Thursday, October 16, 2014

Can technology save the planet?

A provocation from WWF's chief scientist John Hoekstra that's exactly where I end up in my new post over at Edge Effects. It's a fun intro to quantum computing that backs into a discussion of the assessment and geodesign software tools that conservationists are deploying around the world to better measure restoration interventions, track environmental change, and fight back against environmental crimes like illegal logging. Ultimately, I'm less sure than Hoekstra that the answer to his question is a resounding yes.

The post comes right on the heels of a few interesting stories out the past few days. First, yesterday the Natural Capital Project has launched a MOOC, where you can learn about their toolset. I've written speculatively about some of those tools here before, but it's great to have the chance to go behind the scenes. Second, Hoekstra held a Twitter-mediated conversation last week during SXSWEco, discussing the potential for drones, big data analytics, and other emerging technologies to, well, save the planet. I'm not even convinced yet that what we're seeing conservation right now qualifies as big data - the term seems loosely applied - but Hoekstra led an important conversation about how to do big data in conservation while recognizing issues of security, digital divides, and privacy.

So check out the post, and be sure to bookmark or follow Edge Effects while you're at it. It's an amazing new site run by grad students affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Culture, History, and Environment

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where does the value of nature come from?

$125 trillion is no small chunk of change. You could, without a doubt, buy a lot of stuff with that in your pocket. In fact, it's more than the world's gross domestic product (GDP), or the value of all the goods and services produced in the global economy each year - everything from cars to haircuts to World Cup tickets. But according to a recent study led by Bob Costanza, $125 trillion is also the dollar equivalent of what all the work the world's ecosystems do for us - things that aren't normally counted in GDP, like the flood damage a coastal wetland prevents. The $33 trillion mark and other figures like it vary widely while provoking much controversy...and are increasingly taken by world political and business leaders as self-evident, touted as the next big thing in conservation.

$125 trillion is a best guesstimate. It's a follow-up to Costanza's landmark 1997 paper in which he and colleagues suggested the number might be more like $33 trillion. At the time, other researchers had reviewed existing valuation studies, finding that overall an acre of wetlands might be valued anywhere between six cents and over $22,000! Other commentators noted that looking at just one particular ecological function (say, flood prevention), the values researchers came up with could differ by two orders of magnitude from site to site. For many critics, these numbers imply the reduction of nature to something to be bought and sold, which is particularly problematic if they're going to fluctuate so wildly. For others, no matter the range of values, they just aren't helpful - they're all a "serious underestimate of infinity" because we simply can't do without many of things nature does for us, like provide breathable air. Still, for a growing number of conservationists and decision-makers, putting some number - often a dollar value - on ecosystems is exactly what's needed to save it, to show policy makers and businesses the economic importance of nature, in hopes of preventing its destruction and encouraging its conservation.

So where do these numbers come from?

It's appealing to write-off statements like, "the value of an acre of wetland is six cents," as simply the work of ivory tower intellectuals busily justifying their own existence. After all, the scholars who published the most recent study are all affiliated with an academic institution. It's also easy to get the sense that these numbers come from no place in particular. That's the feeling you get reading histories of the ecosystem service concept (see here and here). These papers do important work revealing that the valuation of nature just didn't come along in 1997 with Costanza et al.'s first estimate of the value of the world's ecosystems. But beyond having a history, behind Costanza et al.'s new number and the “modelling sausage” that spit it out is a body of literature, a set of theories, and communities of scholars called environmental and ecological economics. And this community and its history is grounded in place. Valuing nature didn't just appear from out of nowhere. Environmental, and its younger, upstart cousin, ecological, economics and the basis for valuing nature come out of a long-standing engagement with wetlands, especially coastal marshes, and particularly as they faced development pressure, often from the oil/gas industry. When ecologist Eugene Odum and economist Len Shabman sparred in the 1970s over how exactly conceptually and empirically to get at nature's value, their material was Gulf Coast marshes. Today, in a post-Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy world, when we hear prominent arguments for restoring or conserving ecosystem services because of their value, it's coastal places like Mobile Bay, AL that are paraded out as examples of where coastal restoration "show strong returns on dollars invested." It's the US Gulf Coast that has defined nature's valuation as we know it today - its methodology and policy advocacy - and will continue to shape it in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Gulf Coast oil and gas industry's payments to oystermen for access to lay pipelines across harvesting grounds mark economists', conservationists', and others' earliest struggles with valuing nature's goods and services beyond the confines of established markets. The Gulf's hydrocarbon industry grew significantly following World War II in order to meet growing demand from suburban consumers, as Jason Theriot details in his great new book about the twin histories of the industry and wetland loss and protection in the Gulf. But, of course, companies like Tennessee Gas needed to get their products to market - mainly on the rapidly urbanizing east coast - from wells in the middle of Louisiana's marshes. To do so, they laid hundreds of miles of pipelines in canals carved through wetlands. These areas, however, were often the same spots where oystermen had traditionally harvested. At the time, in the 1950s, the ecological consequences of the kinds of hydrological disruptions caused by canals were already to some extent understood by fishermen and scientists alike: the catch would likely be diminished from any nearby canals. In part because many working in the hydrocarbon industry were local oyster experts themselves and in part because of the influence the fisheries community had historically exerted on state regulators, oil and gas companies went out of their way to provide compensation for direct damages from pipelines. What the industry paid was simply what the expected catch would have fetched on the open market. In paying oystermen for losses to their harvest, oil and gas companies were acknowledging:the broader effects of their activities, but still had some market signal to guide them; they were not trying to compensate for things without market prices like water quality that environmental economics pioneers like Dales were first proposing at the time. The industry's payments were ad hoc and not meant to be a systematic assessment of all of the what we would now call ecosystem services a wetland provided. Still, conservationists seemed to be at least considering for the first time about what values the market wouldn't capture. For instance, the chief of the Oyster Division of Louisiana's Wildlife and Fisheries Commission was particularly concerned that compensation would not account for long-term, large-scale effects:

we feel that the long range effects resulting in permanent ecological changes are by far the most serious and the most difficult to assess damages for. Direct effects are largely a matter of obtaining ROW [right of way] and making adjustments for damages at the time of construction. The area involved is comparatively small and involves only the path of the canal and the immediate vicinity on each side. Ecological and hydrographic changes may be permanent and may affect extensive areas ten miles or more on either side of the canal.” (58)

Into the 60s and 70s, conservationists at Louisiana's state environmental agencies and at Louisiana State University (LSU) continued calling for a more formal recognition of the importance of wetlands, as part of a growing movement nationwide to daylight corporate and government decision-making that had impacts on the environment. As the story goes, in1969, the massive oil spill offshore of Santa Barbara, CA inspired Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which required all federal agencies to undertake a formal review of the costs and benefits of any action with a major effect on the environment. NEPA, however, did not require agencies to monetize these costs and benefits in order to evaluate projects. Ultimately, with executive orders from Reagan and successive administrations requiring more cost benefit analysis (CBA), monetization became the default. Already by the 70s, the Army Corps of Engineers had been conducting CBAs of its projects. As Tennessee Gas looked to the dock price of oysters to account for some of the broader effects of its pipeline canals, the corps might determine whether or not to build a dam based on the cost to fisheries weighed against the benefits, measurable in dollar terms, arising from new recreation opportunities.

CBAs accounted for only so much of what conservationists thought was important about coastal habitats. ← This if anything is the constant refrain throughout the history of nature's valuation, from both advocates and critics: what are we counting? CBA might assess how a levee project would cost in damages made to fisheries, but at the time there were few techniques for accounting for the loss of storm surge protection that came from impounding wetlands. Easily the landmark piece decrying the limits of CBA was James Gosselink, Eugene Odum, and R.M. Pope's 1974 paper, “The Value of the Tidal Marsh”. It was a short white paper written for the LSU Center for Wetland Resources, but nonetheless recieved remarkable national attention from wetland conservationists as they made their case in the 70s for increasing resource protection. Gosselink et al.'s aims were to counterbalance development pressure on coastal ecosystems by expanding what ought to be counted as monetary cost from development. For instance, they valued the waste assimilation capacity of wetlands by looking at what it might cost regions to fully treat their sewage if all wetlands imply vanished and were replaced with wastewater plants. This “replacement cost” was not a market price, but was an existing signal (and it's measures like these that led to some of the most famous examples of institutional payments for ecosystem services, namely New York City's payment to farmers in the city's watershed to conserve natural habitat, which has reduced the region's water treatment costs.) The group, in the end, described wetland value in terms of $/acre/yr, but how they got their was through the concept of "emergy.” Emergy is a neologism for the amount of solar energy embodied in an ecological good or service. This could be converted into monetary terms by comparing the caloric requirements for service production in a wetland to the price to burn calories in things like oil that do have a market price. It may sound a little convoluted today, but the idea still has some traction. What's important about the emergy argument is that it proposes that nature's value is intrinsic; value arises from ecological transfrormations of energy, rather than supply and demand. Not surprisingly, this upset many economists, some of whom thought the idea went against some of the fundamental tenets of their discipline, in which value is fundamentally relative, dependent on the vagaries of supply and demand, and ultimately, how much rational subjects desired certain things. This is precisely what Gosselink et al. were skeptical of: if we believe neoclassical economics, nature has no value because it has no market price. But of course nature has value and so it must reside somewhere in nature. As one research team later put it, “The point that must be stressed is that the economic value of ecosystems is connected to their physical, chemical, and biological role in the overall
system, whether the public fully recognizes that role or not.” (emphasis in original) Politically, this perspective translated into an argument to not leave wetland protection to the whims of the market, but for better government planning. That would be something at least Gosselink would be more involved with in the next decade, contributing to the consolidation of Louisiana's modern oil/wetland regulatory regime while leading environmental reviews of projects like the massive Louisiana Offshore Oil Port.

One student of Howard Odum – Eugene's brother and collaborator - was none other than Bob Costanza, lead author of the 2014 paper valuing the world's ecosystem services at $33 trillion. After graduating from the University of Florida in the late 70s, he got a job at LSU. As he recalls it, he was in part drawn there by the presence of Herman Daly, whose work was moving in similar directions and had been an inspiration, and who happened to show up at his job talk. LSU at the time would have been a hub of activity focused on valuing nature, through coastal marshes, with Gosselink, Costanza, and Daly all pioneering in their own way and Eugene Turner, another freshly-minted student of Odum, making headway on understanding the ecological effects of oil and gas canals on the coast. Throughout the 80s (and to some extent into today) Costanza would publish on the ecological and economic facets of Louisianan and Gulf wetlands. In one paper in particular, 1989's “Valuation and Management of Wetland Ecosystems,” he and his co-authors produced another estimate of Louisiana's wetlands, a follow-up to Gosselink et al. Like Gosselink et al., Costanza, Maxwell, and Farber conducted an emergy analysis. But they also did something different: besides counting calories or looking at the market rate of fish raised by coastal estuaries, they actually hit the pavement (a boat ramp parking lot, actually) and asked people what wetlands were worth to them. The technique is known as contingent valuation. What they were after was people's "revealed" preferences - the amount each person spent on gas to get themselves to a wetland to fish could be considered part of its value, as a provider of a recreational service. The researchers were also interested in "stated" preferences - what people say they would pay to protect a wetland. If you're thinking that preferences sounds a lot more in line with the neoclassical economics approach than with the emergy perspective, you'd be right. We might read Costanza et al.'s paper as a sort of continental divide in the valuation of nature: the first half an emergy analysis focused on elucidating the inherent values of nature, a perspective that was prominent up until that point, the second half all about new techniques to get after how much society desires wetlands in practice, regardless of what nature has to say about it, new and exciting methodolgies that were about to get their trial by fire (see below). And this sort of split reflects where Costanza et al. end up in the paper when it comes to policy recommendations: they suggest that oil and gas companies provide bonds to cover the mitigation of their impacts. The amount of the bond would be based on the predicted extent and nature of the impacts, and depending on the final ecological outcome, the company would get more or less of its bond back. The researchers' argument here was not for better planning to restrict where the oil and gas industry could work, but to modify the industry's accounting practices, something that is all the rage now, with TEEB and TNC working hard at incorporating green accounting in business.

Here's the thing about contingent valuation: it doesn't work. Economists often expect people to behave rationally, but asking people how much they would pay to protect pelicans has presented economists with a number of persistently thorny issues. For instance, when researchers ask people how much they would pay to protect a nearby natural area from a hypothetical development scenario, people regularly act strategically and give “protest” answers. They'll say $0, insinuating that the park is priceless, or offer some absurdly high price, all in the belief that there may be an actual development project in the works and that their answers may stop it. It also turns out that people don't value twice as much wetland at twice the price. It was another “largest to date” oil spill – the Exxon Valdez tanker leak in 1989 - that brought to a head many of the methodological concerns surrounding the use of contingent valuation (in theory and applied to real cases). Economists and regulators alike asked themselves, how do we figure out how much damage the tanker spill has caused to wildlife? What about the value someone in Iowa places on the mere existence of some species in Alaska? NOAA, in charge of the clean-up, commissioned a study led by some of the top minds not just in environmental economnics but economics writ large - Nobel Prize winners like Kenneth Arrow - to see if contingent valuation was a proper method to use. They found that it was, and the courts have affirmed NOAA's prerogative to use it. But rarely it has.

Instead, NOAA has tended to employ good ole replacement cost. If it costs $100 million to buy all the construction equipment, fill, and plants to replace a wetland degraded by a Chevron oil spill, then Chevron must pay that amount. Like contingent valuation, the problem with replacement cost, as practiced in NRDA compensation, is that it doesn't work. The cost of replacing ecological structure doesn't necessarily equal the cost of lost ecological functions. It's one thing to put the right kinds and quantity of plants back in; it's another to make sure that the ecosystem is providing the same kind of flood mitigation service, for instance.

Doubts about the object and goal of compensation are precisely what are haunting economists yet again following the lastest “largest oil spill to date,” the Deepwater Horizon spill. It inspired a revisiting of the contingent valuation question with some authors revising their position from 20 years ago post-Exxon Valdez. Diamond, for instance, is now even more critical of contingent valuation and more skeptical that it could ever be of much use. Some number is not better than no number. Meanwhile, the spill has become a poster child for ecosystem service valuation advocates. In the monumental TEEB synthesis report, the section on “Applying the Approach” begins with the lamentation that if only the value of wetland services had been properly accounted for in business practice, BP would have never let the spill happen.

What is clear from the Deepwater Horizon fallout is that beyond whatever BP ends up having to pay to compensate for affected wetlands, they're going to have to pay separate fines into another fund to be used for large-scale restoration of the coast, beyond specific places the spill reached. This is a (bitter) windfall for conservationists; as one put it -"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity" to do something about Louisiana's land loss problem. BP money, at least in Louisiana, will be funneled into the Master Plan the state's CPRA has developed. The Master Plan lays out restoration principles and priorities (e.g. let nature do the work - harness the Mississippi River to deliver sediments to open water to build new land) and describes a suite of sites selected for restoration. These sites were selected based on their cost effectiveness, which in part has been a question of how many ecosystem services restoration will bring - how much flood prevention or how many alligators, for instance. The question here has is not so much the cash value of these services; the authors of the Plan explicitly note: "We didn't have the time this time around to look at that." As the head of the CPRA noted, however, this kind of analysis is in the works for the next version of the Master Plan, coming in 2017. At the heart of the matter is the development and deployment of economic valuation techniques for evaluating public spending. Economists are hard at work determining what kinds of restoration are most worthwhile: how many acres will $X in sediment diversions bring in over time compared to other methods of marsh creation? So far, acreage - a fairly straightforward metric - has been the target, which makes sense giving land loss is measured in acres, but expect to see ecosystem services migrate into the accounting. The goal in valuing the land building and protecting services provided by coastal wetlands is to spend public money wisely in an era of austerity. These metrics allow decision-makers to evaluate tradeoffs. Already in the master plan, the increase in certain ecosystem services like carbon sequestration were argued to outweigh and justify the decrease in other services, like shrimp habitat. Again, these were not yet $ valued. This time around, it certainly won't be emergy used to derive the value of these public goods. Instead, what we are seeing hints at is a move toward marketizing services. Instead of developing $ metrics to inform planning or to build new public institutions (via bonding a la Costanza), some important Louisiana decision-makers are turning to potential carbon and nutrient markets to help value (and pay for) wetland benefits. There's no need to do contingent valuation of a wetland function like carbon sequestration that is traded in California's cap and trade market at $10 a ton - that's the value right there.

Where does nature's value come from? In no small part, from those working to understand and protect Gulf Coast marshes. The practice of assigning the environment a dollar value continues to evolve and does so as practitioners – regulators, economists, scientists - engage with these ecosystems, providing certain opportunities and obstacles. Indeed, an ongoing question within the field is the role of environmental science and the extent to which ecologists can provide the kind of information about nature economists want and need to do valuation. The complexity of ecological functions - their nonlinearity, dynamsism, etc. - has long been acknowledged as a stumbling block, from Westman's prescient 1977 Science article to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment to even the most ostensibly gung ho supporters of valuation, TEEB. These difficulties do not mean that the champions of the valuation of nature feel defeated. Just consider how Costanza felt in 1997, "….although ecosystem valuation is certainly difficult and fraught with uncertainties, one choice we do not have is whether or not to do it". Besides environmental economics' struggle with its existential dependence on externally produced knowledge, its practitioners struggle with understanding their own conditions for knowing nature's value. There's still much question about whether contingent valuation will work. We've seen a few here: people don't always act rationally, and they also reject the survey techniques researchers employ to come up with their numbers. This is setting aside what is perhaps the trickiest question, that of benefits transfer, or the practice of taking the monetary values for ecosystems in one part of the world and using them in a different part of the world. After all, as one scholar put it, "An acre of coastal salt marsh seaward of New Orleans is many times more valuable …than an acre of abandoned farm pasture in Nebraska” and it's being able to say how much more valuable and how locally specific to get that troubles many researchers. Finally, what kind of policy angle environmental economists ought to take is still open to debate (the riff between so-called environmental and ecological economists itself is a part of that). Is nature open for business and up for sale? Or is the goal simply better planning and perhaps $ numbers aren't needed? You can expect those questions to be asked if not resolved in any good paper today. Yet, as one group of historians of the ecosystem services paradigm notes, these uncertainties are not the growing pains we might expect from an emerging research perspective. As is clear when we look at the history of coastal marsh protection in the Gulf Coast, nature's valuers have had at least 40 years experience to figure things out. Instead, what lingering questions and simmering debates reflect are genuine obstacles to a rightly controversial practice.

In attempting to answer these questions and close these debates, how economists, regulators, and scientists go about valuing nature will evolve. This of course is happening globally. One only has to follow the Natural Capital Project around the world, from Colombia to British Colombia, to get a sense of the importance of these places to how the vision of nature as capital is being articulated and materialized. But Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast will undoubetedly continue to be a sort of lab for experimenting on the policy, science, and economics behind the valuation of nature - the place where many of the important conversations ongoing about the future of conservation in the face of climate change are worked out. As a senior adviser to America's Wetland Foundation recently put it, “We can test it better than anyone.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's so natural about natural capital?

A recent study - "Changes in the global value of ecosystem services" - has found that the value of the world's ecosystem services - the benefits nature provides to society, like the ability of wetlands to stem flooding - is somewhere in the neighborhood of $145 trillion. That is, without a doubt, a lot of money. It's in fact much more than the global economy as currently accounted for produces. In statistics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) we count everything from the value of goods like cars to services like haircuts, and while we generally count the goods that nature provides, like timber and food, we've so far consigned the counting of nature's services to academic papers.

An important chunk of the $145 trillion is the $12-47 billion Louisiana wetlands generate in lessening the impact of storm surges, providing habitat for commercial fish species, and sequestering carbon dioxide. Worldwide, wetlands - and in particular, coastal marshes - are the single most monetarily valuable ecosystem. However, in Louisiana, they are being lost at a rapid rate because of oil and natural gas development, sea level rise, and levees along the Mississippi River that prevent sediment from settling out in floodplain marshes and building new land. In Gaining Ground, a study outlining the value of Louisiana's wetlands (featuring Bob Costanza, lead author of the "Changes" paper) researchers found that restoration of wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta could increase this ecosystem's asset value to $62 billion. The report's authors write:
"natural systems tend to appreciate in value rather than depreciate and fall apart as built capital does....natural capital is self-maintaining and lasts for a long time; it is fundamentally different from built capital, which deprecates quickly and requires capital and maintenance costs."
Similarly, as a write-up on the "Changes" paper put it - in pivoting from a point about the cost of flood protection levees raised by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina - "And while it’s expensive to maintain man-made defenses, wetlands rebuild themselves."

What we get from both viewpoints is the sense that nature, as natural capital, does all this unpaid work for us. A wetland is like a factory worker: it gets up in the morning to go to work soaking up carbon dioxide, coming home at night to rest and reproduce itself for another day. Even better, it's a worker that only gets better with age. Natural capital, it seems, is any good businessman's holy grail: it's an investment that is self-valorizing.

But, really? Despite protest from area fishermen, any major restoration of the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is likely to feature diversions of sediment from the river through engineered breaches in levees, projects that are expected to cost up to several hundred million dollars each. The 2012 Master Plan, a document written by Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to organize the state of coastal science and direct funds towards specific restoration sites, acknowledges that any large-scale restoration of the region's wetlands won't work without using the river. Sediment diversions are intended to harness the power of the river to do work building wetlands, but harnessing is a far cry from self-maintenance. Restored wetlands simply won't exist without the upkeep and ongoing operation of diversion megaprojects - built capital to be sure. It's equally naive to assume that wetlands will maintain themselves without legal efforts to prevent further degradation. Such efforts would be directed at stemming climate change and minimizing if not eliminating the ongoing impact of the oil and gas industry from spills and subsidence.

So is natural capital long-lasting, as the Gaining Ground authors suggest? With the right amount and kind of sediment input, wetlands do build themselves over time in relation to the sea level. Louisiana's Master Plan predicts diversion projects could provide decades of land-building. Even more forward-looking, scientists have determined that there is enough sand in the Mississippi River basin to build wetlands for at least 600 years. On the other hand, other projects are not so resilient. Some parishes in Louisiana are creating new marshes by dredging and piping up material from the bottom of the Gulf. But given current forecasts for irreversible sea level rise, these wetlands are expected to last only 20 years, perhaps functioning fully for only 5 years. Everyone knows it, but the short-term payoff from these massive engineering projects appears worth it.

In short, natural capital is not so separate from other other kinds of capital, like built capital. As the authors of Gaining Ground acknowledge, the restoration projects proposed in the Master Plan do not amount to "a cut-the-river-loose scenario." What they do amount to is a set of hybrid infrastructures that blur the lines between what we typically think of as natural and social. And even when the Mississippi does get cut loose, or rather, cuts itself loose, it may work against capital. A couple of years ago, a crevasse opened up in a levee south of New Orleans, delivering freshwater and sediment to flow into nearby marsh ecosystems. It is the Mississippi's first distributary to form in several decades. This is about as close to "natural" capital as one gets: the river is autonomously rebuilding coastal wetlands (though to deem it natural, you'd have to overlook the fact that it's breaching at the spot of an old spillway). But in the process, the crevasse has flooded several roads the oil/gas industry needs to access wells. The industry would rather have the breach fixed, while environmentalists say this is the very kind of thing the Master Plan calls for, except that it didn't cost a dime to happen. As the director of CPRA reflected, “If we can benefit the coast for ‘free,’ we would like to do that." That is the holy grail after all: a self-valorizing investment, or what Karl Marx called "free gifts of nature to capital." But... “The challenge is making sure that we are making decisions with our eyes open." That means making sure natural capital works for the oil/gas industry. The question that has to be asked here is not how much natural capital is the so-called Mardi Gras Pass creating, but under what conditions do ecosystems become capital? What is the line between an ecosystem service and disservice and who decides?

"Capital is a process not a thing," geographer David Harvey notes in his recent review of Thomas Piketty's miraculous hit of a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (To see how far the natural capital concept now reaches, just look at one of the last chapters of the book, where Piketty adopts the term. He essentially rehashes the Stern Review point that money invested now to fight climate change will pay off in the long run.) For Harvey, Piketty's asset-based conceptualization of capital - as inert and static pieces of stuff (cars) or discrete services (haircuts) plucked out of the world and made valuable - is inadequate. Capital is always in motion - it has to be, since for Harvey (and Marx) it is "a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money." Nothing can be capital unless it is being used productively.

Nature, then, simply is not "natural capital". In an early and influential paper on the value of ecosystem services, Gretchen Daily, alongside Nobel Prize-winning economists Kenneth Arrow among others, declared, "the world's ecosystems are capital assets. If properly managed, they yield a flow of vital services..." Similar sentiments are to be found throughout the green accounting realm. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an EU-funded program promoting ecosystem services amongst decision-makers, wrote in their initial report on the first page in big bold lettering: "Maintaining stocks of natural capital allow the sustained provision of future flows of ecosystem services." But both Daily and TEEB get the formula backwards. Ecosystems are not capital with maintenance costs, much less self-maintaining capital, as the Gaining Ground report suggests. It is only after ecosystems are "properly managed" that they become something resembling capital, and then only if they work for capital. Marx already had hinted at this: "Natural elements entering as agents into production, and which cost nothing, no matter what role they play in production, do not enter as components of capital." It is only when they are labored upon that " a new additional element enters into capital." Realizing the potential $62 billion in asset value from Louisiana's wetlands does not mean harnessing some pre-existing, natural capital, but investing in infrastructure to produce nature as capital. It requires assemblages of what we usually consider separate social, or human, (engineered diversions, legal mandates) and natural (sediments, Spartina grasses) things to work. Our long-held distinctions between what counts as "natural" and what counts as "social" simply aren't helpful to understand the important work of ecosystems.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Finding common ground in the Anthropocene

You won't get very far in the world of conservation today without hearing about how we're now in the Anthropocene: the epoch recognizing humanity as a geologic force with its fingerprint everywhere. For some, like The Nature Conservancy's Peter Kareiva, this represents a chance to rethink how to do conservation, focusing less on preserving an impossible wilderness apart from society and instead focusing on the valuation of ecosystem services. Others, like conservation biologist Michael Soulé, worry that we are forgetting to value nature for its own sake. There's been a rather unproductive back and forth focused on exactly this point since at least after Costanza et al. 1997, when Toman wrote that Costanza et al.'s calculation of the world's ecosystem services at about $33 trillion was "a serious underestimate of infinity." "And it goes on and on..." is how Paul Voosen reflected on yet another partisan weighing in. There seem to be few moderates, but I think both sides have something wrong and right.

Below is an essay on the debate I originally wrote for Bill Cronon's American Environmental History seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 2013 [contact me for the full version with citations]. In many ways, today's debate reflects those between conservationists and preservationists in the US over the course of the 20th century. A version of the paper was also recently presented at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment graduate student symposium. Any thoughts are greatly appreciated!


There’s a growing struggle within the ranks of conservationists, one that will have profound implications for how we deal with some of today’s most pressing environmental issues. At the heart of the matter is a choice about what constitutes conservation’s guiding question: is it about the role humans play in nature, or is it what role nature plays for humans? I’ve found myself stuck in the middle of the ensuing debate, wondering what to make of it and how to move it forward. 

I first found myself in this conversation a couple of hot and sticky Junes ago at a conference called Ecosystem Services Markets: Making them Work. Ecosystem Services is a bit of jargon no one likes but everyone has gotten the hang of for naming what nature does for society: mitigate floods, provide clean water, and so on. The conference brought together nonprofit conservationists, federal agency staff, and VPs from corporations like Pepsi, Disney and Dow to figure out how to re-purpose corporate accounting ledgers to get conservation more money for saving mangroves and restoring prairies. I took in everything I could - I more or less transcribed every session I went to - all the while meditating on the irony of a group of nature-lovers sitting in air-conditioned luxury all day. Rest assured, there was a field trip, though you might call it a pilgrimage really. It was out to the chicken-coop-turned-weekend-get-a-way where Aldo Leopold sojourned every weekend from Madison to restore of bit of prairie habitat on a degraded piece of farm ground. It was here that Leopold first tested the principles of restoration ecology as an art and science, and it’s become a sort of sacred ground for conservationists.

Just up the road from the shack, we had stopped to observe a “constructed wetland” that a local conservation group had recently paid to put in. Their goal was to generate credits that would allow them to sell the ecological benefits of the wetland to interested buyers, in an ecosystem service market. The wetland was designed to take in excess runoff from a stream and filter out nutrients and chemicals before they made it too far down the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Glad to finally be outside, I was disappointed by it. It hadn’t filled up yet because of the unusually dry summer and so no wetland plants had yet colonize it. We stared at caked earth while we learned about the project. What made the disappointment sting was that this wetland was supposed to illustrate the benefits of everything we had been talking about all week: the ability of market incentives to generate investment in improving habitats.

Aldo Leopold at his shack north of Madison. Source: 

As a huge poster in the conference hotel lobby proudly proclaimed, the goal had been to “price the priceless.” Yet, in what was one of the two core tenets of his land ethic, Leopold himself had remarked, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” For conference-goers, treating land as a commodity had become, in fact, the very means of treating it with love and respect. The conservationists gathered in Madison held two ideas together at once: at Leopold’s shack, we celebrated his respect for the power of nature as something to which we belong, yet still apart from us. At the wetland just up the road, nature mattered only to the extent that it became a priced service. How do we understand these two, seemingly bipolar perspectives, and what do we do with them? Leopold’s call for us to belong to land as part of a community is appealing, while I remain uncertain about the prospect of commodifying nature. Environmental history is useful here, as it tells us how different perspectives on the ambit of conservation have evolved over time, and by paying close attention to untold and other sides of stories to see how conflicted conservation has been at times. People often see conservationists in stark terms, as “tree huggers” unwilling to cede ground to humans on any account. An environmental history approach can show conservationists have always been more complicated than that, and suggest a way out of the dilemma. In part that’s because environmental historians have also been active and influential participants in the conservation conversation.

The traditional reading of environmental politics in the US, as told by historians like Roderick Nash and Samuel Hays, starts at the battle of Hetch Hetchy. In the early 20th century, a national conflagration erupted over whether San Francisco should dam the valley in Yosemite National Park in order to provide the city with a long-term drinking water supply. Lines in the sand were drawn. On one side stood those who saw themselves as balancing the protection and enjoyment of nature with unavoidable future growth. Among such “conservationists” were Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot. On the other side stood preservationists like John Muir, who declared in no simple terms that the place was sacred – a temple - since it was free of the artifacts of civilization. The preservationists lost the day, but their organizing efforts established an important base for later campaigns.

Though the typical reading draws a straight line from Hetch Hetchy to the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964, others have rightfully complicated that story. The anti-dam base did grow into a concerted movement for wilderness protection, one led by the Wilderness Society that organized over decades to establish set asides for nature. But this was not, in fact, a repeat of Hetch Hetchy. As historian Paul Sutter has pointed out, the concern of the Wilderness Society was directed at increased tourism and recreation in new nature reserves rather than attempts to use such places for production. Nor was their view of wilderness founded in a sense that in these places one could find the sublime.   

John Muir in the Sierras in 1902. Source: 

The Wilderness Society played a pivotal role in the passing of the Wilderness Act, which established legislative procedure for reserving permanently areas “untrammeled by man”. It’s worth taking a second to pause and consider the definition of that word, because it’s regularly used by critics of wilderness who see its advocates blindly chasing an illusory pristine nature removed from the human footprint. Indeed, it sounds an awful lot like “walked upon.” The Oxford dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as: “not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.” For advocates, wilderness represented nature able to grow to its own ends, rather than spaces where nature was not tread upon by mankind. The distinction is subtle but important, and we only have to look at the case of ecological restoration to see why. 

Leopold was a founding member of the Wilderness Society, and indeed, for him, wilderness was in large part a framework for learning from nature. On the prairie at his  shack and at the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum, he was also one of the first to champion the cause of restoring ecosystems. Seeding the prairie and aiding it in its growth and functioning was undoubtedly an intervention in nature, yet it was one meant to give the big bluestem, compass plant, and associated fauna a freedom of expression. Restoration ecology, as a coherent unit of academic study and as a field of practice did not coalesce until the 1980s - well after Leopold’s time - and is still only gaining traction. Now and then, restorationists have split between a desire to get back to nature as it looked before settlement and restoration as means for “inventing” novel landscapes.

While Wisconsin’s William Jordan was busy assembling restoration ecology as we know it today, UC-Santa Cruz’s Michael Soulé set out to establish a related field, conservation biology. Blending scientific rigor and eco-advocacy, a coalition of academic researchers like Soulé and activists like EarthFirst!’s Dave Foreman lobbied for large wilderness areas to be established not as a way to preserve a sacred sublime, but to preserve biodiversity. Eschewing EarthFirst!’s strategy of highly visible political action, Foreman joined with Soulé to start the Wildlands Project, which they saw as a group that would more aggressively and directly campaign at a variety of levels of government for more and larger wilderness designations than the Wilderness Society.

The resurgence of preservationism came to a head in 1995. That year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the under the Endangered Species Act, to “harm” the habitat of threatened species like the northern spotted owl was to illegally “take” it. In a way, the ruling justified the Wildlands Project’s scientific and political argument that large spaces free of economically productive activity, like forestry, were necessary to protect biodiversity. But it also goaded foresters and others adopting the banner of “Wise Use” to claim that preservation was blind to or willfully ignorant of rural people’s concerns about jobs and economic growth. The ruling was a flashpoint for tensions between preservation and conservation. 

The same year an interdisciplinary group of scholars, including environmental historians, stepped into the fray with their edited volume Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Meant to reach a wide audience, the volume provocatively directed its line of attack at wilderness proponents. Bill Cronon, for instance, wrote that “wilderness is no more ‘natural’ than nature is - it’s a reflection of our own longings, a profoundly human creation.” The argument drove at the heart of how advocates saw the wilderness concept as legitimate, while retaining a sense that humans have a responsibility to nature, one in the form of our own making. Richard White tackled the economic growth question head on by reflecting on the Wise Use bumper sticker slogna, “Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?” He showed how labor was just as much a relationship to the natural world as recreation, but his point was not to cede ground to Wise Use activists who claimed that their work gave them a privileged relation to nature. Instead, he noted that they had confused their “labor” with property rights - a specifically capitalist relation to nature. White made the case for a more inclusive conservation, without turning it over to the markets.

Uncommon Ground stirred a raft of critiques and counter-criticisms, but it wasn’t the only major intervention into such territory at the time. In 1997, several ecologists and economists launched another front against the kind of preservation advocated by the Wildlands Project. While the authors of Uncommon Ground deployed persuasive social theory as their tactic and many of them, like White, countered calls to see capitalism as a viable social relation to nature, monetary valuation was this group's policy Trojan Horse. The reframing of conservation’s object of concern to ecosystem services  shared several arguments with Uncommon Ground: wilderness overlooks the nature that is close to home; it ignores the importance of achieving economic growth. Gretchen Daily, like Soulé a student of famous biologist Paul Ehrlich, edited 1997’s Nature’s Services. The effort was a first cut attempt to conceive of nature as composed of quantifiable and monetizable services that provide direct benefits to society, rather than existing for it’s own sake. The same year, Bob Costanza famously declared the dollar value of all of the world’s ecosystem services (ES) to be more or less $33 trillion.

The team of economists and ecologists who published Costanza et al. 1997, valuing the world's ecosystem services at roughly $33 trillion. Source: 

These admittedly rough estimates were meant to appeal to CEOs and Senators alike, and as they got better, they did. Resistance to the project has grown as well. The use of an ES framework to prove to policy-makers the value of conservation has set up a debate rather reminiscent of Hetch Hetchy. It’s Soulé who plays the part of Muir; the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, plays Pinchot. This time around, the struggle is not focused on one site or one project (though there are plenty of small skirmishes), but addresses head on the larger question of whether conservation and capitalism are joined at the hips, just good friends, or perhaps anathema to each other. For Kareiva, conservation set asides simply haven’t lived up to their promise, they harm the global poor, and, adopting Cronon’s critique, wilderness lacks a solid conceptual grounding. Instead, he proclaims the Anthropocene - the recognition of humans as a geologic force in nature with its fingerprint everywhere - as conservation’s gospel. Alongside this, he offers the solution of harnessing the same capital that has historically degraded environments in order to direct investment to protecting and enhancing environments: “Instead of scolding capitalism,” he and his co-authors write, “conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature's benefits into their operations and cultures.” The ES framework has become what Kareiva calls the “new conservation,” and even “conservation science” as means to legitimize itself explicitly in contrast to conservation biology.

Soulé has responded directly to Kareiva and his colleagues. He notes that conservationists (reserving that moniker for himself and his allies) do understand that nature is everywhere, and have since Rachel Carson warned of the bodily dangers posed by DDT. Dubbing Kareiva et al. as “environmentalists,” he puts them in the camp of selling out (literally):

Most human beings and many environmentalists never doubt that biological diversity and every every thing every where is meant for human consumption, exploitation or recreation. Theirs is a world of resources and hoped for wealth. It is Old Testament view. In stark contrast, the goal of conservationism is other-centric. It stresses the intrinsic (for itself) value of non-human biological beings and aims to protect earth’s five million or so kinds of surviving creatures for their own sake.
Which bring us back to 2011 and the ecosystem services markets conference in Madison, where “pricing the priceless” was about determining the value of non-human biological beings for our own sake. In spite of Soulé’s impassioned argument, it’s clear that Kareiva currently has the edge, as The Nature Conservancy and other leading international conservation non profits work the world over with companies like Dow to value ecosystems and the services they provide. 

I am not, however, telling the story of the final triumph of the Anthropocene after its flag-bearers have vanquished the forces of preservation. We have to see history as the art of people muddling through, and to document it, making things seem as messy as they truly are and as they truly were, rather than retreating to the conceit that the story has one final outcome, writing off the contradictions. As we’ve seen here, conservation is complicated; so too are conservationists. Today, even Kareiva’s project and the ecosystem services framework are not one in the same: he and his colleagues, for instance, critique the main international ES project to date, the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. The ecologists working in ES still cherish many of the landscape ecology principles conservation biologists promoted. Historically, there’s been important rifts in the conservation community when it comes to knowing what nature is and what’s important about it: between wilderness as the sublime and nature as a source of use values to be conserved for future generations; wilderness as a temple, wilderness as enjoyment, and wilderness as a lab; between restoration and preservation; species biodiversity and recreation; human and eco-centric impulses. These valences have split not only figureheads like Pinchot and Muir, Kareiva and Soulé, but are often simultaneously embodied in a single person, perhaps an average conference attendee rather than a prominent advocate. Conservationists today muddle through conflicting mandates and mixed messages. It’s no surprise we see them at once praising Leopold for how he wanted to create a new, non-commodified relation with nature on its own terms, while at the same time seeking to “price the priceless” and make ecosystem services markets work. 

We should embrace these contradictions rather than walk away from them. The general thrust of the Anthropocene project is noble: to take responsibility for natures we as a society have made. Its proponents rightfully build off of critiques of wilderness as exclusionary and illusory. But as a way of guiding our actions today, the Anthropocene is not without its own flaws. When plugged into arguments for capitalizing ecosystem services, it raises a number of red-flags, also about exclusion and who stands to benefit.

What’s needed is a  common ground: a perspective that envisions nature as “untrammeled,” but everywhere rather than reserved far away, and not subject to the whims of market forces to secure its value. The standoff between conservation biology and conservation science doesn’t have to be just a repeat of conservation vs. preservation, of nature for human values vs. nature for nature’s sake. I have a hunch of where to find such space. It would be a way of talking about and doing conservation that holds in tension the project of recognizing the world is more-than-us with the realization that today’s human interventions in nature are unparalleled to anything in history. What’s needed is a posthuman Anthropocene.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Much ado about the causes of wetland loss in Louisiana

You might remember that last summer, the levee board responsible for protecting much of metro New Orleans filed a landmark lawsuit against some 90 oil and gas companies. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Production Authority - East (SLFPAE), formed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, claimed that the canals these companies carved across coastal wetlands to set up drilling operations were significant drivers of wetland loss in the area historically, losses which could have mitigated storm surges. Pointing to industry, government, and academic reports alike they claim that the companies have not fulfilled their responsibility to fill in the canals and restore exploration and drilling sites. 

Wednesday, in a must-view PowerPoint presentation to the state's Coastal Planning and Restoration Authority (CPRA), SLFPAE made a pretty compelling defense of their case. What they did was zoom in on one particular case - the Delacroix area in St. Bernard parish - where canals have led to saltwater intrusion, erosion, and ultimately the conversion of marsh and swamp land into open water. I've gathered the slide by slide time series they presented into a handy GIF to illustrate their argument:
Wetland loss between 1956 and 2008 in the Delacroix, LA area. Canals that were dredged in order to move oil equipment are drawn in red arrows. Source: SLFPAE presentation.

You can see the same result when we focus in on just the past fifteen years With Google Earth imagery, I created another GIF that spans every other year or so from 1998 to the present.

Wetland loss between 1998 and the present in Delacroix. Source: Google Earth.

CPRA's chairman, Garrett Graves, however, is not so convinced by SLFPAE's argument. He thinks that going after the hydrocarbon industry is misguided. Instead, CPRA intends to sue the Army Corps of Engineers to get that agency to own up to the role that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel played in altering hydrological regimes in the wetland complex east of New Orleans and in shuttling Katrina's storm surge straight into the city. The meeting yesterday was just the most recent and most visible skirmish in a war of words between CPRA and SLFPAE over whether the SLFPAE lawsuit is legitimate and whether CPRA's approach would be more effective.

At first glance, it seems like SLFPAE and CPRA's disagreement is mainly over what they see as the causes of wetland loss in the area. SLFPAE points at oil/gas companies and their extensive network of canals; CPRA the corps and MRGO. But this is not just a debate about who's to blame. As SLFPAE's lawyers pointed out in their presentation, Graves himself has repeatedly acknowledged the part played by the hydrocarbon industry's canals. Everyone agrees, to a significant extent, that the problem has multiple drivers, whether they're as prominent as MRGO or as ubiquitous as oil/gas canals. The two institutions primarily disagree about what's the most politically and economically beneficial line of attack to solve the problem. SLFPAE says getting oil money can more than pay the bills on the state's ambitious $50 billion dollar master plan for coastal restoration; Graves seems to think that would result in less money going to communities for restoration. Obviously, the choice of who to blame has meaningful consequences for what gets fixed, but it'd be a mistake to think that one side doesn't get the ecological reasoning of the other.

Speaking of who to blame, take another look at the second GIF. If you didn't already notice it, much of the conversion of the Delacroix wetlands into open water happens between 2004 and 2005 (the pic that year was taken in October). Of course, as the first GIF demonstarted, wetlands loss had been occurring there for decades by then. But Katrina appears to have been the coup de grace. Research has shown how hurricanes and other weather events lead to wetland loss: the wetlands in Louisiana east of the Mississippi River lost up to 25% of their land area after Katrina. The presence of canals undoubtedly exacerbated Katrina's effect here, but the storm itself nevertheless has had a singular and lasting effect on the landscape. 

The easy thing to do is wonder whether all the money the state plans to spend to rebuild barrier islands and wetlands will just be washed away by the very storms they are meant to mitigate. The tougher and more important question to ask is whether decision-makers and conservationists realize this and are prepared to engage in a continual investment to redesign a landscape shaped by climate change.