Price Nature or Make Nature Priceless?

Evaluating Conservation in the Anthropocene

A panel of leading scientists at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue considered how best to protect natural areas at regional and global levels. The panelists agreed that dominant forms of environmental protection have failed in many regards.

“We live on a used planet,” said Barry Brook from the University of Tasmania, crediting fellow Dialogue participant Erle Ellis for the idea. The question addressed by the panel was how to use less of the planet, and how societies will weigh the different needs of people, animals, and landscapes.

Brook identified the “ecosystem services” school of conservation, which upholds the notion that if societies place a market value on the benefits of wild nature – clean air, clean water, biodiversity, and the like – then nature will be protected. Brook dismissed this influential idea, saying instead, “If you’re protecting nature on the basis of its value in dollars, then when its value is less than the alternative, you’ll exploit it.”

Another common conservation strategy is the protection of wild nature in parks and protected areas, which to date have “walled off” around 15 percent of Earth’s land according to one estimate. But Kwaw Andam, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, disputed the overall efficacy of national parks. According to Andam, over 90 percent of the scholarship on national parks only examines resources and species protected inside the parks, not the exploitation of nature that is outsourced when protection is implemented.

“Globally, protected areas are the most popular policy tool to protect forests,” said Andam, “but they are unproven in their effectiveness for biodiversity conservation.”

But without prices or regulations, how can humanity protect nature? Brook and McGill University professor Elena Bennett offered different answers to the challenge.

According to Brook, it is better to “make nature priceless” than to price nature. He gave examples such as petroleum making whales “priceless.” Citing the ecomodernist manifesto, which he coauthored, Brook called for “accelerated decoupling,” or the pursuit of technological substitutes for services traditionally provided by nature (such as desalinated water, synthetic rubber, and vertical agriculture).

Bennett argued that what nature gets protected will reliably be an outcome of democratic discourse. Citing her work with 13 local mayors and 13 land-use planners in a small community outside Montreal, she presented a framework for measuring local peoples’ values towards wild nature – including services like timber but also tourism and aesthetics. Using surveys and expert solicitation, “We build storylines about potential futures and develop an image of what the landscape is likely to look like.”

The panel stirred a bevy of questions among the audience over how humans and nature should coexist in the Anthropocene. “Who makes the decisions for what to preserve and how?” asked University of Queensland professor John Asafu-Adjaye.

Likewise, the Economist’s Oliver Morton protested against Brook’s calls for decoupling.

“The idea that unseen nature is valuable rubs up hard against me compared to nature closer to human development,” said Morton. “I want to push back against the idea that it’s best not to do low-density use. I quite like hill farms and find forests quite uninteresting.”

Brook insisted that he didn’t find disagreement so much as productive debate over the goal of decoupling.

“There will always be ‘transition zones’ between the concrete and wild jungles,” he mused. “For people with a need to connect with nature, they can live in that transition zone.”

Erle Ellis agreed, stating that “all of us ecomodernists have different views. I don’t see anything but a good dialogue to be had.”

Bennett reflected on determining the value of wild nature. She observed that connecting the Laurentian Mountains with the Appalachian Mountains, a goal of her field work, requires working with many private landowners whose values must be respected.

“My solution has been to talk to and listen to people a lot,” she said.

The participants stressed the very different conceptions of nature that people have. For Richard Tol of the University of Sussex, the notion of any value to wild nature was interesting in itself.

“The idea that nature has a positive value is an 18th-century Enlightenment idea,” said Tol. “In most of the world, nature is positively scary.”

Ruth DeFries, Columbia University professor and this year’s Breakthrough Paradigm Award winner, agreed, observing “there’s no intrinsic value to nature for most people and that’s okay.”

“It’s okay when groups make decisions [about landscapes] I wouldn’t,” Bennett concluded. “It gives me an opportunity to think about other peoples’ values and engage with them.”

“That’s where governance comes in,” offered Andam. “Governments are always choosing.”