Should we put a price tag on nature? IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, Regent’s Professor of Applied Economics, Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior, and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota, explored that Big Question at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Following the talk, attendees participated in a lively Q&A session. Here are six things we learned:
- Vocabulary matters. There is a difference between valuing nature and putting a price tag on nature. Should ecosystem services be moved into the market? It may be too soon to tell. Should we accurately value nature? Absolutely.
- There has been a shift from old conservation to new conservation. Nature used to be appreciated based on its intrinsic value, but now it is often looked at with regard to the interaction it has with people. The current debate about ecosystems services tends to follow this same tension. Conservationist may agree about general goals, but they disagree about the emphasis and tactics.
- What’s good for nature is good for us. If we don’t factor in the full cost — including ecosystem impacts — when deciding whether to pursue a specific course of action, Polasky said, “we’re robbing nature, but we’re also robbing people.”
- There are valid arguments on each side. Some studies have shown that people are more likely to protect something when it is seen as a commodity, and that including ecosystem services in market calculations help to show how much we truly value them. However, others argue that there are moral limits to markets and that putting things into market terms removes them from the personal realm, thus changing the way we think about them. The way we use the environment to advance human benefit may not be in line with what is best for the environment.
- There are a lot of unknowns. Is there a way to objectively value nature, or does it all depend on the frames we use? Is it a balanced system? Will this be useful in the long term? These questions and more represent real discussions within this debate.
- It’s beyond economics. Economic valuation is only part of the story. Politics, individual decisions, and actions by firms and institutions all play a role in the debate over the value of ecosystem services. Just because something has economic value does not mean it makes sense politically or socially.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.