You Say Conservation is Good for People: Well, Prove It

This podcast is from Pendleton’s keynote speech to the joint French/UK marine ecosystem services meeting in March 2015. He argues that we are spending too much time modelling the hypothetical benefits of marine conservation and not enough time and effort collecting real data that will CONVINCE people that they DO benefit from better marine management.

Transcript follows. 


Hi, this podcast is adapted from a keynote speech I gave at the combined VALMER/PANACHE meeting, March 17, 2015 Torquay.  The speech was entitled: You Say Conservation Is Good For People:  Well Prove It. A transcript of this will be made available at www.marineecosystemservices.orgProducted by Anne Kaup.

As much as I’d like to think I’m unique or special, I’m not.

My thinking about ecosystems and people has changed over time and it probably is a general reflection of how OUR thinking has changed generally.

I also don’t think my motivation is that different from many other people who work in marine conservation and management. 

We’re all interested in how marine ecosystems affect people, how people affect marine ecosystems AND how we can do something – whether it is research or management – to change things for the better.

We each have our personal story as to how we got here.  I thought I would share with you a short version of my own.

I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, on the east coast of the U.S.

I spent a lot of time on the water, fishing and boating and I did so at a time when chemical pollution made it illegal to eat the oysters there.

I’ve always loved the outdoors and the water. It really bothered me that people had messed things up to the point where I couldn’t eat the oysters that I could see under my boat.

So, when I went off to university, I decided to study field biology.  First as an undergraduate, and later as a doctoral student in ecology, evolution, and behavior.  Mostly, I wanted an excuse to work be back outside, on the water.

I started my career in science with a research project in Montserrat, West Indies.

The study question was a simple one:

How, I wondered, could brown anole lizards and green anole lizards exist on the same small island when they appeared identical in every dimension but color – something island biogeography suggests should be impossible?

Being the brilliant ecologist I would never become, it didn’t take long to create the definitive experiment – I grabbed a brown lizard from a stump, placed it on a green palm frond  AND … VOILA …  it turned green.

Which is why these lizards are sometimes called chameleons.

That was my last trip to Montserrat.  It wasn’t too long afterwards that, my study site was under a lava flow after that charming little soufriere blew its top …

Impressed by my initiative, but not my judgment, my professor stepped in. 

While I searched for projects that would take me back to the warm waters of the Caribbean, my professor  decided to send me off to the deep Amazon where I was to study black caiman in southeastern Peru.

Black caiman are not so different from anole lizards except that they can be up to 8 meters long, have big teeth, and live thousands of miles from the sea.

The Amazon is a spectacular place, but it is not the sea and so this too, was a short stopping point in my career, but it is where my interest in ecological management and protection began.

YOU SEE, the black caiman was once the most abundant predator in the Amazon basin.  By the 1980s, though, it already had become one of the most endangered large vertebrates on the planet.

How did this happen?

Well, after a mere three years of hard ecological study, DENGUE FEVER, AND OTHER UNMENTIONABLE TROPICAL AILMENTS the answer began to emerge …

LACK OF ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE WAS NOT AT FAULT. 

My doctoral studies in caiman ecology had little to offer in the way of solutions.  PEOPLE were to blame for the plight of the caiman and it was people that I needed to study.

So, in 1990, I quit my Ph.D. in Ecology and decided to study policy, development and economics.

In the early 1990s I learned about the economic valuation of ecosystems and the organisms they support.  We didn’t call it ecosystem service valuation then, but we still had methods to estimate the contribution that ecosystems made to people’s economic well-being.  We called it ENVIRONMENTAL VALUATION.

I returned to the Caribbean and conducted a bunch of VALUATION studies focused on MPAs.  In places like Bonaire, Mexico, and Honduras, we collected rigorous data that showed people were willing to travel and pay to see healthy coral reefs – the better the reef, the more people would pay.  I showed that divers in Roatan Honduras overwhelming picked dive sites that had more fish and more diverse fish, higher coral cover and higher coral diversity.

Like others at the time, I helped show that conservation was not just morally good, it was economically good, too.

This was great news for conservationists and environmental managers.

“See, we are creating value!  See, we are economically important.”

To channel Stuart Smiley …

We’re smart, hard working conservation professionals and gosh darn it, people like us!

The 1990s saw a groundswell in valuation studies with the first big wave breaking on shore in 1997 with Bob Costanza’s1 publication of “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.” 2

Costanza’s paper was poorly executed from an economic perspective, but ground breaking nonetheless.  The value estimates used by Bob and his co-authors came largely from studies by dyed-in-the wool economists, environmental economists, and some agricultural economists.  Costanza and pals, however broke away from the traditional economic approach of “marginal” and came up with one big number for nature.  This big number, $33 trillion/year, caught people’s attention – especially the attention of ecologists, conservationists and environmental managers.

With a number like $33 trillion in hand, conservationists and marine managers no longer needed to apologize for their budgetary requests.

No longer did WE have to think of people and economics as the enemy of conservation.

Instead, the tables were turned and conservation could be thought of as a driver of economic value and well-being – or at least that was a plan.

And the race began.

– not to do a better job of “managing nature for people,” as some critics have characterized our efforts – but to do a better job of valuing the “business as usual” of conservation.  We were valuing the status quo – what already existed in terms of nature and conservation – and using these values to argue for an expansion of the same.

Over the next decade, everyone would get into the game:

  • people with little or no training in economics became valuation experts,
  • panels were created, initiatives launched, TED talks given
  • governments commissioned wholesale ecosystem service assessments
  • nearly a thousand studies were conducted and from them hundreds, okay tens, of meta-studies – studies of studies were published

And what has been the result?

It’s hard to tell.  Yann Lauran and his colleagues looked closely and had a very hard time finding that valuation studies ever made a difference in the real world.  Folks from the World Resources Institute and the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership looked throughout the Caribbean – again findings very little evidence that real decisions were being made with valuation estimates.

Perhaps even more depressing, ecosystem service valuation became the fodder for comedians in the UK and was even scorned by author and columnist George Monbiot who, in an invited lecture to the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, called the natural capital approach “complete and utter gobble-dee-gook.”

Now, if you take the time to endure the entirety of Mr. Monbiot’s rant, you will see that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but that doesn’t keep him from making some very good points.  Let’s consider two:

FIRST: We have valued things that really shouldn’t be valued.  For instance, the value of the world’s ecosystem services? These were not valued just the one time I mentioned earlier, but twice again in the last year. 3 4

NOAA estimated the value the total economic value of Hawaii’s coral reefs at $33billion/year.  I’ve been to Hawaii, I’ve seen the reefs.5  I can’t even fathom how big they are, what they hold, and what they mean to me.

SECOND: We value things that people understand better without values.

  • Take, for instance, the value of the existence of endangered whales.6 We all know what a whale is, but do we believe the values estimated for their pure existence?  I don’t, for a variety of economic reasons, but most people don’t believe these estimates simply because they seem preposterous.
  • What about the the existence value of Prince William Sound – you remember Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  It’s in a remote part of Alaska.  Very few people knew it existed. How could we credibly measure the existence value of a place when most people didn’t even know it existed the year before?
  • And of course, economist can measure the economic value of a statistical life – why not just stop with lives saved?

We’ve all done this.  Me too.   Because funders are willing to pay for these big numbers.

During the last two gilded decades of ECOSYSTEM SERVICES VALUATION, we also managed to confuse the hell out of people.  We took a basic concept – “people benefit from healthy ecosystems” – and made it unduly complicated.

Mostly though, the problem is that we’ve misrepresented our role in PRODUCING the value of nature and this includes our hand in creating value in our oceans and coasts.

For instance, 

  • when we value Marine Protected Areas – 99 times out of 100 we value the area and not the protection.
  • when we value better coastal management, we are left talking about what’s at risk and not what’s our contribution to reducing this risk.

That’s changing, of course, but slowly.

I’ve been witness to a number of recent attempts to use scenario analysis to explore the possible contribution of policy actions on the production of ecosystem services, but doing this is a challenge.

Why?  

FOR STARTERS: Estimating the impacts of future management options is made difficult by our failure to measure the impacts of past management actions on PEOPLE.

  • We don’t monitor people, so we don’t know how past management has affected people
  • Often we don’t collect any data on people, even when we collected reams of data about the environments they use.
    1. When you think about it, we know more about bacteria in beach water than we know about beach goers
    2. We probably even know more about fish than fishermen.
    3. In California, the government has an entire agency devoted to collecting data on commercial fishermen – who generate about $100 million a year, but no one collects data on surfers who may spend as much as a billion dollars annually.
    4. Who is collecting data on Sailors?  Birdwatchers? Hikers and beachcombers.  Almost no one …  with the exception of some very progressive studies conducted in California and Oregon.

On those rare occasions when we do collect data on people, we only collect data where we work – in MPAs, for instance.

  • We need data on people outside of MPAs too or places that don’t benefit from good management.  That’s the only way to know if the change is due to the MPA.

IT IS OFTEN THE CASE THAT there are simply too many other factors at work to be able to detect the impact of our management on people

  • We have to collect data on factors beyond our control to understand the effect of our work, such as
    1. data on the local and regional economy
    2. population change and demographics, and
    3. external environmental stressors

FINALLY we have to be honest and admit that maybe our haven’t had a DISCERNIBLE effect on THE BENEFITS  people derive from ecosystems

  • And why should they?  Historically, we haven’t designed marine protection and coastal management with the intent of improving human well-being – at least not economic well-being the way we understand it now.

We all know these things, I’m not saying anything new.

But I’m still struck by how little our management and research has changed.

We have rarely taken approaches to EXPLICITLY protect the economic value of healthy marine ecosystems.

Where are the COASTAL CARBON RESERVES or the SHORELINE PROTECTION PARKS?

We talk about the spillover benefits of marine reserves, but how often do we design these reserves to maximize the value of spillover?

We continue to manage the biology of nature.  Nature works pretty well on its own.  

We have to manage the people.  It’s people that mess things up.  It’s people who need to fix this mess.

Yet, we haven’t done enough to give people the confidence that their behavior matters or that our MANAGEMENT of their behavior is really going to make them better off.

TOO MANY PEOPLE STILL THINK THE CHOICE IS BETWEEN: ECOLOGICAL WELL BEING AND ECONOMIC WELL BEING.

One way to give people confidence that our actions benefit them, as well as nature, is to collect better data.  

BETTER YET, WE CAN INVOLVE LOCAL PEOPLE – STAKEHOLDERS – IN DATA COLLECTION, ESPECIALLY ABOUT PEOPLE!!

Involving stakeholders in collecting data about human uses of the sea and shore builds confidence, creates better data, and provides firsthand experience of the benefits of conservation.

By and large, we have failed to collect ENOUGH convincing, persuasive data that links human actions to changes in ecosystem health and back to human well-being.  

At best, we’ve captured bits of data on the ways that management and ecosystem change affect people.  We’ve taken this and tried to stitch it together using models and computer tools to generate hypothetical outcomes about the benefits of better marine management.

We focus so much – TOO MUCH –  on the FUTURE, ON THE HYPOTHETICAL.

We FOCUS on hypothetical relationships between:

  • bad behavior,
  • ecosystem health, and
  • the potential, hypothetical, largely unknown, rarely measured, future impacts on people?

With decades of marine management behind us, why do we still have so little data about how our management affects people?

Once upon a time, the US Office of Management and Budget came to a federal agency that I won’t name here and said:

“You promised 20 years ago, when you created your program you said that your work would benefit people.  Well? Where’s the evidence?”  Where’s the beef!?

…and after 20 years, the program didn’t have any data to show how their actions affected people.  After 20 years there was no proof that their work mattered to the well-being of people – just to ecosystems.  Sure, there were studies of the POTENTIAL economic benefits of better management, but how could 20 years slip by without collecting any evidence to show that we made good on our promise?

One reason was that in government, we must always try to justify next year’s budget – not the money we’ve already spent, but the money we want to spend.  That’s why there is such a focus on  the hypothetical, on the future and not on documenting the past.

Another reason is that there is a fear, 

and often a good one, 

that while our actions are good for nature, maybe they weren’t SO GOOD for people or at least not good enough so that we could “detect” its effect on people.

AND THAT FEAR IS JUSTIFIED – if we didn’t design our restoration, marine protection, or other environmental policies expressly to benefit people, why would we believe they did?

I bet few of you listening to this podcast could show me empirically, scientifically, and persuasively that your actions have improved the human lot.

And that’s a problem, because better marine management CAN improve PEOPLE’S LIVES, if it is designed to do so.

We can only know if our ACTIONS are indeed helping people  if we collect data about HOW our ACTIONS ACTUALLY DO affect people

– that means collecting data about

  • the ecosystems and the people they affect, and
  • the ecosystems and people they don’t.

WE NEED TO GET BEYOND THE HYPOTHETICAL – or maybe better said, we need to get back to the basics that are supposed to underpin the hypothetical – empirical data collection and analysis.

At it’s core, the ECOSYSTEM SERVICES APPROACH is not, as Mr. Monbiot and others have said, about managing nature more like we manage the rest of the economy.  What a disastrous approach that would be.

I think a reasonable person can question whether market economies are working so well.

There is still a great debate about whether the way we manage economies even leads to improved economic well-being and happiness.7

While there are many things we don’t know about about how the market works, we do know that markets are terrible at managing public goods and a large part of nature is in the public domain – that is what makes it so special and that’s why marine and environmental management so important.

The question is WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO DIFFERENTLY TO MAKE SURE THAT WE ARE MANAGING PEOPLE to ensure that MARINE AND COASTAL ECOSYSTEMS LIVE UP TO THEIR POTENTIAL AS ECONOMIC ASSETS, AS SOCIETY’S NATURAL ENDOWMENT?

The ECOSYSTEM SERVICES APPROACH is about changing the rest of the economy to reflect the value of nature and our role in managing the wealth and value of natural ecosystems.  That goes for the natural wealth of marine ecosystems too. To do that:

  • we have to do much more to monitor and understand the links between nature and people in marine and coastal areas.  That means collecting more data on people and doing more science to demonstrate these connections, empirically.
  • we have to involve more social scientists in marine management – not just to show the world what a good job you all are doing, but

to better reflect the role of NATURE in the lives of PEOPLE and the role of PEOPLE in the lives of NATURE.

  • we need to involve more natural scientists in the rest of the economy, because just as you cannot manage an ecosystem without understanding people, you cannot try to manage a successful economy without understanding the natural systems upon which people depend.

We cannot turn away from sound, empirical, data collection on PEOPLE that use, benefit, and harm the marine environment just because we think there isn’t time or its too expensive.  (It’s cheap compared to a lot of biological data collection!)

Collecting perfect data about human uses of nature is hard.  Collecting decent data is not, especially if we work with local stakeholders.

The more we practice, the better at this we will become and the easier it will be.

Going forward we need science and scientists – from the natural and social sciences – to show people that their behavior matters and that better management of marine ecosystems matters too.

Thank you.

 

Endnotes

1 R. Costanza, R. dArge, R. de Groot, S. Farber, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, R.V. Oneill, J. Paruelo, R.G. Raskin, P. Sutton, M. van den Belt, The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital, Nature, 387 (1997), pp. 253–260

2 Later referred to as later referred to as: a) “The Value of Everything”Published online 8 October 1998 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news981008-3, Science News The worth of the Earth Laura Garwin, and b)  “A Serious Underestimate of Infinity” Ecological EconomicsVolume 25, Issue 1, April 1998, Pages 57–60

SPECIAL SECTION: FORUM ON VALUATION OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Why not to calculate the value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital, Michael Toman, Accepted 13 November 1997, Available online 3 May 2002

Costanza, R.,  De Groot, R. ,Sutton, P. Van Der Ploeg, S. Anderson, S.,Kubiszewski, I.Farber, S. Turner, R. 2014. Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change 26 (2014) 152–158.

4 de Groot, R., Brander, L., van der Ploeg, S., Costanza, R., Bernard, F., Braat, L., Christie, M., Crossman, N., Ghermandi, A., Hein, L., Hussain, S., Kumar, P., McVittie, A., Portela, R., Rodriguez, L.C., ten Brink, P., van

http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcrcp/news/featuredstories/oct11/hi_value/

6 See Loomis, J. Larson, D. “Total economic values of increasing gray whale populations: results from a contingent valuation survey of visitors and households” Marine Resource Economics Vol 9: 275-286, 1994 or Bulte, Erwin H. Kooten, G. Cornelis van “Marginal Valuation of Charismatic Species: Implications for Conservation”Environmental and Resource Economics, 1999

7 First World Happiness Report.  UN. http://earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/2960

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