My two hands, I mean cents, on Monbiot’s anti-valuation rant

I am happy to say that James Delingpole and George Monbiot make my toes cringe in equal measure (don’t you think they even look alike?). Whether it’s about the leftist conspiracy to strangle the economy with cap-and-trade or the neoliberal commodification of our athmosphere by cap-and-trade, I always find it difficult to reach the end of their writings with the same blood pressure as when I started reading them.

This time it’s Monbiot who writes yet another econophobic rant against Payments for Ecosystem Services: pricing nature is wrong, PES is just a slippery slope towards privatisation of nature, without markets we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, blah blah blah.

Tim Worstall writes a rebuttal of Monbiot’s piece in The Telegraph (indeed, Delingpole’s home newspaper) where he makes two major points:

  1. If we didn’t try to estimate the value of nature in monetary terms, it would be priceless, which in today’s world means worthless (and hence, defenceless);
  2. It’s not the establishment of property rights, but their absence that is driving overexploitation of natural resources. Monbiot’s rejection of private property rights takes us back to the days when nature was a free-for-all, with all the depletion and extinctions that come with it.

Worstall’s second point is very valid, and I’m glad somebody is making it (although I doubt it convinces George “markets are evil and governments are saints” Monbiot). His first point, however, raises two question marks, making me feel somewhat like the proverbial two-handed economist.

On my left hand, I admit (albeit grudgingly) that Monbiot has a point: there are more reasons to preserve nature than just its contribution to the economy. It’s the classical dichotomy between utilitarian and deontological ethics: Worstall uses utilitarian arguments (show how important nature is and people will more likely preserve it), whereas Monbiot argues that it is simply morally right to preserve nature, because it has a value in itself regardless of how highly humans value it.

On my right hand (call it my Delingpole hand if you like), arguments like Worstall’s first point make me suspicious. Too much research in this matter is being done to “raise awareness”, “wake up the politicians”, or something like that. It makes for terrible, politically biased science that accepts any wild guess as long as it gives a big number. People still seem to believe the global ecosystem is worth $33 trillion, although any serious economist can tell you that this number as well as the method used to arrive at it (and, indeed, the sheer idea of calculating a total value of the entire ecosystem) is nonsensical: economist Michael Toman called it “a serious underestimate of infinity.” Moreover, when you price nature you should be aware that it may turn out not to be that valuable: perhaps it is still sensible to cut that forest and build a hospital instead. This is of course the outcome that folks like Monbiot dread; on the other hand, the folks who use the “raise awareness” argument gloss over it, or worse.

The bottom line is that economic valuation of ecosystem services is best done in the context of a concrete, well-defined policy question. Pricing nature improves that decision-making by making values visible that would otherwise be ignored, in a way that makes them comparable to goods and services that do have a market price. Prices can never tell the entire story (this is where I agree with Monbiot), but it is a laudable goal to make the cost-benefit analysis as complete as possible (which is where I agree with Worstall). But whatever you do, “raising awareness” is just about the worst reason to do it.

One thought on “My two hands, I mean cents, on Monbiot’s anti-valuation rant

  1. We've already had this discussion so we both know that we agree on a lot of the aspects of this topic.

    Although I would prefer it if it wasn't, I still think “raising awareness” is necessary. There are plenty of industry lobbyists “raising awareness” to shift governments away from environmentalism by doing their own “terrible, politically based science”. Can't some people fight fire with fire? And hope that some sort of optimality results?

    Let's face it, the best science isn't always the best way to affect positive change…



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