Monday, February 20, 2012

Variations on a Theme: Valuation without Markets?

This recent post by Sally Collins on "Value Beyond Markets" at the Ecosystem Commons is concise and articulate and all that, but is also the latest version of a very long discussion.  The discussion goes like this:  "Given the limits of markets, how do we find the true value of ecosystems?"

The problem with this framing is that "value" itself is always understood to be a single, transcendental thing that market prices capture imperfectly.  This is not the case -- or if it were, we should all be Platonists.  Do we really think there's some substance out there called "value" that we perceive imperfectly?  Is it like flubber, ooblick, phlogiston or gravity? (oops, sorry there theoretical physicists!)  The time in which we posited inscrutible "essences" in order to explain things we didn't understand is for the most part over -- gravity is one of the last holdouts.  This, indeed, is the point of the Baconian tradition in science.

The second problem is that for the most part, even if there were a non-market essential value, people tend to elide immediately back into talking about dollars.  Thus we get discussions about "greening national accounts" or providing inputs into a Cost-Benefit Analysis -- neither of which necessarily involves market exchange -- as the main framework for discussing "non-market values".

Let me go waaaaay outside the box for a second and riff on a talk on an entirely unrelated topic by my friend and fellow referee Martin Foys, a medievalist at Drew University and designer of the Digital Mappaemundi environment for annotating documents (like maps) online.  He came to Kentucky last Friday and talked about how most people approach the digitization of medieval maps as a process of rectifying "inaccurate" hand-drawn maps onto an "accurate" modern graticule defined by the grid of latitude and longitude.  Sure, he says, this can be done.  But it is in a sense perverse, because it reduces the richness and complexity of the medieval map into a matter of an error term relative to a modern understanding of "location" that is assumed to be so correct that challenging it indicates some kind of mental deficiency.

Martin argued that we can still digitize the information on these maps without violating their own sense of location and perspective -- that is, without stretching and bending them to fit onto a modern grid.  The kind of "inaccuracies" present in a Ptolemaic map (to take a classical example) are themselves indicative of a different logic of locating one's self in the world, and as Martin said many of the medieval maps are basically cognitive maps.

By the same token, the question of how to value nature could be taken as one of how to rectify the awkwardly idiosyncratic and sloppy world of nature onto the coordinates of the money form.  And this assumption underlies both the discussion of how to value nature in markets AND how to value it "beyond" markets but in dollars.  What would it look like to be descriptive rather than to rectify relative to a money standard?  So yes, we could look at the "Mons Ardens" drawn on medieval maps and say "well, it's too big and not quite in the right place, and uses totally nonstandard symbology".  And then we could try to express information about it in coordinates.  What does that lose?

We can also look at a forest and say "well, there a lot of unknowns about nutrient processing and biodiversity here".  And then we could try to express information about it in dollars.  What does that lose?  What it gains is clear: calculability.

Sure, as Sally says, "the critique is easy".   But Martin's example goes beyond the critique by developing a web-based system for taking data while not imposing an inappropriate grid. What would it look like to try to use this approach to getting information about nature without forcing that information into a form that may or may not be appropriate?  This approach is less "calculable", sure, but in allowing incompatible formats to live together and inform discussion you open up a wider debate. 

I submit that the problem is not the multiplicity of Values, and the lack of any transcendental value that is not social.  The problem is that we want to calculate values and come up with a number.  But there are ways to move forward without doing so.


  1. Hello...
    You said there are ways to calculate values without putting them in numbers. But we rely on numbers to compare the relative importance of resources. Money(dollar) values are most generally used numbers in such comparisons. Other than this, do we have any other means to value the natural resources and their services without putting them in numbers to make better argument of their relative importance? just curious to know!

  2. Well, it depends what you mean by "value". Value, I think, is that quality which allows comparison between objects. That thing about an object (weight, price, labor) which allows you to compare it to another object. I realize this is not the standard definition, and it is very general, but I don't think it can be dismissed. In my example above, Martin's work allows the qualitative comparison of objects that cannot fit into a common quantitative frame of reference without losing something important about them.

    When you say "do we have any other means to value the natural resources and their services" -- the answer is "of course!" There are an infinity of qualitative and quantitative ways. They lack economics claims to objectivity, and they cannot be calculated together quantitatively. And I agree that putting things in numeric form increases our ability to make successful arguments against resource loss in some cases. My point is that we are sacrificing immense amounts of meaning and value in the environment as we limit ourselves to values that are calculable, such as dollars (or weight or volume or any other numerically-based values).

    We can't pretend that the world doesn't prioritize numerically-expressed values. That would be pollyanna-ish of me. But this is exactly why I note Martin's work with interest: it is clearly successful at what it does, and it refuses the call to express itself in numbers. Something to hope for.