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May 16, 2005

How much for that tuna in the ocean?

BY: sandy

One of the most frustrating things about people and groups that classify themselves as environmentalists – and this is getting to be an old refrain – is that they see protecting the environment as an end in itself. Call me selfish, but I’m more interested in protecting people than fish. It happens that there are a lot of people who depend on fish – a billion people around the world rely on the oceans as a primary food source, and even more of us need or value oceans to lesser degrees – so that it is a service to humankind to work for healthy oceans. The challenge is to communicate the benefit to humans of protecting natural resources like ocean fisheries.

The language in which policy-makers discuss human well-being is economics. A country is `doing well’ if GNP and incomes are on the rise and national debt is under control. Cost/benefit analyses almost always consider ‘cost’ in monetary terms. If the people who see or intuit the need to protect natural resources are going to communicate that need, they had better start talking in economic terms.

This week, economist Partha Dasgupta reviews Jared Diamond’s Collapse for the London Review of Books. The basic message of Diamond’s 525-page tome is that societies depend on natural resources like wood, water, soil and fish; that mismanagement of natural resources led to the spectacular collapse of ancient civilizations like the Yucatan Mayans, the Norse of Greenland, and the Easter Islanders; and that if we do not take more responsible steps to manage our own dwindling reserves our wasteful modern Western civilization could meet a similar fate. Dasgupta charges that Diamond is simplistic in his analysis, ignores the good that may come of exploiting natural resources, and lacks the `correct’ framework – economics – for balancing the benefits versus the costs of environmental degradation.

Dasgupta is hardly circumspect himself, but he does present a helpful framework for thinking about national `wealth’ and sustainable development:

An economy’s productive base consists of its capital assets and its institutions. Ecological economists have recently shown that the correct measure of that base is wealth. They have shown, too, that in estimating wealth, not only is the value of manufactured assets to be included (buildings, machinery, roads), but also `human’ capital (knowledge, skills, health), natural capital (ecosystems, minerals, fossil fuels), and institutions (government, civil society, the rule of law). So development is sustainable as long as an economy’s wealth relative to its population is maintained over time. Adjusting for changes in population size, economic development should be viewed as growth in wealth, not growth in GNP.

So the `ecological economists’ are out there, but there’s still a ways to go. These are the “early days in the quantitative study of sustainable development,” and estimates of wealth and economic productivity by institutions like the World Bank continue to omit significant natural resource contributions:

Among the many types of natural capital whose depreciation has not been included [in World Bank wealth estimates] are fresh water; soil; forests, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs as providers of ecosystem services; and the atmosphere as a sink for such forms of pollution as particulates and nitrogen and sulphur oxides.

Still, the trend is encouraging. There’s a body of literature now on `ecosystem services;’ the March issue of Outside Magazine ran a long piece on `wilderness economics,’ and blogs like Joel Makeower’s are charting the dawning awareness of profit potential in sustainability within the business sector.

Meanwhile, in the ocean conservation world, we’re doing our best to measure and articulate the economic value of healthy fisheries (for global food security and coastal economies), coral reefs (for well-managed tourism and medical innovation), and the costs of things like mercury pollution (public spending on treatment and special services for children and others poisoned by mercury, for cleanup of mercury-contaminated industrial sites).

We are. …Right?