An Open Letter to US Interior Secretary Jewell on the Preservation of the Wild

In response to the recent call by the Wilderness Society for people to write to US Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to preserve America’s wildest spaces, in particular from industrial development such as energy drilling, I have written and sent the open letter below. It is rather rambling, but espouses many of the points I’ve made over the years on this blog of the importance of the non-economic aspects of the ecosystem services of nature such as the cultural and health services as well as the critical life support regulatory functions that these systems provide. This speaks to the importance of preserving wild systems that is beyond economic valuation and about maintaining the wild biotic processes that have maintained the chemical and physical balances of our planets life support systems from local to global scales.

The Letter

Dear Secretary Jewell,

I know I am not from the United States (US), but the US can and does serve as a world leader on many fronts, and the world needs influential and powerful environmental leaders to show how environmental management can and should be done—turning theoretical best practices, informed by quality science, into reality. I am also writing to you from an ecological systems perspective merged into the notion of regulatory ecosystem services, which is not often voiced (more often you hear about the natural capital/economic valuation aspects of ecosystem services), so I hope you will consider this letter.

It is only since around the 1960’s that work in Earth and atmospheric science started to lead to a scientific paradigm shift of the world as a complex and interconnected system (Lovelock gives a good review of this in his initial book on the Gaia Hypothesis, which may sound hoaky, but the title is just a nod to the ancient Greeks in name, but overlies some solid systems science). In this Earth system, we have come to observe that humans are not just subject to large physical drivers (like things like Earth and solar (Milankovich) cycles and volcanism that help to shape climate), but we humans are also, collectively, drivers and shapers of the environment ourselves from local to global scales. Now that there are so many of us roaming the Earth with population growth, and now that we are so efficient and effective in conducting industrial processes upon the land, we need to improve our rules of engagement with Earth systems so that we don’t sabotage the very ground we stem from.

We have come to see how humans, though miniscule individually, can collectively influence large physical processes on Earth like the climate through things like incremental effects on atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, as well as incremental changes to land use. This paradigm shift is starting to make its way into human spheres like the newish field of ecological economics and our notions of how to do conservation (like the work on planetary boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Center: This is great, but there is urgency to take what we know from science and better risk manage our Earth systems, for, with our growth over the last 100 years in population and industrial capacity, we are affecting Earth’s physical and ecological systems at an unprecedented rate in history.

One of the areas where not only humanity, but all the biological systems of the Earth, urgently need help, is from environmental regulators and policy makers, like you. We need you to be informed and be strong to protect wild ecological systems so they can continue not only being beautiful places that speak to our sense of aesthetics, nourishing and healing retreats that increase our health as research is increasingly showing, but also because living systems beyond humanity form a central part of the critical life support system of the Earth.

Thank you for your work to update many of the outdated practices and policies within the US Interior Department. Most importantly, I appreciate your commitment to conservation and recognition that there are places in America that truly are ‘Too Wild to Drill’. I’m not sure what you mean by “wild” exactly, but I will tell you what I mean by wild taken from a paper I recently wrote (here: in the glossary at the end), which is a systems perspective on the root of the word stemming from ‘self-willed’, of an ecological system that is complex, self-directed, self-regulating, and autopoetic.

North American ‘wild’ places are not just pretty, or important for traditional conservation reasons, but they are vital systems that help to form the self-regulating fabric of the natural world.

Wild systems stem from an ancient original source beyond human control, and these systems are critical because they help to form the collective Earth biotic system and collective biotic driver of large emergent complex global systems like atmospheric climate and oceanic chemistry, of which some parts of these systems have maintained homeostasis in the face of the forces of entropy for billions of years. A homeostasis that humans are now threatening. The degredation of wild systems is part of this systemic threat that our activities pose to Earth systems. How local wild spaces collectively act to create and help regulate certain global homeostatic mechanisms (like the regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere that wouldn’t even be there without biotic photosynthesis) is still beyond complete human understanding, but obviously of central importance to the continuing of life on Earth.

Now, more than ever, we need to come together as people and as nations, to help ensure that the physical and chemical life support system functionality roles that are inherent in ecosystems are preserved.

What this means to me and to many systems scientists is that we need to preserve spaces—on our land and in our waterways—where wild systems can flourish so that they can continue performing their ancient role of systemic regulation from the local to global scales. This also means that now, more than ever, we need your leadership to ensure others within the agency also understand the broader role these places play in our lives.

Our public lands are where children learn to explore the outdoors and meet science face to face. These are the places we find solitude from the hurried world around us, places we know we can turn to for recreation, hunting and fishing. Places we can turn to for psychological and spiritual recharging. (Please also see my paper for a review of recent research on the importance to human health of natural systems, from nature next door to the wilds.) Our public lands are something we count on to be accessible for years to come. Public lands are also something that we depend on collectively across the Earth to keep the ecological systems fabric functioning. To afford us and future generations these experiences, I encourage you to push for better land protection designations for places that are Too Wild to Drill and encourage this practice not only in Washington, D.C., but also in the local and state decisions out west.

I work as an environmental consultant, writing environmental assessments and advising not only governments and energy companies on energy policy. I’ve been busy doing this job and not done a lot of political work, but what I have learned in my profession is that the existing regulatory environment is not enough to safeguard wild systems against the kinds of growing population and industrial pressures that constantly press to carry forward old ideas such as ‘exploiting’ natural systems for our benefit. We need people like you to lay the groundwork policy for a “full world”, in the words of Herman Daly, to redraw the boundaries of what we safely can and cannot do so that we do not sabotage our own success.

Haven’t we run to the end of the colonialist, exploitative, way of looking at natural systems? Haven’t we had enough of seeing ‘nature’ as an enemy to be conquered. I think that day has come. We have won. But, as they say, watch what you wish for. Humans have wished for mastery over the Earth, and in pursuing this, we may spell our own demise since, despite the claims of geoengineers, we do not really understand how complex and interconnected Earth systems work from local to global scales, and because of this, we need to preserve them, functionally intact. Would navy officers on a submarine seek to exploit their sub to the point of sabotaging their own life support systems? Or, would they do whatever it takes to ensure that the chemical and physical factors that keep them afloat and alive are protected? We need to look at our wild spaces, not just as pretty landscapes or natural resources to be economically exploited, but as vital biotic systems that chemically and physically regulate our environment, and without which, life as we know it would no longer exist. We need to get smart policies going, informed by the best of what we know in science, and we need to push back on special economic interests that look to continue the cycle of exploitation, which has now run its course. We need to lay down the boundaries and be strong to the forces which seek to continue their tradition of success in exploiting the Earth, because there are systemic limits to the Earth’s biotic capacity to regulate. Just as a human can succumb to incremental stresses and have health impacted, so can the wild systems of the Earth be affected through our incremental systemic pressures. Is this a chance we want to take, to keep pushing the bar? What kind of sailor would want to mess around with their oxygen system? I can’t think of any. We need to help re-frame these issues of the preservation of the wild in systems terms. This is defensible science. It is credible and it also make sense with risk management. It doesn’t mean energy drilling is bad, it just means that there are limits to certain kind of activities that the wild systems can bear, and to protect the functioning of these dwindling spaces, we need to have people like you know when it is time to draw the line and say no means no. Enough is enough. And it’s not just about protecting this or that species. It’s about maintaining and protecting our critical life support systems that wild systems collectively make up across the Earth.

Let’s Not Be Victims of Our Own Success

Humans are an incredible species. We have amazing intelligence and capacity. Whether this capacity is designed by some external supernatural agent or evolved is often debated, but is not the point. The point is that we do indeed have this amazing capacity for intelligence, creativity/innovation, and production, and we are using it, but we are using it now in ways that may not only be self-sabotaging, but sabotaging to the ecological fabric of many other living systems on Earth.

Billions of years ago, there was a similar success story of a new type of organism that dramatically affected the Earth and life on this planet. This was the appearance of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria, the first creatures to capture the energy of the sun and turn it into oxygen. The early Earth atmosphere was like reducing, not oxidizing as it is now. That is because of the success of photosynthesizing creatures that metabolically spewed out oxygen in the process. Well, these creatures were much much smaller than us, but they were so successful that they reproduced like mad, and made so much oxygen that they too (like us) started to change the mass balance chemistry of the Earth’s global atmosphere and oceans. And what geological science tells us is that this led to a series of very dramatic extinctions, as evidenced in the banded iron formations. Oxygen was toxic to life back then (and it still has this toxicity, evidenced in how we need antioxidants within human bodily systems to keep us healthy), and as concentrations of O2 built up, it got to the point where the levels of oxygen got to the tipping point where it led to a mass extinction killing off a large section of the biota on Earth, including the photosynthesizing creatures themselves. If this isn’t the definition of an organism being the victim of its own success, I do not know what is. But some of the photosynthesizers lived on, and the process started again, and then again, with extinction events happening over millions of years, until finally organisms (like us metabolically) could breath in the oxygen. This led to a new metabolic dance between the photosynthetic organisms (that emit oxygen) and heterotrophs (that would breath that oxygen and eat organic matter), which led to an emergent planetary mass balance in oxygen levels which has remained relatively stable to this day around 21%.

The reason I’m telling this quick recap of the evolution of photosynthetic creatures, and how that ties into environmental chemistry, is because to me this story reminds me of humans. Photosynthetic organisms were remarkably successful in harnessing the energy of the sun, but they also became victims of their own success. We humans are supposedly more intelligent than cyanobacteria though, so I hope that we can figure out the systems effects of our collective metabolic (energy and natural resources using) success more quickly and take action to prevent not only us, but other living systems around us, becoming victims of our success.

It’s Not About Fighting ‘Evil’ Energy Developers

Many environmentalists treat energy development like it is an evil thing. There is nothing inherently evil in humans maximizing our use of energy. One of the most ancient stories of humanity is of how Prometheus brought humans that fundamental ancient energy of fire. Fire is a tool that humans have used since times immemorial which has helped us in so many ways to live and flourish on the Earth. The development of the kind of fire that burns fossil fuels is another kind of fire that has helped humans in many ways to thrive on the Earth and do efficient and useful work. Great. Just like there is nothing inherently bad in a new organism coming along that manages to harness the energy of the sun, producing oxygen as a by product, there is nothing inherently wrong with humans harnessing fire. But, and this is a big but, our human energy development (use of the metaphorical fire) is, in a way an extension of human metabolism, and this has chemical and other secondary effects as science is showing us. Not only our use of energy, but our incremental degradation of wild spaces also has chemical and physical effects, because these wild spaces provide regulatory ecosystem services. Without a systemic process to manage the successes of the expansion of human metabolic processes on Earth, then we too may become victims of our own success, taking the whole biotic system along with us for an unintended ride.

I hope this analogy helps to illustrate how important our wild systems are and how important it is to preserve their functioning, not only for aesthetic, health and traditional conservation reasons, but also because of the vital role that wild and healthy functioning ecosystems play all over the planet in making up our biotic life support system on Earth. I hope that you, and other policy makers like you, will cooperate to take up this banner, and safeguard our present and future systems health on Earth so that ‘sustainability’ becomes more than a wishy washy and abused term, but something as concrete as naval officers safeguarding the life support systems of a high tech submarine. In the latter case, the submarine is human made, but in the case of the Earth, we have a planet with a functioning system that still has a numinous wild mystery to it. Let us preserve that wild and free spirit of our ambient biotic systems. And, is this not—this preservation of the wild and free spirit of the land—not, really, the real American dream after all, when you really think about it?

Do We Value Protecting What is Really ‘Wild and Free’ or Not?

Let us not undermine, in chipping away at the wilds of our lands, what it really means to pursue life, liberty and freedom. I contend (as roughly outlined in my linked to paper) that the sacred beating heart of this freedom we all hold so dear IS the wild. The wild out there, which is a mirror to the wild in each of our own self-directed yet interconnected hearts. As Aldo Leopold learned in observing the green fire go out in the eyes of a wolf he he shot many years ago, to kill the wolf is to slowly kill the mountain, and now we are learning that to kill the mountain is to slowly kill ourselves and what is dear to all life. Please, do not let this happen. Please take the precautionary approach. If you take a risk management approach, not only is the probability that the loss of the wilds will lead to ecological systems harm too high, but also the hazard level of the risk of the loss of the wilds on ecological planetary systemic functioning is too great. And when it comes to that ephemeral thing called the human spirit, the risk of the loss of the dream of freedom is also too dear.

We mostly grow up in cities now and as Richard Louv (nature deficit disorder) and other researchers like EO Wilson (biophilia) have shown, we and increasingly our children are divorced from the nature that is all of our original birth place and also the system that keeps us alive. Many of us in environmental science are coming to realize that caring to protect nature stems from knowledge, which stems from experience. Why would you want to protect what you don’t know or understand? But just because many of us have forgotten nature’s importance through estrangement, doesn’t mean we cannot collectively affect is, or negatively harm through our actions the systemic functional importance of wild systems.

Thoreau Was Right When He States that in Wildness is the Preservation of the World

Wildness is not just the “preservation of the world, it is the world.
– Gary Snyder

It’s time to close the longstanding gap in western culture between humans and nature through sound policy and safeguard what is important to preserve in our ecological systems. Whether our expulsion from the paradise garden millennia ago was, again, due to supernatural or random physical/climatic causes, is not the point. The point is that western history has this discontinuity in our collective memory in our connection to nature, to the wilds, and to our dream of the paradise garden. And, regardless of the source of this disconnection between western colonialist culture and nature, we have been, I contend partially as a result of this discontinuity, systematically acting in ways that sabotage our ever returning.

Maybe reconnecting with the wild is what we have wanted, and needed, this whole time. Maybe in the disconnected wilds lies our own lost feral beating heart. It is my dream that our children can find it again, if we do not destroy it first. This is also the dream of many indigenous peoples. It is time we listen to a different kind of rooted wisdom that connects us to place and to the root our our own touted notions of freedom so that we actually walk the talk of what it means to be both responsible and free.

The risk of losing that wild beating heart of the land, which may be one of the foundational elements of makes life worthwhile to begin with, is there on the doorstep. The time for action is now. If not me taking time to implore you to stand up to protect the heart of what it means to be wild and free, who? If not you stepping up to the plate to do what it takes to preserve the still beating heart of our wild lands, who?

Thank you,

Maria Lavis


Ecological Economics


Eco- from the Greek, οἶκος, oikos, meaning “house”.

Economics. Ecology. Both words start with the same etymological root, but historically, that’s about where the similarity between the two fields of study ends.

Ecology is the study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings.  Or, one could say the study of the larger “house” and the creatures–including us–in it.

Economics is the study of the management the production and consumption of goods and services, or the management of the “house”.

So when you get back to basic definitions, it’s odd to think that these two fields have been so disparate, and often in conflict, over most of the last century. This is where the new field of Ecological Economics comes in.

Unlike ecological economics, which is transdisciplinary, the traditional field of environmental economics is a subfield of classical economics that looks at human systems as largely apart from environmental ones, and also looks at the nature of exchanges (such as natural resource extraction and pollution) between them. In this classical view, nature is taken to be an infinite source of natural capital (which has led to externalization of this natural capital), supplemented with the the theoretical addendum that when nature does run out, it can be substituted with human capital.

Ecological economics takes some of the assumptions of environmental economics to task. It differs from environmental economics in that it views human economic systems as being embedded and interdependent with ecological ones, such that human capital cannot substitute for degraded or lost natural capital, especially when it comes to externalities impacting essential ecosystem services or functions. Ecological economics also acknowledges the limits of natural capital, and seeks to reduce its externalization.


What is the Ecological Economics Problem?

“Tools, insatiable wants and the potential danger of ignorance place humans in a unique position of being able to alter their ecosystems in ways that jeopardize their own social and economic structures and processes. While any species could exceed its own natural ecosystem’s carrying capacity or diminish that capacity to the point of self-extinction, only the human species has both the will and capacity to jeopardize itself, as well as the will and capacity to avoid it.”

Farber & Bradley

What do you think? Have humans reached, or are they reaching the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is there a problem? Could ecological economics tools lead to a practical way to fix it? I’d love to hear your thoughts via the comments.


If you want to dig deeper, main theorists in this area to check out include:

The field has been influenced on the work of several theorists (whose works have largely since been critiqued and updated) including:


The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Where can you go to learn more about ecological economics? A good an easy start would be to check out this handy online e-book “An Introduction to Ecological Economics“.

In addition, there are some organizations that specialize in the study of ecological economics:

  • Gund Institute for Ecological Economics: Located at the University of Vermont, “The Gund Institute is a transdisciplinary research, teaching, and service organization focused on developing integrative solutions to society’s most pressing problems…”
  • The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE): “Ecological economics exists because a hundred years of disciplinary specialization in scientific inquiry has left us unable to understand or to manage the interactions between the human and environmental components of our world…Ecological economics is based on the assumption that the economy is a subsystem of a larger ecological life support system. Understanding this relationship is central to meeting humanity’s current environmental challenges, as well as building a sustainable future. Ecological economists strive for an ecologically sustainable, socially equitable, and economically efficient future.”
  • The Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE): “We recognize that economies of communities, regions, and countries are imbedded in and dependent upon nature’s capacity to sustain ecological goods and services for present and future generations. The CANSEE mandate is to promote an understanding of this reality through research, education and practice, and to inform policy development and decision-making in government, communities, businesses and other organizations.”
  • Ecolgical Economics (Journal): “The journal is concerned with extending and integrating the study and management of “nature’s household” (ecology) and “humankind’s household” (economics). This integration is necessary because conceptual and professional isolation have led to economic and environmental policies which are mutually destructive rather than reinforcing…”

Leaders in the Field – Partha Dasgupta

Partha Dasgupta

Partha Dasgupta

Taking the “start anywhere” approach, this is the first in a series of posts on leaders in the field of ecosystem services and natural capital.

I’ve chosen Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University, Sir Partha Dasgupta, to start because his work has been on my mind lately, and because of his outstanding contributions to the field of economics in valuing natural capital, or ecological economics. His recent CV, bio and some publications can be found on the link attached to his name above.

In particular, I found that his recent paper, “Nature’s role in sustaining economic development“, makes a compelling case for not only why, but how natural capital could be incorporated into economic valuation schemes. The paper is free and open to the public to read and covers some basics on economics, GDP, HDI, shadow prices, and a pathway to valuing the true wealth of nations.

Here is a list of some of my favourite quotes from the paper (my comments are in orange):

Some identify environmental problems with population growth, while others identify them with wrong sorts of economic growth. There are those who identify environmental problems with urban pollution in emerging economies, while others view them through the spectacle of poverty. Each of those visions is correct. There is not just one environmental problem.

In the quantitative models that appear in leading economics journals and textbooks, nature is taken to be a fixed, indestructible factor of production. The problem with the assumption is that it is wrong: nature consists of degradable resources. (This is one of my all time fav natcap quotes.)

Judging by the profession’s writings, we economists see nature, when we see it at all, as a backdrop from which resources and services can be drawn in isolation. Macroeconomic forecasts routinely exclude natural capital. Accounting for nature, if it comes into the calculus at all, is usually an afterthought to the real business of ‘doing economics’. We economists have been so successful in this enterprise, that if someone exclaims, ‘Economic growth!’, no one needs to ask, ‘Growth in what?’—we all know they mean growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

Why do not market prices reflect nature’s scarcity value? If natural capital really is becoming scarcer, would not their prices have risen, signalling that all is not well…The problem is that if prices are to reveal social scarcities, markets must function well. For many types of natural capital, though, most especially ecological resources, markets not only do not function well, often they do not even exist.

We can state the problem thus: ill-specified or unprotected property rights prevent markets from forming or make markets function wrongly when they do form. (See paper for a great exploration on property rights issues.)

Being underpriced, nature is overexploited. So, an economy could enjoy growth in real GDP and improvements in HDI for a long spell even while its overall productive base shrinks. (This was the case for Grand Banks until the cod collapsed.)

As proposals for estimating the social scarcity prices of natural resources remain contentious, economic accountants ignore them and governments remain wary of doing anything about them. (Time to change this.)

The ethics underlying PES are seemingly attractive. If decision makers in Brazil believe that decimating the Amazon forests is the true path to economic progress there, should not the rest of the world pay Brazil not to raze them to the ground? If the lake on my farm is a sanctuary for migratory birds, should not bird lovers pay me not to drain it for conversion into farm land? Never mind that the market for ecosystem services could be hard to institute, if a system involving PES were put in place, owners of ecological capital and beneficiaries of ecological services would be forced to negotiate. The former group would then have an incentive to conserve their assets.

Sustainable development demands that, relative to population numbers, future generations have no less of the means to meet their needs than we do ourselves; it demands nothing more. But how is a generation to judge whether it is leaving behind an adequate productive base for its successor? (One of the pressing questions of our time.)

The values to be imputed to assets are known as their shadow prices. Formally, by an asset’s shadow price, we mean the net increase in societal well-being that would be enjoyed if an additional unit of that asset were made available, other things being equal. As shadow prices reflect the social scarcities of capital assets, it is only in exceptional circumstances that they equal market prices. (This sounds important but I’m going to have to do more reading on economic theory to understand it!)

The value of an economy’s entire stock of capital assets measured in terms of their shadow prices is its wealth…It can be shown that an economy’s wealth measures its overall productive base…So, if we wish to determine whether a country’s economic development has been sustainable over a period of time, we have to estimate the changes that took place over that period in its wealth relative to growth in population. The theoretical result I am alluding to gives meaning to the title of perhaps the most famous book ever written on economics, namely, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Observe that Adam Smith did not write about the GDP of nations, nor of the HDI of nations; he wrote about the wealth of nations. It would seem we have come full circle, by identifying sustainable development with the accumulation of (comprehensive) wealth. (I’m seeing many similar references in other literature on what Adam Smith really mean lately.)

It should not surprise you that estimating shadow prices is a formidable problem. (I was relieved in reading this that I’m not the only one struggling with this concept.)

The figures we have just studied are all very rough and ready, but they show how accounting for natural capital can make a substantial difference to our conception of the development process.

So long as we rely on GDP and HDI and the many other ad hoc measures of human well-being, we will continue to paint a misleading picture of economic performance.  

The figures we have just studied are all very rough and ready, but they show how accounting for natural capital can make a substantial difference to our conception of the development process.

Development policies that ignore our reliance on natural capital are seriously harmful—they do not pass the mildest test for equity among contemporaries, nor among people separated by time and uncertain contingencies.

Why put a price on nature?

“Should we put a price on nature?”

I’ve heard this question come up a fair amount recently in discussions here and there, so it seems like it is a topical one to cover. There are many tricky hidden barriers embedded in this question. So, if not addressed, this little point of inquiry can become a major stumbling block that prevents well meaning people from moving forward with integrating valuing Ecosystems Services (ES) into the way we do things. While we’ve piloted market mechanisms to lower carbon and put in other Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES), there has been a lag in mainstream uptake, and this little question just might be a major stumbling block in this uptake (well, aside from certain industry lobbying, disinformation campaigns, ignorance and climate change denialism).  I should know, because I stumbled over this one myself for a few years. (I can be a slow learner.) So, I think it’s worth unpacking and giving my two bits on. Hopefully this will open up some discussion on it, so please feel free to make comments below.

So, what are the embedded thought barriers in the question “why put a price on nature?” They go a little something like this:

  1. “Nature is priceless”: Nature has intrinsic value which makes it priceless, so it is at best trite and at worst ethically wrong to put a price on it.
  2. “Nature is bigger than us”: We are a part of nature, not the other way around. So we shouldn’t put a price on it because it isn’t ethical as it would be wrongly self-centered of us to do so, and because it just doesn’t make sense. Nature is bigger than us and our economic systems, so there is something wrong in doing this.
  3. “It will lead to abuse”: It is wrong to put a price on nature because it will be exploited by those with perverse incentives, like rich corporations did with water in Bolivia. They monopolized and put a price on what should be a free resource. People should have a right to fresh air and potable water. They, should not have to pay for it, especially not beyond their means.

Can you think of any other embedded barriers behind this question? Let me know if you do.

As far as addressing the above thought barriers, here are some answers that I have come up with for myself:

1. “Nature is priceless” argument

Now one could go all deep and philosophical on this question, but one can also address it by sticking to some reasonable basics. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is one of the activities that has launched much of the current work to value Ecosystem Services, hence advocating for ‘putting a price on nature’. As they have stated, we can value nature BOTH intrinsically and economically through some sort of  valuation system, such as the one below by the FAO.


So, just because I deeply value the mountains and forested watersheds in my region, doesn’t mean that I cannot also condone putting a reasonable economic value on them to serve as a barrier to protect them from being externalized, and thereby depleted or lost.

Finally, let’s get real here. Let’s get to the point.

Humans HAVE ALREADY put an economic price on nature. We’ve done this for millennia as part of the very growth of our economic trade systems. What is the value of lumber, of fuel, of fish, of other wild harvested items? These prices exist, have existed, and will continue to exist unless one advocates for anarchy.

The whole point here it to put a value on the Ecosystem Services that have NOT yet been priced, and hence have been externalized from our ledger books. Economists made assumptions about these ES, thinking that they couldn’t be depleted. But they were wrong, and so we have not had appropriate market checks and balances to subside and stop extraction when critical thresholds of take either overwhelm a flow or reach the capacity of a natural resource to replenish itself.

In the quantitative models that appear in leading economics journals and textbooks, nature is taken to be a fixed, indestructible factor of production. The problem with the assumption is that it is wrong: nature consists of degradable resources. Agricultural land, forests, watersheds, fisheries, fresh water sources, river estuaries and the atmosphere are capital assets that are self-regenerative, but suffer from depletion or deterioration when they are over-used. (I am excluding oil and natural gas, which are at the limiting end of self-regenerative resources.) To assume away the physical depreciation of capital assets is to draw a wrong picture of future production and consumption possibilities that are open to a society. – Partha Dasgupta, 2010

So this isn’t really about the question of putting a price on nature or not. We’ve already done that. It’s about making better assumptions about how we do it. It’s about not being negligent on what we are factoring into the equation. We need to price the right things the right way so that we do not erode critical ecosystem services, deplete natural capital beyond the point of replenishment, and erode the future productive base of society.

2. ‘Nature is bigger than us’ argument

Yes, we are a part of nature. Nature’s systems are bigger than us. In fact, the history of scientific thought in the area shows that we used to also believe that nature was SO big and powerful that there was no way that puny humans could impact Earth’s systems. However, although scale is an important factor to consider, it’s not just about scale but impact.

So, we need to ask the question, “Regardless of scale, do humans impact Earth’s systems, and is our impact significant enough that we might deplete or destroy those systems?”

And the answer to that, unfortunately, is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. Research over the last thirty or forty years has shown that biotic systems, and especially those biological creatures called humans, impact physical Earth systems in ways we just didn’t fathom possible before. Part of this knowledge has built up as a result of things like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis feeding into the development of Earth Systems Science as a discipline. But mostly it has been supported by the incontrovertible evidence of the impacts that humans have made on the natural resources and systems of this planet. There is no denying that we have changed the face of the planet with our development, our agriculture, our cities, our mines, our natural resource extraction, our travel and on and on. And, in so doing, we have sometimes caused some serious impacts, including causing previously very strong natural resource systems to collapse, such as the cod on the east coast of Canada.

And then we have the additional things that add up in our global commons. Things like acid rain, the ozone hole, ocean acidification and eutrophication and, finally anthropogenic climate change. All, proof of principle that humans not only impact local to regional ecological systems, but that collectively we impact the large scale global systems on this planet–like climate. From local to regional to global scales, from boundary layers over cities, to recycling of rain over forest systems, to global warming due to mounting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we have and continue to change Earth’s climate.

And because humans have these impacts, we need to take time to understand them better, but we also need to take the necessary steps–with the information at hand–to be better stewards of the systems that we impact. We need to manage risk by preventing ecosystem services from depleted or destroyed. We did this with successfully implementing market mechanisms to mitigate acid rain. I believe we can also do it with tigers, with wild fisheries, with water resources and finally, and perhaps especially with climate. (And it’s about time our North American governments stepped up to the plate to put in regulations to do so.)

In not implementing market mechanisms (has anyone found any more efficient and implementable solutions than market mechanisms?) to address this significant risk, in operating as we have been, what are we left with? We are left with still externalizing from our economic books these losses, and jeopardizing what we once thought were unshakable and untouchable foundations of not only our future economic and social growth, but potentially life on this planet.

That’s just not a gamble I’m willing to take.

3. “It will lead to abuse” argument

It is a well established fact of history that we can be abusive. Many humans have, do and will continue to behave in selfish and destructive ways. We have to expect that with anything humans do, that some of them will cheat. But, we can also be creative, constructive and cooperative, and most of us fall into the latter category.  Society would fall apart if most of us didn’t follow the rules.

The key here is that while humans are being constructive or destructive, they use the tools at their disposal. I can use a hammer to build something, protect something, or restore something. But, I can also use it to destroy something or hurt someone.

So, we have to be careful here.

If we develop new tools to price Ecosystem Services, and those tools are used improperly and unjustly, then we need to ensure that we blame the humans that wielded the tool–not the tool itself. And we also have to adjust our systems to safeguard that the tool gets used appropriately and constructively, as it was intended. We need to adjust our regulations, put in legislation, have adequate enforcement and put in watchdogs.

So, what is putting a price on nature? It is just another tool. That’s all. A mechanism. And even if there have been cases of people using it inappropriately, its proper function is to restore and protect natural ecosystems while also working with and protecting local vulnerable communities, particularly indigenous peoples. So, we need to devise policies, including enforcement mechanisms, to ensure that the tool is used as it was intended.

So, I would argue to keep the tool, stop preventing its use because of abuse and take care of the perpetrators the way we do in other cases. And we need to do this soon because the business as usual scenario, with our previous tool kit… Well, it just hasn’t been good enough.