Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Value Of Wild Space; Counting The Ways

Wild space gives us natural capital.  Natural capital is defined as the stock of ecosystem structure that produces the flow of ecosystem goods and services.  Instead of thinking that we must sacrifice something (money, profit, freedom, land use) to conserve natural capital, we can understand that natural capital is one of society’s important assets.  These natural assets supply key services (ecosystem services) to all living beings, including the plants and animals that we are interconnected with.  Natural capital is becoming scarce and degraded.  This trend is partly due to lack of valuation because it is impossible to manage what we do not value.  Demand for natural capital is increasing as populations and standards of living increase.

We can value these natural assets as they contribute to human welfare in three activities.  1) Provide comparisons of natural capital to physical and human capital values.   2) Monitor quantity and quality of natural capital as it changes over time.  3) Evaluate effects of projects that change (enhance or degrade) natural capital stocks.  The success of natural capital valuation will ultimately be judged on how well it facilitates real-world decision making and the conservation of natural capital.
Here are some of the ecosystem services that are provided by natural capital:
Gas regulation 
Climate regulation
Disturbance regulation
Biological regulation
Water regulation
Soil retention
Waste regulation
Nutrient regulation
Water supply
Raw materials
Genetic resources
Medicinal resources
Ornamental resources
Science and education
Spiritual and historic
Philosophical and ethical objections to assigning monetary value claim that natural capital and ecosystem services are not economic assets, and therefore it is immoral to measure them in monetary units.  Another objection to assigning monetary value is based on the perception that willingness-to-pay criteria may assign values that are too low relative to the importance of the services in question, mostly because of the failure to understand the multi-faceted contribution of these services.  
Monetization is a convenient way to express the relative values that society places on different ecosystem services and natural capital.  The purpose of monetary valuation is to create a comparison of disparate ecosystem services through a common metric.  Other metrics are possible; energy units, land units, ecological footprints.  However the choice of unit is not critical because appropriate conversion factors can be used to translate results of the underlying tradeoffs from one metric to another.
The key issue is identification of tradeoffs, in the context of explicit statements of policy objectives and decision criteria.  If one does not have to make tradeoffs between ecosystem services and other things, then valuation is not a concern.  If there are tradeoffs, then valuation is important and will occur.  In these cases it is better to make tradeoffs explicit.  Since everything cannot be reduced to monetary value, we must also include sustainability, fairness, and efficiency in the consideration of tradeoffs between natural capital and human economic activity.
Cost-benefit analysis through natural capital valuation does not dictate choices or replace the authority of decision makers.  It is a tool for organizing, testing, and expressing information about a range of alternatives with regards to courses of action.  This is the science that helps leaders decide about the fate of natural capital.  Analysis should include consideration of ecological structures, processes, functions, and services, human welfare, land-use decisions, and dynamic feedback between these elements.  
We cannot manage what we do not know and understand.  Get to know your wild space and understand how it supports your well-being.  Talk with others about this critical connection between you and the world that supports life.  You will become a better citizen and a good neighbor.  We all depend on the wild space around us for life and death.
Posted by michael

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