Standout Q&A with Gretchen Daily


Gretchen Daily

Photo: Elin Hoyland
Gretchen Daily is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, director of the Tropical Research Program of the Center for Conservation Biology, and a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. More >>

What is nature worth? From one perspective, it’s priceless. From another, it’s not only valuable, but value-able as well. Stanford University conservation biologist Gretchen Daily, who gave wings to the concept of ecosystem services in the 1990s, is working around the world to help policymakers recognize the economic worth of the benefits nature provides.

A leading light in the ecology world, Daily co-founded the Natural Capital Project with The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund in 2006 as a mechanism for putting nature on the payroll. Her books, The New Economy of Nature and Nature’s Services, have pioneered entirely new approaches to conservation.

We caught Daily on her way to Hawaii, where her project team is reforesting pasture to help meet carbon sequestration goals, resulting from the state’s 2007 climate law.


What do we mean by ecosystem services?

In a nutshell, it’s all the benefits people get from natural systems. In a slightly bigger nutshell, a nice way to frame the answer is to imagine going to the moon. What would you need with you to make life possible and ideally fulfilling? First, goods—things we get from natural systems, such as food and medicines. Second, our life support system. Third, what makes life fun and fulfilling—all the cultural benefits we get, such as recreational opportunities and inspiration. Fourth, the preservation of options. There is so much we don’t know, so we save more in anticipation of discovering new values.
In the past, people were a pretty small force, and getting enough of these benefits was easy. Today demand is at an all-time high, and the capacity of the biosphere to supply many services is being reduced drastically.

How can we factor that into environmental decision making?

We need to be able to pinpoint places on the landscape or on the seascape and say these places are really the most important for supplying these benefits, and if we were to invest in protecting them, we would get this return on the investment.

Up until recently we haven’t been able to map out exactly the production of benefits like flood control or crop pollination and how that would change under alternative policies or pathways of development. But thanks to the brilliant work of a lot of people at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere, we have some new tools that let us do that. InVEST, which stands for Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs, lets you map out the production of benefits and ascribe value to them. You can say how much would it cost to purify water naturally, and how much would it cost to build a filtration plant to achieve the same goal? We’re applying it now in the United States, China, Ecuador, Indonesia and Tanzania—places where major resource decisions are on the table that InVEST can really inform.

This is not just conservation biology, is it?

Science is not the limiting factor. There are many other dimensions to these challenges, and no one discipline is going to get very far on its own. To protect Earth’s life support systems is going to take people from a huge array of disciplines to raise awareness of and quantify human dependence on nature. We need to go beyond biodiversity to encompass all the benefits people care about.

Some argue nature should be protected for its own sake, without having to base its value on its contribution to human well-being. How do you counter that?

If nature were being protected for her own sake, there would be no worry. But around the world nature is being liquidated—at accelerating rates. Moreover, in rich and poor countries alike, conservation is often seen as the passion of a small minority, in conflict with most people’s needs and aspirations. Changing this situation requires two things: first, shining a light on nature’s tremendous but often invisible values; and second, demonstrating how these values can be mainstreamed into resource decisions to benefit both people and nature.

What gives you hope?

If you look at the statistics, you despair. But if you look at the spirit of all the people engaged in this movement, from so many different walks of life, you see a real awakening to the values of nature and growing power—that the conservation movement has never had before—to mainstream these values into the decisions of individuals, communities, corporations and governments. This brings me hope.

MARY HOFF is a science writer specializing in natural resources, environment, health and sustainability. A regular contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, she has also published in Science World and National Geographic Explorer, and has written numerous books for children on natural history and environmental topics.