The following is from Ted Weber:
I went to a forum in College Park on Saturday called “The Cost of Not Protecting Maryland’s Environment.” Bob Costanza (Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics) was the keynote speaker. The other speakers included Frank Heintz (former CEO of Baltimore Gas & Electric), Don Boesch (president of the Univ. of Maryland Center for Environmental Science), and Steve Bunker (director of govt. programs for the MD/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy).
Among the many interesting points raised were:
* The U.N.’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlights ways in which people depend on services provided by ecosystems, how those
ecosystem services are changing, and the ramifications for society. It “focuses on ecosystem services (the benefits people obtain from ecosystems), how changes in ecosystem services have affected human wellbeing, how ecosystem changes may affect people in future decades, and response options that might be adopted at local, national, or global scales to improve ecosystem management and thereby contribute to human well-being and poverty alleviation…
Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth. In addition, approximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services it examined are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.”
* Conventional economists focus only on a narrow part of our well-being (consumption), and ignore other parts of the economy that provide for the sustainable well-being of people, such as social capital and natural capital. For example, increased crime is seen as good from an economic standpoint because people spend money on alarms and window bars, but common sense dictates that increased crime is bad for people’s well-being (unless you are one of the criminals). Conventional economics is based on an “open world”, where resources are infinite, human impact is relatively small, and modes of capital are infinitely substitutable (e.g., increased technology will compensate for loss of forest and cropland). But today we are living in a closed world, where human impact dominates global processes, resources are rapidly shrinking at an unsustainable rate, and in fact, substitutability is limited.
* Dr. Costanza described an alternative to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as an indicator of economic health. GDP includes only the official market economy, and ignores things like caring for children, air and water quality, etc. The ISEW (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare) or the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) are significantly different and more comprehensive approaches to assessing economic progress than conventional measures like GDP. The GPI is a better, more comprehensive approximation to economic welfare than GDP, because it accounts for income distribution effects, the value of household and volunteer work, costs of mobility and pollution, depletion of social and natural capital, and other things. Comparing GDP and GPI for the US shows that, while GDP has steadily increased since 1950, with the occasional dip or recession, GPI peaked around 1975 and has been gradually decreasing ever since.
See http://www.uvm.edu/giee/gpi.htm for more.
(note: as proof of this, it used to be possible to support a family, with a house and car, on one blue-collar wage. Today, even if both husband and wife are working, most can barely scrape by and are heavily in debt).
* Natural ecosystems contribute more to the global economy than does the market economy. A study by Costanza et al. (1997; The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital; Nature 387:252-259)
estimated the economic value of 17 ecosystem services for 16 biomes, based on published studies and original calculations. These ecosystem services include gas regulation, climate regulation, disturbance regulation, water regulation, water supply, erosion control and sediment retention, soil formation, nutrient cycling, waste treatment, pollination, biological control, refugia, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, recreation, and cultural benefits. A minimum estimate of the global total was between $16-54 trillion per year (1994 U.S. dollars), with an average of $33 trillion per year, almost twice the global Gross National Product (GNP). This was considered a conservative estimate; the true figure may be much higher.
See http://ecovalue.uvm.edu/evp/default.asp for more.
* Conservation and environmental protection are usually regarded by politicians as luxuries that should be at the bottom of the priority list. This is because of the blinders that conventional economics place on us - it is an incomplete picture of the world. But protection of natural land is a vital investment. Ecosystem services, such as cleaning the air, filtering and cooling water, storing and cycling nutrients, conserving and generating soils, pollinating crops and other plants, regulating climate, protecting areas against storm and flood damage, and maintaining hydrologic function, are all provided by the existing expanses of forests, wetlands, and other natural lands. These ecologically valuable lands also provide marketable goods and services, like forest products, fish and wildlife, and recreation. They serve as vital habitat for wild species, maintain a vast genetic library, provide scenery, and contribute in many ways to the health and quality of life (from Maryland’s Green Infrastructure Assessment; http://www.dnr.state.md.us/greenways/gi/gidoc/gidoc.html ).
Preserving open space stimulates spending by local residents, increases property values, increases tourism, attracts businesses, and reduces public costs. Biodiversity is responsible for at least $1.9 billion in economic and environmental services in Maryland (Pimentel, D.; 1998; Benefits of biological diversity in the state of Maryland; Cornell University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). In fact, if the values of ecological services are considered, the benefits from conserving natural land gives a return on investment of at least 100 to 1 (Balmford et al; 2002; Economic reasons for conserving wild nature; Science 2002 August 9; 297: 950-953).
* Four visions of the future, depending on underlying assumptions and whether optimists or skeptics are right, are described at http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol4/iss1/art5/ . The visions are labeled “Star Trek”, “Mad Max”, “Big Government”, and “Ecotopia”. The authors conclude that “a cooperative, precautionary policy set that assumes limited resources is shown to be the most rational and resilient course in the face of fundamental uncertainty about the limits of technology.”