a piece of woodland from their legitimate owners in order to preserve the forest. Otherwise, most of it would have been converted to eucalypt plantations. I have mixed feelings about this action. I feel morally outraged that the government took the lands from their owners. But, on the other hand, I am quite happy that the forest has been preserved and I enjoy visiting it several times a year. Overall, it seems to me that my happiness more than offsets my moral outrage and the slight fear that the government may someday take my house from me. Pretty selfish.

Of course, there are many reasons to protect nature other than personal entertainment. Following my selfish instincts, I am always on the hunt for utilitarian arguments for the preservation of nature. Maybe some day I can use them to convince people of, say, protecting more forest, and thus advance my interest. (I also want to know those arguments because I teach conservation biology, because I write this blog and even possibly because I wish the best for society as a whole.)

So I have been browsing the newest report from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Biodiversity”, looking for new arguments for the preservation of nature. Note that I do not personally need to be convinced. I value nature a lot. What I want is utilitarian arguments for practical action.

Alas, the report seems to be written by people like me -- their love for nature apparently offsets other considerations. I expect an assessment to provide a balanced view of a problem and to discuss the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. This report is not an assessment but a (very very) long advocacy statement. The arguments are not new and many are very weak. They will not help me in a debate with a prepared opponent.


The report lists only the worst consequences of our current effects on biodiversity and only the benefits of caring more about biodiversity. “For example, interweaving multiple varieties of rice in the same paddy has been shown to increase productivity by lowering the loss from pests and pathogens.” But, how much does interweaving cost compared to not interweaving? The report does not tell.

Many people have benefited over the last century from the conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated ecosystems and from the exploitation of biodiversity. At the same time, however, these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of losses in biodiversity, degradation of many ecosystem services, and the exacerbation of poverty for other groups of people.
The report contains no indication about just how large is the benefit from the transformation of nature compared to its costs or about how much these costs are growing through time (it comments only four local examples that are unlikely to be a representative sample and where the calculated costs and benefits are not the marginal ones). The report provides a static picture of biodiversity loss by throwing numbers of endangered and extinct species. Although the authors compare the number of extinctions attributed to humans to the estimated background rate (based on uncertain data from the fossil record), they do not even attempt to estimate the background (or “natural”) numbers of species considered threatened by red list criteria. They do cite the increase in the number of species in red lists, but see my previous post. The few examples of “exacerbation of poverty” they cite involve flagrant cases of absent or corrupt property rights enforcement by governments.

The authors of the report could also have written (witness the example of Galicia above): “Many people have benefited over the last century from the efforts to preserve natural ecosystems and biodiversity. At the same time, however, these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of losses of other opportunities and the exacerbation of poverty for other groups of people.” But they haven’t considered the matter.

Even in instances where knowledge of benefits and costs is incomplete, the use of the precautionary approach may be warranted when the costs associated with ecosystem changes may be high or the changes irreversible.
We can apply the precautionary approach in the opposite direction too.

A country’s ecosystems and its ecosystem services represent a capital asset, but the benefits that could be attained through better management of this asset are poorly reflected in conventional economic indicators. A country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries and this would show only as a positive gain to GDP despite the loss of the capital asset. When the decline in these “natural capital assets” is factored into the measures of national wealth, the estimates of that wealth decline significantly for countries with economies that are especially dependent on natural resources. Some countries that appeared to have positive growth in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, actually experienced a net loss of capital assets, effectively undermining the sustainability of any gains they may have achieved.
If you own stock, you sell it and you use the money to go to medical school, in terms of “conventional accounts” you experience “a net loss of capital assets”. What in fact you are doing is to change one sort for assets for another. You may gain from the transaction (you get more net satisfaction from being a doctor than from being a stockholder) or you may lose. Countries that experienced huge losses of natural assets time ago are now very rich. Maybe they would be richer if they had used those assets in other ways. But, how can we change the GDP index to take into account the fact that people sometimes mismanage their capital? Who decides which management is good and which is bad?

The world is experiencing an increase in human suffering and economic losses from natural disasters over the past several decades. […] Economic losses have increased by a factor of ten.


I have a Ford Fiesta and lose it in a flood. Years later I am much richer and lose my Mercedes in a flood. I have experienced an increase in human suffering and economic losses.

I do like this:

Transferring rights to own and manage ecosystem services to private individuals gives them a stake in conserving those services, but these measures can backfire without adequate levels of institutional support. For example, in South Africa, changes in wildlife protection legislation allowed a shift in landownership and a conversion from cattle and sheep farming to profitable game farming, enabling conservation of indigenous wildlife. On the other hand, the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe, based on sustainable community-managed use of wildlife, has now become an example of how success can turn into failure, with the state repossessing the areas given to individuals and breaking the levels of trust and transparency—a form of instrumental freedom—that are critically needed for these economic responses to work efficiently and equitably.


One can find more statements like this sparkled throughout the report. There are also statements in favor of markets and against government subsidies to agriculture, fisheries and timber extraction. This reflects a welcome trend of the present times. Worldwatch, for example, shows a similar attitude in another recent report. Still, those statements are quite timid and often mixed with calls for more government action.

I end by returning home. One of the maps of the report provides information about forest fragmentation (the original source is here). Galicia (the northwestern corner of Spain) appears green, indicating “unfragmented forest.” Actually, virtually no forest remains in the whole area of the western Iberian Peninsula that the map shows green. Heathlands, croplands and pine and eucalypt plantations have long ago replaced the forest. Fortunately, nearby areas that are marked yellow (fragmented forest due to human land use) contain much more forest than Galicia. And, although we lack forest, we have wonderful seafood and beautiful beaches.

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