A study published Feb. 1 in the journal Bioscience finds that giving economic value to environmental systems may actually help preserve those systems in the long run. The study, led by University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) Professor Stephen Farber and titled "Linking Ecology and Economics for Ecosystem Management," uses several case studies to illustrate how an ecosystem management perspective can aid in management decisions.
The research included in the study takes an element of a natural system, like a tree, and focuses on the services provided by that element, such as its ecological benefits. This approach brings together two disciplines that historically are not allied: economics, which traditionally assigns set values, and ecology, which characterizes how nature works.
"That means looking at a tree as something more than a piece of timber," said Farber. "The tree clearly has a monetary value as timber, but it also has an aesthetic value, and can reduce flooding and provide storm damage."
The challenge, according to Farber, comes when people make the argument that you can't place a value on nature. "They say you should not trivialize nature by assigning it monetary values, but implicitly we do that all the time, for example, when we cut down trees to put in a parking lot. My argument would be that we need to think about nature's values more explicitly."
In order to facilitate a more explicit way of thinking, Farber and the other researchers worked with the staffs of three Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites to use the ecological management system to address environmental issues. In the case of the Plum Island ecosystem, located in the estuary and watersheds of Plum Island Sound off the Massachusetts coast, that meant reducing estuarine eutrophication and increasing the maintenance of wetlands while providing adequate water supplies for a growing human population. The researchers then compared the effects of two management alternatives on the delivery of specific ecosystem services.
In each of the case studies, the goal was to formalize a set of services and a way of evaluating them. The decision regarding which alternative would be better would have to be made by members of the management team, taking into consideration which services are valued more by impacted communities.
The application, however, can be explicit. "The situation in New Orleans is classic," said Farber, who was on the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed Louisiana's coastal restoration plan, both before and after the disaster. "Before Katrina, everyone was saying that there were not enough wetlands to protect the city. A crude 'rule of thumb' is that three miles of wetlands will reduce storm surges by one foot, and that an acre of wetlands provides roughly $20,000 worth of services. But that same acre would sell for only $500. The gap between market value and social value is huge
if everything in the grocery store was free, we'd walk out with it all. Markets, then, cannot be relied upon to preserve resources of great social value, such as wetlands."
Farber's research focuses on microeconomics and environmental economics. A professor of public and urban affairs and international development in GSPIA, he earned his Ph.D. degree in economics at Vanderbilt University in 1973. He has coauthored publications in the journals Science and Nature, as well as in various economic journals, including Ecological Economics.