27 Sep 2010: Opinion

What Are Species Worth?
Putting a Price on Biodiversity

When officials gather for an international summit on biodiversity next month, they might look to remind the world why species matter to humans: for producing oxygen, finding new drugs, making agricultural crops more productive, and something far less tangible — a sense of wonder.

by richard conniff

We live in what is paradoxically a great age of discovery and also of mass extinction. Astonishing new species turn up daily, as new roads and new technologies penetrate formerly remote habitats. And species also vanish forever, at what scientists estimate to be 100 to 1,000 times the normal rate of extinction.

Over the past few years, as I was working on a book about the history of species discovery, I often found myself coming back to a fundamental question: Why do species matter? That is, why should ordinary people care if scientists discover one species or pronounce the demise of another?

It may seem too obvious to need asking. In certain limited contexts, people clearly do care. We will go to great lengths to protect a boutique species like the giant panda, for instance. We also thrill to the possibility of finding the slightest microbial hint of life in outer space, hardly blinking when the U.S. government spends $7 billion a year largely for that purpose. Meanwhile, we spend pennies exploring the alien life forms that are all around us here on Earth.

Maybe it’s just human nature not to value — or even see — the thing that’s right in front of our faces. And maybe it’s also a failure of communication.
We need to understand that our lives depend on species we have never heard of.
That is, scientists may need to explain their work on a far more basic level — not “Why do species matter?” but “Is food important to you?” or “Do you want your children to have effective medicines when they get sick?” or even “Do you like to breathe?” None of these questions overstates the importance of species.

For instance, Prochlorococcus is an ocean-dwelling genus of cyanobacteria and among the most abundant life forms on Earth. Why should we care? Because it produces about 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe — and yet until an MIT microbiologist named Sally Chisholm discovered it in 1986, Prochlorococcus was unknown. We need to understand in short that our lives depend on species most of us have never heard of — species we otherwise tend to shrug off as obscure, trivial, even undesirable.

Vultures, for instance. When we cause a species to go into decline, we almost never know — and hardly even stop to think about — what we might be losing in the process. In truth, it may be hard to think about, because the cascading effects of our actions are sometimes freakishly distant from the original cause. So in India in the early 1990s, farmers began using the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for the apparently worthy purpose of relieving pain and fever in their livestock. Unfortunately, vultures scavenging on livestock carcasses accumulated large quantities of the drug and promptly died of renal failure. Over a 14-year period, populations of three vulture species plummeted by between 96.8 and 99.9 percent.

Losing these efficient scavengers meant livestock carcasses often got left in the open to rot. It was one of those “ecosystem services” — manufacturing oxygen, soaking up carbon dioxide, preventing floods, taking out the garbage — that species generally provide unnoticed, until they stop. But the
A diversity of species can help prevent the emergence of new diseases.
impacts went well beyond the stench, according to a 2008 article in Ecological Economics. Moving into the niche vacated by the vultures, feral dog populations boomed by up to 9 million animals over the same period. Dog bites and the incidence of rabies in humans also increased, and the authors conservatively estimated that an additional 48,000 people died during the 14-year period as a result. Calculating the bottom-line worth of what we get from the natural world is notoriously difficult. But even pricing lives at a fraction of developed world values, the near-total loss of three insignificant vulture species has so far cost India an estimated $24 billion.

A diversity of species can also help prevent the emergence of new diseases, though we tend to blame, rather than credit, nature for this particular ecosystem service. We sometimes respond to Lyme disease, for instance, by trying to kill the major players, blacklegged ticks and white-footed mice. But the “dilution effect,” proposed by Rick Ostfeld at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, suggests counterintuitively that having the broadest variety of host species in a habitat is a better way to limit disease. Some of those hosts will be ineffective, or even dead ends, at transmitting the infectious organism. So they dilute the effect and keep the disease organism from building up and spilling over to humans. But when we reduce biodiversity by breaking up the forest for our backyards, we accidentally favor the most effective host — in this case, the white-footed mouse. And we free the undiluted disease organism to operate at full strength.

The implications go well beyond Lyme disease. Around the world over the past half-century, researchers have tracked about 150 emerging infectious diseases, from Ebola to HIV, with 60 to 70 percent being zoonotic — that is, transmitted from animals to humans. “The question,” says Aaron Bernstein, a Harvard pediatrician and co-editor of the 2008 book Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, “is whether humans are doing something to make these zoonotic diseases come out of the woodwork.” Clearly, we are doing a lot of one particular thing — knocking down forests and creating species-poor habitats with no “dilution effect” in their place. Thus the fear is that many more such epidemics may lie ahead.

And yet the value of even big, charismatic species remains so poorly understood that a Rutgers University philosopher writing in The New York Times recently proposed gradually wiping out cruel carnivorous species and replacing them with gentle vegetarians. He was upset that lions do not lie down with lambs, except to eat them for dinner. And he was apparently oblivious to the larger cruelty called a trophic cascade: Loss of predators strips a habitat of its diversity and leaves behind the animal equivalent of the civil service, or what writer David Quammen has called “a pestilence of minor nibblers.”

For instance, in the rocky world between high and low tides on the Pacific Coast near Seattle, the food chain (or trophic community, from the Greek trophikos, or nourishment) consists of barnacles, limpets, chitins,
Our understanding is too primitive to say one species is important and another isn’t.
anemones, and particularly mussels. Starfish are the dominant predator. So mussels normally crowd up along the high tide line, where starfish are less likely to chomp them. In one study, a biologist removed the starfish to see what would happen. The mussels soon crept down toward deeper water, crowding out other species. Within a few years, only eight of the 15 original species still lived in that neighborhood. For all their apparent cruelty, killer species can be a means of fostering biodiversity.

So do individual species matter? Or is it just the diversity of species? The truth is that our understanding of the natural world is far too primitive for anyone to say one species is important, and another isn’t. In fact, scientists don’t even have names for most species; they’ve described only about 1.8 million of them, with an estimated 10 to 50 million still to go. So instead of waging pitched battles for individual species, conservationists in recent years have prudently tended to emphasize diversity, working to protect large swaths of habitat for a multitude of species. It’s the motorcycle mechanic’s approach to conservation, as articulated by Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

But that should not stop us from trumpeting the benefits to humanity from individual species that might otherwise get written off as worthless, or even as impediments to human progress. Some conservationists may cringe at the thought of cheapening the natural world by defending it in economic terms. But NASA manages to hold onto a sense of wonder about its mission while simultaneously touting the idea that space exploration can pay for itself in technology transfers to the civilian world. (There’s actually a NASA “spinoff coloring book.” It celebrates an outer space mirror-polishing technology now also used to make ice skates go “super fast!”) The difference is that the spinoff argument for exploring species here on Earth is far more persuasive.

The yew, for instance, was until recently a “trash tree,” says David J. Newman of the National Cancer Institute; he figures it was last valued around the time his ancestors used it to fashion bows for firing arrows at
Species are a mother lode of material for making agricultural crops more productive.
the Battle of Agincourt. But it’s now the source for taxol, relied on by tens of thousands of people as a life-saving treatment for breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Sales topped $1.6 billion last year, according to IMS Health, a healthcare information and consulting company. Likewise, no one ever marched to save the gila monsters, but their venom is the source of a new drug for people who resist conventional treatments for Type 2 diabetes, an epidemic disease now on track to affect more than a third of all Americans over their lifetimes.

In fact, the common idea that drug companies can cook up their medicines out of thin air through “rational drug design” in the laboratory is simply wrong. One recent study looked at more than 1,000 drugs approved worldwide over a 20-year period and found not one that was traceable to a totally synthetic source. Getting our ideas from species in the natural world is still the rule.

Likewise, wild species continue to be the mother lode of genetic material for making agricultural crops more productive, or more resistant to pests, disease, and drought. That kind of bio-prospecting is likely to become far more important over the next few years as biologists begin to explore the bacteria, fungi, and other microbial life forms that help plants do what they do. In fact, we will have little choice but to find smarter ways of exploiting the hidden resources of the natural world. If NASA in its glory years had a mission — to get to the moon in 10 years — biologists now have one, too: To sustain the species and habitat here on Earth that will be essential to providing food, medicine, and sanity as the human population grows to 9 billion people over the next 40 years.


The Natural World Vanishes:
How Species Cease To Matter

The Natural World Vanishes: How Species Cease To Matter
Once, on both sides of the Atlantic, fish such as salmon, eels, and, shad were abundant and played an important role in society. But as these fish have steadily dwindled, humans have lost sight of their significance, with each generation accepting a diminished environment as the new norm, writes biologist John Waldman.
There is one final argument for the value of species, and it has to do with beauty, biophilia, and a sense of the sacred. In the course of researching my book on species discovery, it seemed to me that one young 19th-century specialist in marine mollusks made the case most persuasively. In pursuit of new species along the coast of Alaska, naturalist William T. Dall experienced all the usual adventures, among them a long frigid trip in a sealskin dory across open water, trying to avoid being crushed by waves loaded with cakes of ice.

He gave his family an eloquent explanation of what motivated him, and by extrapolation most other species seekers: “There is a singular delight,” he wrote home in 1866, “in taking these delicate and almost microscopic animals and putting them under a strong glass, seeing the tiny heart beat, and blood circulate and gills expand, counting the muscles and blood vessels and almost the tiny disks that form the blood and to know that you are the first that has penetrated these mysteries and are perhaps the only one who ever will, and that all your notes and drawings and observations are so much solid knowledge added to the power and grace and beauty of the Infinite.”

POSTED ON 27 Sep 2010 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America 


The near-extinction of large Gyps vultures in India (which I filmed an incomplete documentary film about in 2002/2003) is indeed noteworthy for its huge effect on Indian society.

But to claim a cost to society from the loss of these animals without looking at equivalently assessed benefits of using Diclofenac is just bad economics.

Putting a cost on species and 'ecosystem services' has been fashionable among academics and conservation nonprofits — desperate for sources of extra income — for years now. Most of these efforts are, however, shot through with conceptual errors, and by equating unsubstitutable and irreplaceable species with fungible and 'creatable' cash I feel we're creating more problems (like credibility problems for the environmental movement) than we're solving in the long run.

Most studies show that only a very few species and very select types of ecosystems (e.g. highland forests, because of their value as water providers) actually have more value in conventional economic/financial terms in their so-called natural state than after they have been transformed by humans. Waving these rare examples about doesn't make them any less exceptional.

Trying to use the the language of conventional neoliberal economics to prevent the destruction of wild nature is a dead end — it simply can't accommodate the necessary concepts. Conservationists need a new economics and a new language of economics to get where they need to go.

Posted by Adam Welz on 27 Sep 2010

I share Adam Welz's skepticism about monetizing values that cannot (and should not) be shoehorned into a cash framework, but would just say conservationists don't need a new economics — economists need to start living in the real world. The beginnings of a new language of economics (albeit with shortcomings) are already out there in the guise of ecological economics.

And Mr. Conniff: While I agree with your incredulous reaction to Professor McMahan's well-intentioned but silly thought experiment in last week's NYT, you may wish to reconsider the little cheap shot at the civil service at the end of the paragraph. After all, whether biodiversity survives or not is, to no small degree, going to hinge on whether the "minor nibblers" in government land managing agencies are successful in their efforts to link protected areas with conservation in the wider landscape. (And no, I don't work for the government.)

Posted by Dave Harmon on 27 Sep 2010

As one of the authors of the study cited on vulture declines, I am responding to the comment by Adam Welz.

Diclofenac does indeed have benefits, but other drugs exist (such as meloxicam) that can have similar effects without impacting on vulture populations. In the paper, we do present (albeit in a limited way) the costs of changing drugs and rehabilitating the vulture population at $96 million. This then implies that, for the policy to be viable in cost-benefit terms, willingness to pay for the preservation of the vulture would need to be around $4.79 for middle income Indian families (or 70 cents per year for each of 10 years), not even considering the values of those outside India. These numbers do not seem that large.

(Note: The cost of moving to meloxicam should not be compared to the cost in the article above - as these are the estimated historic impacts of vulture declines, not future benefits of remediating the population - these would be rather small in health terms because of the slow breeding rate of vultures).

Society has limited resources - that's why such costs and benefits need to be measured, where possible, in money terms to make them comparable for policy makers. In our paper, we highlight the direct and indirect effects of vulture declines - in the hope that better controls are placed on the drugs that enter the Indian environment, that efforts are continued to remediate the vulture population, and that the best environmental policy is put in place.

Broadly, I agree that costs and benefits of policy interventions need to be compared and that it is extremely difficult to place a value on the loss of a species. Ecologists and economists need to work closely together on these issues - the complexities require it.

Posted by Tim Taylor on 27 Sep 2010

Ecological microeconomics (such as valuing natural capital and ecosystem services) is a useful exercise in the right context. However, as a conservation biologist who also teaches ecological economics at Virginia Tech, I have concluded that ecological macroeconomics is the key endeavor. Without explicitly recognizing the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, all the microeconomics in the world won’t conserve biodiversity. Rather, getting the prices right will only ensure a more “efficient” pathway of biodiversity decline; a more efficient “allocation” of endangerment and extinction, if you will.

For real conservation to occur, microeconomics has to be complemented with macroeconomic policy reform toward a steady state economy with stabilized human pop. That’s why top ecologists and conservation biologists such as E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki are signing the CASSE position on economic growth, and you can too:


Brian Czech, Ph.D., President
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

Posted by CASSE on 28 Sep 2010

The Asset of Last Resort?

Perhaps an alternative method to protect our eco systems and stop environmental erosion is
simply to replace Gold as the asset of last resort?

Throughout the entire economic downturn of 2008/9 the financial system witnessed a flight to
safety aka 'Gold' as the asset of last resort - why?
Surely it is a decision of society to define 'Value' and whilst gold may have represented the
underpin for pre industrial & High Carbon Economy we should perhaps ask the question differently for a Low Carbon Economy.

Legislation has enabled the creation of Carbon as an asset class in a relatively short period of time. Whilst there are still problems with the process, the politicians and society have evidenced an ability be creative when challenged with a larger risk.

As a markets professional with direct experience of creating a quantitative definition for the Low Carbon Economy I understand that my industry would be more than capable of trading 'Eco Units' if only they existed. It is their existence & the calculation of their 'Value' that is the intellectual, political and regulatory hurdle that needs to be overcome. Taxing pollution is one side of the trade, it is time somebody designed and implemented the other.

Posted by Kevin Bourne on 12 Oct 2010

A chief problem is failure to see the immaturity of our species, and the mistaken presumptions
of religion (special creation rather than evolutionary Product), and free market econ. system (need of regulation so that the greediest will not skim resources for short-sighted advantage; and need to zone planet to prevent extirpation that leads to extermination). Science only alerts to holistic process; economics only rationalizes greed; so the task is to humbly appreciate that the continuing creative synthesis may invent better uses of today's hand-me-downs if we refrain from truncating existing evolutionary accomplishments and potentialities.

Posted by Roland C. Clement on 21 Oct 2010

Biodiversity loss is the biggest problem facing mankind because of the time required for recovery from a mass extinction such as the one man is now causing: about 30 million years give or take ten.

We must place a value on saving all species because the interrelatedness of all is and will remain very poorly understood.

Incorporation of the programs put forth by economists like Herman Daly and others is key to achieving this.

In the end, the only heritage we can leave for the future of this planet is the shape in which we leave it when we too, pass.

Posted by John Roberts on 16 Dec 2010

I would agree with John Roberts comment earlier in the thread and simply add that we might in fact now be entering a sixth great extinction period.

Posted by Rob on 04 Mar 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
richard conniff ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff is a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a National Magazine Award-winning writer, whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic. He is the author of six books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. His latest book, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, will be published this fall. He also writes a blog called The Species Seekers. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the decline of wildlife in Africa and the pursuit of the carbon-neutral building.



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