September 07, 2006

The value of nature

Douglas J. McCauley, writing in Nature, cogently argues against basing nature conservation on the 'ecosystem services' idea. He fears the destruction of wildlands that do not obviously provide economically valuable services, or that produce ecosystem disservices. He tells this story:
A recent study found that native bees from two forest fragments adjacent to Finca Santa Fe yielded approximately US$60,000 a year in pollination services to the coffee plants. This was hailed as an example of how conservation can yield 'double benefits' for biodiversity and agriculture.

Shortly after the conclusion of the study, however, Finca Santa Fe, probably affected by one of the worst dips in coffee prices this century, cleared its coffee and planted pineapple instead. Pollinators are irrelevant to pineapple production. So simple logic suggests that over a period of several years, the monetary value of the pollinators in forest fragments around Finca Santa Fe dropped from $60,000 per year to zero.
He further argues that the economic devaluation of nature is unavoidable because we keep finding artificial substitutes for natural products and processes.

McCauley then states that we should protect nature for its own sake because it has infinite intrinsic value. This is meaningless. Nature is like any other stuff. Different bits have different value and each bit has different value for different people.

2 comments:

  1. Biodiversivist9/09/2006 05:25:00 PM

    McCauley then states that we should protect nature for its own sake because it has infinite intrinsic value. This is meaningless. Nature is like any other stuff. Different bits have different value and each bit has different value for different people.

    I can't honestly disagree with what you say here. However I still want to stop the present extinction event. I am looking for solutions under the hypothesis that if we roped off and defended all that exists today, much as is done with African game parks and our own National parks, that the free market would continue to thrive with the resources at hand, as it always does. Why I want to end the extinction event, what excuses I want to cobble together are irrelevant. I want to end it.

    Once again I turn to the slavery analogy. Let us assume that slavery is immoral (whatever exactly that means). Then why can't you argue that destroying what remains of the planet's biodiversity is not only immoral, it has the potential to prove fatal to humanity. I just hope global warming isn't the mechanism that will usher in that potential suggesting my hypothesis is too little, too late.

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  2. It is impossible to completely stop the current extinction process just as it is impossible to eliminate all that remains of biodiversity. We are going to do something in between. The whole of biodiversity is not at stake; it is bits here and there - many of them, that add up to a large proportion of biodiversity - that are at stake at any given time.

    "We" are a heterogeneous collection, and this fact becomes obvious when we have to decide what to do about these and those bits of nature. What kind of decision processes allow us to reach the best outcomes? This is the big question.

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