Sustainable Development: Pricing Biodiversity

“What are species worth? Can we put a price tag on biodiversity” questions Richard Coniff in this year’s September 27th issue of Yale Environment 360. Yes, says conventional Ecological Economics, which proposes putting a price tag on the service ‘nature’ provides for us – such as a 2008 French study which calculated the value of bees and other insects at roughly $220 billion dollars. The idea is that by putting a price tag on various ecosystem services, we can stave off environmental degradation by incorporating the prices lost by those ecosystem services into the finished goods.

Yet is biodiversity, or the variability among living organisms including diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems which provides the source for pretty much all human life as we know it, so easily quantifiable?

Increasingly – the answer is no.

The problems with quantifying biodiversity are numerous.

Take for example quantifying species, the question that immediate arises, are which species? While some species provide skills of obvious human benefit, such as the aforementioned not-so-humble bee, but often times we fail to recognize the value of a species until we’ve destroyed it. As Coniff details in his piece:

“… in India in the early 1990s, farmers began using the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for the apparently worthy purpose of relieving pain and fever in their livestock. Unfortunately, vultures scavenging on livestock carcasses accumulated large quantities of the drug and promptly died of renal failure. Over a 14-year period, populations of three vulture species plummeted by between 96.8 and 99.9 percent…Losing these efficient scavengers meant livestock carcasses often got left in the open to rot. It was one of those “ecosystem services” — manufacturing oxygen, soaking up carbon dioxide, preventing floods, taking out the garbage — that species generally provide unnoticed, until they stop.”

This is a pattern that’s been repeated for much of human history – cats destroyed during the black plague out of superstition were often the only thing keeping the true vectors of disease (the rats) in check. In fact our inability to correctly quantify the value of ecological services has meant that payments-for-ecosystem services (PES) has thus far met with only limited success, in general as related to people downriver paying people upriver to keep the river clean.

This limited success of PES and the type of success raises a much larger moral question. Why should people have to pay for their clean water to stay clean? Is it ethical to select only for the species we feel are of value to us (even if we were able to assess this well, and we are not), or does life have its own intrinsic value outside of our system of weights and measure? Finally, doesn’t this kind of thinking warp the mind wherein we start to view everything with a calculator? How would you price the hug a husband gives his wife, the smile a newborn gives her sister? How long until our economic system demands that we do so?