On the value of nature

I was listening to a really cool episode of RadioLab. The third act asks the question, “what is nature worth?” During part of it they discussed the fall and rise of bees in Mao county, China. Bees disappeared after farmers started using pesticides and had to be replaced with human labor. Against all expectations output actually increased 30% (they never did say how much these workers impacted bottom lines compared to when the bees were doing the job). But then economic growth happened and increased wages and put pressure on farmers.

This lead to a question about how to go about discussing the issue of conservation. On the one hand, this economic analysis means that we don’t take nature as being implicitly worthless and discussing it this way will help the cause of conservation. On the other hand, it doesn’t jive with our intuition (or perhaps our moral sense) that if some aspect of nature appears worth very little or seems irrelevant we still probably shouldn’t downsize nature.

All fair enough. So here’s where things go bad… the host then asks if there is an alternative to the conservationists moralizing and the economists’ cold calculating. Economics does in fact have an answer! Two if we can call Nassim Taleb an economist (surely one who does a lot of normative work).

Taleb would argue (with allusions to the argument I’ll present below) that prudential risk management (i.e. management of fluctuations in those economic values brought up above) calls for an appreciation of the potential for black swans. In the case of the bees there was a series of black swans; the bees disappeared (-), human workers were more productive (+), economic growth (+) made human labor too expensive (-, for farmers and pie-baking grandmothers). We want to be averse to the sorts of risks that might be wildly negative and so should diversify our approaches and bee (that was a typo but I’m keeping it) sure we’re not opening ourselves up to negative black swans–which would involve being very skeptical of cost benefit analyses that justify excessive environmental harm. This point was made (but not fully appreciated, I would argue) by an environmental economist on the program in pointing out that some changes are irreversible.

Taleb’s argument works because the complexity of ecological and economic systems means that such wild variation is possible. There can be cascades of cause and effect that create dire consequences to what may look like a small change. In other words it would be a fatal conceit to imagine that anyone can engineer an environment.

Not so obvious is that if we don’t want to deliberately prune too aggressively we also don’t want to sterilize nature by trying to stop all change. We are part of this environment after all; glorified beavers at the end of the day.

That said, what they closed with was good thought: biodiversity [like market diversity] serves as an extension of our brains. We can draw on the imagination evolution provides us to live better lives. I would add that you can view that as narrowly economical (imagining “imagination capital” being depleted along with rainforests) or more broadly as pursuing “the good life.”

Please keep it civil

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