Morality, abstraction, and concrete reality

The phrase "value of the biosphere" typically evokes sentimental images of humans existing in harmony with nature, an image that finds expression as the moral imperative of environmental stewardship. Indeed, it is hard not to be moved by:

Good enough. We all, to some degree, sympathize with our fellow creatures and very few people would argue that a species is something to be extinguished on a trivial whim. Still as the endangered creatures become less charismatic or unique like the San Francisco garter snake (cf. common garter snake) it is understandable that people would ask if they should stand in the way of new golf courses?

You could argue that such concerns are trivial. Subsistence farmers whose immediate concern is putting food on their table may have no practical opportunity to indulge such concerns. The concrete reality for most people is that concerns for environmental stewardship are something they can't afford. Indeed, how many of you would volunteer to starve to death if you knew it would save the gorillas?

Ultimately people must have:

to survive.

Practically speaking, this means that society must offer the following to 7.3 billion people:

How humanity has done this in the past and might continue in an environmentally uncertain future is the topic of this lecture. For now, we lay aside agriculture, politics, infrastructure, and energy, to focus on general principles.

I - Biological diversity is useful.


  • What are they?
  • The common metaphore: Groups of individuals rushing to their destruction.
  • The deeper biodiversity metaphore, based on Swedish lemming studies of the 1980s.

    The lesson: A diversity of environmental resources is good because it provides you with options when environmental change renders your normal modus operandi untenable.

    II - People are rational but plan on a human time scale.

    Applications of this principle to human society are diverse, but so are the temptations to ignore them. Consider that:

    Tradition! Above all, note that for most of their history, humans have lived close to the precipice of starvation. It is not surprising that we are very reluctant to abandon tried-and-true practices (historical best practices if you will). Consequently, we tend to create institutional monocultures of tried and true practices in everything we do. These include: We've discussed the demise of the Greenland Norse colony. Those people starved while newcomers - the Greenland Inuit survived on a culture based on seal hunting. The Norse must have witnessed Inuit hunting seals and had access to the technology. Also they weren't stupid. Was cultural inertia to blame?

    III - People don't expect the unexpected and they hang onto institutional practices.

    What are the prospects of a human boom-and-crash-cycle? We've seen examples in the past of civilizations that catastrophically fail due to institutions that render their people and environment incapable of supporting them.

  • The inhabitants of Easter Island were Polynesian settlers who had originated in lands of lush forests. Polynesian success stemmed from the combination of: On the relatively arid Easter Island, agriculture was more difficult. Alas, they accidentally destroyed the forests that were a critical resource for a fishing economy. Whether this happened because they overharvested timber for use in expensive construction projects or introduced alien species like rats, who then destroyed the trees, is debated. In any case, destruction of forests meant no new canoes, and that precluded either fishing or escape. During the subsequent crash, islanders lived off of intensively cultivated chickens, but resorted to cannibalism. (A sign of real desperation.)

    The take home lessones of this and other collapses of civilizations are that:

    The more we limit the diversity of the biological resources on which we depend, the more we set ourselves up for lemming-like boom and crash cycles. The alternative is deliberately to hedge our bets by identifying and exploiting a much wider range of biological resources than we think we need. Natural Biodiversity provides us with a mine of useful products waiting to be domesticated.

    Indeed, one food sources that has been left alone because it is economically infeasible now but might become feasible in the future - oak trees. But we leave the discussion of food for later.

    Human agriculture and habitat diversity.

  • The effect of agriculture on world habitats also creates a dichotomy between a varied mosaic of different crops and varieties on a local scale - "patchy agricultural environments" and monoculture agriculture, based on the industrial scale cultivation of a single crop. Consider the US situation in the early 1990s:
  • Monocultures have some awesome advantages, especially in the near term:

    But it has its down-side:

    But all of this is minor compared to the long term threat: The day may come when the pests evolve faster than our ability to cope with them. There have been foreshadowings:

    Thus, the human situation - dependance on an agricultural monoculture - mirrors that of the tundra lemmings - dependance on a natural monoculture, just on a longer time scale. Our monoculture is productive now, but the development of agricultural technologies must be in a constant race with:

    if disaster is to be forestalled. The worst-case scenario is a full-blown human boom and crash cycle (of which we are now in the boom). We have discussed smaller scale versions of these, but there is something distancing about the fact the our examples, Easter Island, the Norse, and the classic Maya were pre-industrial societies. Consider an industrial-age example:

  • The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1851): A perfect storm of rational people following their self-interest in a land governed by institutions that couldn't adapt to a novel threat.

    Just IMAGINE a similar blight today effecting rice in mainland Asia.

    Is there a more fail-safe approach? In hindsight, the environmental mistakes we have reviewed are understandable:

    Ireland's mistake is especially telling: It was to become dependant on a potato monoculture. You can hardly blame them. In near-term costs and benefits, it was the rational course. No one anticipated the sudden appearance of an alien plant pathogen. But by their fruits we shall know them.

    IV - Pharmaceuticals are like crops.

    Biodiversity and Pharmacology: This principle applies even more strongly to medicines. Humans have been mining the biodiversity for food for thousands of years. We are only beginning a new age of discovery of pharmaceuticals.

    National Council on Biodiversity and Human Health proposed by pharmacological industry in 1998.

    V - The hypothesis that biological diversity is useful is testable.

    I began with the fates of lemmings in natural environments of variable diversity as a metaphor for the prospects of human society in unnatural agricultural environments, then gave anecdotes about human survivability. Can we put any of this on a quantitative footing?

    Yes, we can.

    Biological productivity as a function of diversity:

    Thus, diversity is an asset to productivity in changing ecosystems.

    VI - Ecosystems Services: Because it's free doesn't mean it's worthless.

    Ecosystem Services:

    "The flow of materials, energy, and information from natural capital stocks which combine with manufactured capital and human capital to produce human welfare." Costanza et al. 1997

    But that is so academic. Society is driven by markets and individuals have no option but to make practical choices. Moreover, we regard it as axiomatic that:

    The problem is that most ecosystem services - services rendered to humans by a healthy environment that researchers may easily be able to quantify- are not directly part of the money economy and market system. We can measure the air you breathe, for instance, but economists would be puzzled by the idea of monetizing it.

    Ecosystems services include:

    So, you pay nothing for air, an ecosystem service outside of the money economy. That doesn't mean we can't put a money value on your air.....

    What would you be willing to pay for a substitute for air if something took your air away?

    We can ask that question about any benefit we receive from the environment. Estimating the replacement cost of "ecosytem services," - environmental benefits that are outside of the money system but whose replacement would cost money is a current priority of environmental economists. A seminal review by UMD researcher Robert Costanza et. al. summarized published data for a broad range of ecosystem services and suggests:

    Example: In the late 1980s, New York City's drinking water was of low quality because of runoff from agriculture and sewage in the Catskills. Options to remedy included:

    How could we have missed something this big? In large part because traditional economics evaluates the productivity of an environment by the value of major products that it produces. Thus, when the landowners of a tropical island abounding in biological diversity and surrounded by reefs make their money from logging, the land's productivity would be measured in units of trees cut down.

    The Costanza et al. study has stimulated the rise of ecosystem service economics and related fields, as researchers have attempted to:

    The long term goal is the development of True Cost Accounting that encompasses the value of ecosystem services. This requires overcoming both traditional accounting practices andÉ.

    The Tragedy of the Commons

    Remember, humans are rational but self-interested. What happens when a resources is held in common? Everyone has an incentive to overexploit it. The classic example is the collective overgrazing of communally held pastures in traditional villages.

    In all of the foregoing, we see that environmental change poses threats to the biodiversity on which we rely and challenges our ability to cope with changing ecosystems. What does the deep history of biodiversity actually tell us about global change? That is for next week.

    Whatever the details, our practical decisions about biodiversity biodiversity need to be informed by: