Friday, September 30, 2011

Wilderness vs. Ecosystem Services

Finally read an article in Science by Peter Karieva et al. from 2007 that I'd had in the docket for a long time. It's a big-time Science-y agenda-setting piece. That is, being in Science, it shapes the debate and defines what constitute appropriate questions and appropriate boundary conditions in the world of Ecosystem Services.  And in that respect it’s a bit disturbing.  Karieva et al begin from the assumption that the world is “domesticated”, that is, that there is no wilderness unaffected by humans – in fact, they come right out and invite us to accept this as an axiom: “If one accepts that virtually all of nature is now domesticated…”.  They do not really defend this assertion, but hey move on to say that, being domesticated, it would be irresponsible of us not to manage global ecosystems as if they were composed of services.  That is, if the world is at the service of humans already, managing it as a bundle of services is merely the ecologically responsible thing to do.  Ergo, wilderness advocates and deep greenies are not only defending a nonexistent world, but harming the real one.

Here’s what gets me.  Karieva and his coauthors are late to the party of “there’s no such thing as wilderness” -- it’s depressing (but predictable) that they do not cite the geographers who have been working this seam for a few decades, including Bill Denevan (“The Pristine Myth”), Tom Vale and Bill Cronon.  Denevan was arguing that much of what Euro-Americans have conceived of as wilderness was profoundly shaped by large and active native populations, and that the landscape of even our National Parks is anthropogenic.  Fine.  What do we do with that? 

A) “It’s all fake!  Tear it down!  Kill it with fire!  Preservationists are all deluded! Management regimes must not be based on non-human goals!”

This is the rather postmodern interpretation encouraged by, among others, the Georgia-Pacific timber company, who used Denevan’s work to argue that their forestry techniques were morally equivalent to native uses of the landscape.

Notice the Manichean worldview.  If the world is divided into Pristine Wild and Fallen Human Landscapes, and we discover that there is no Pristine Wild landscape, then all landscapes must be contaminated, human, and fallen.  Domesticated. This view retains the Wild/Fallen dichotomy, and is a view shared by Karieva et al.: if there is no Wilderness, then nature is best understood in terms of human uses and welfare.  Wilderness, or its absence, structures this view, and is best understood as a kind of aporetic presence. (In the Derridean sense.  I know, sorry).   What that means is that the coherence of Karieva’s argument still depends on the power and coherence of the concept of Wilderness.  Its absence is present.

The problem is this isn't at all what Cronon and Denevan meant.  They meant that the pervasiveness of human influence should make us question the concept of wilderness, not that we should declare a previously-existing Eden "gone".  If non-economic approaches to nature are welded to the concept of wilderness, it's a trap -- springing it simply involves showing that humans have some impact on a given tract of land. So how about this instead?

B) “The absence of unaltered non-human landscapes should make us question the very taxonomy that we had previously used to describe nature.  The Wild/Human dichotomy actually makes no sense, so let’s get down to what really matters: what are ecologically and socially sound practices?”

Yeah, this is harder.  But it’s actually what Denevan and Vale and Cronon have been trying to say for 20 years.  It leaves open the possibility that the goodness of treating the world as composed of “services” is (as it should be) an open question to be answered on a case-by-case basis.  As long as Karieva et al. cordon off possible objections to this into the now-nonexistent realm of “wilderness advocacy”, there is no voice for them.

What it comes down to is this.  As always, the act of seeing the world as a set of economically valuable services, or the world as domesticated, is an achievement that has to be constantly reiterated through arguments (most effectively, through high-profile ones in Science).  It must not be assumed away as a boundary condition for debate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Is the term "markets" useful?

Interesting soapbox going on over at Ecosystem Commons... the proposal is that the term "markets" might be too limiting (or misleading? or incomplete?) to describe what is actually happening in ecosystem services policy.  I think the easy answer is "yes", but that doesn't get at why the term "markets" is so irresistible to policymakers.  My response below:

Agreed -- the concept of “market-based” policy is becoming applied with so broad a brush that it threatens to mean nothing, similar to the argument about “ecosystem services” themselves.  So you get the strict economists like Jim Boyd and Bob Costanza meaning very specific and measurable things when they talk about “services”, and then you get the Millennium Assessment accused of kitchen-sinkery by same.  I’ve always found it faintly absurd that programs like South Africa’s or Australia’s are trumpeted as “market-based!” when in fact they establish a government monopsony (single-buyer market) transacting only as many credits as the state-defined environmental goals called for.  If this isn’t Keynesian demand-management, I don’t know what is!  Even in the archetypal US wetland compensation example, supply and demand are entirely determined by the state: the Corps both certifies credits for sale, and requires their purchase on the part of permittees.

None of this is a surprise to the environmental economists who envisaged this – and most of their intellectual descendents protest vigorously that regulatory markets were never meant to be actual markets, and that state policy was always understood to be an imperfect surrogate for individual utility.  So the vernacular use of “market” seems to signify a policy arrangement that involves some element of negotiation over cost: either the Australian farmer negotiates a bid price for performing state-directed ecosystem mitigation, or the Clean Water Act 404 permittee negotiates a price with a wetland banker.  But these moments occur within an architecture of state-directed policy -- there is always a lack of "hunger" as Kelly Haggar says above. and this was foreseen by the inventors of the approach.

I’m actually ok with this vernacular.  The purist alternative is that there would be no such thing as a market-based environmental policy, and I don’t think that’s a useful position to hold.  A middle-ground might be to adopt something like a tripartite distinction between a) payments that are explicitly a form of subsidy or government aid, b) reverse auctions involving a government (or other) monopsony, and c) market-like situations where many buyers and sellers meet, albeit often under government compulsion.  There is no d) actual real live markets.  Esteve Corbera has written a ton of useful stuff on the PES/CES/MES distinction.

Very good point above by Kelly: the very unsettled debate about the boundaries/definition of the commodity itself prevents the kind of perfect-information conditions of the ideal market from existing.  The challenge of measurement is paramount, and I think paradoxical (I've written elsewhere that the more precise ecological measures we use, the greater the challenge of actual fungibility in an actual market).  Not to caricature Kelly's point, however, but I’m not sure a purist approach is best here (that is, “because the commodity isn’t transparently understood by all members of the transaction, true markets will not arise”).  Big macs and 747s are understood by many, but the existence of advertising has always suggested that information is never perfect.   My gut says Kelly is right, but the facts on the ground suggest that people have historically laid out substantial sums of money for very nebulous objects.   Derivatives, mortgage-backed securities, “land in Florida”, property in Second Life.  And carbon isn’t such a great counter-example in some ways – sure, end-of-stack measurements can be quantified easily, but sequestration in a reforestation CDM is as hard-to-measure and contingent as any ecosystem service.

I think there's always going to be a tension between professional and academic economists, on the one hand, and policymakers, on the other.  Economists are trained to use the term "market" (and all other terms of art) with precision, while policymakers will want to utilize the real political cachet of the term "market". This isn't really a productive debate: lack of adherence to strict economic principles will not keep the term from being used -- we can't herd the term back into its corseted textbook definition.  So yeah, I'd rather see a wider definition, yet one that stops short of "everything".

Monday, September 26, 2011

There are wetlands in the sky. No, really.

Yes, yes, it’s a blog called “Wetlandia” and I haven’t talked about wetlands yet.  Settle down.

I’m reading a book called “The Wild Trees” by Robert Preston – a sort of pop-ecology book of the kind that often annoys me because the narratives are almost always preachy and they’re usually populated by smug and affluent wearers of fleece and tevas.  The first 2/3 of the book is no exception: the author traces the masculinist journeys of a set of boys (and only a few girls), outcasts and creative thinkers, overeducated children of privilege, who want to see what’s up in the redwood canopy 350 feet off the ground.  This collection of people is appealingly odd, but when I say masculinist I mean in the way that so much of what passes for countercultural behavior and eco-political activism has an incredibly male tone.  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitare was populated by a bunch of boys acting very male.  The guys in Preston’s book are Peter Pans in the trees – the two main characters are, in particular, come across (at least initially) as very tiresome men-children, although I suspect Preston overplays them in this regard.  The redwood canopy is an awesome place.  Using it as the backdrop for nerdboys to bed their beautiful research assistants makes it a less awesome place.  But I get it -- you have to humanize the topic.

But this is not a book review.  What really made me sit up is that about 2/3 of the way through the book, the author gets around to describing the hydrology of the redwood canopy.  Now, keep in mind that these are the tallest trees in the world, and the largest organisms that aren’t landscape-sized fungi.  The meat of the book revolves around the notion that canopy space is a vast ocean above us (to use Rachel Carson’s analogy of the atmosphere), and that it’s full of different ecosystems, different species and different habitats.  And it is never, never, visited by people.  In fact, entirely new climbing techniques have had to be invented just to transport the handful of people who’ve ever bothered to try.  And this: redwood trees often have large boles or crotches in their canopy where the central leader dies and the crown sprouts around it, creating a kind of basin 300 feet in the air.  Big ones, the size of small meadows.  These can fill up with soil several feet thick, with hydrophytic plants, and provide habitat for permanent communities of salamanders and other aquatic species.  A-ha.

So what it comes down to is this.  There are wetlands in the rainforest canopy.  Wetlands with permanently saturated soils.  Wetlands that meet all of the criteria laid down in the 1987 manual, the 1989 manual and probably even the crap 1991 manual.  Until the SWANCC decision of 2001, hell, they were probably jurisdictional wetlands in the air!  And if the current draft EPA/Corps guidance on establishing jurisdiction by finding a nexus between a wetland and a navigable river can be applied in just the right way, they may still be jurisdictional (and therefore protected by the Clean Water Act’s Section 404 permit program).  Some of these trees are rooted in floodplains, and so the wetlands are connected to navigable waters by the tree itself -- are they "neighboring" in EPA/Corps' sense?  Should the list of (a)(3) "other waters" be amended to include airborne wetlands? Of course, they might fall under the silviculture exemption, and it’s hard to imagine how you might trigger a 404 permit by dredging or filling in the upper redwood canopy.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that we can look up to see the bottom of a wetland.

For a wetland regulator, this is somewhat mindblowing.  The stats that Preston presents are impressive, and he seems to have consulted with some good hydrologists.  A hectare of canopy can hold thousands of liters of water, and take an immensely long time to both dry out and recharge.  The canopy does not only hold water (yeah, that’s just “canopy interception” to a mass-balance hydrology equation), it holds them in wetland ecosystems.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Water Quality Trading to scale WAY up

I listened in on a webinar last week that laid out a possible future for water quality trading.  The problem for WQT is that no one has "gone big" so most people have gone home -- whereas carbon credits can be traded worldwide, and wetland/habitat credits usually are traded within a service area that is large enough to support a market, no one really knows how big a market area for water quality credits CAN be, to provide ecological benefits, or HAS to be, to survive economically.

The Ohio River Basin Trading Project wants to find out.  Previous WQT projects have spun up where farmers generate water quality improvements that are quantified as credits, then sold to downstream end-of-pipe polluters (usually sewage treatment works) who exceed their permit limitations.  But the watersheds involved are typically very small -- the Greater Miami in Ohio, the South Nation in Ontario, etc.  Escape velocity and market thickness have never been achieved -- failure to thrive, failure to launch, whatever you want to call it.  WQT has always sputtered. The Ohio River Project is happening on the scale of the entire Ohio River basin, all the way from Pittsburgh, PA to Cairo, IL, and is getting everyone in the same room to figure out what kind of rules and conversations might be needed to allow a farmer in Ohio to sell credits to a power plant (say) in Indiana.

Can we avoid pollutant hotspots?  What differences from other environmental markets may exist because rivers flow directionally and carry pollutants only within their watersheds?  We just don't know. But we might in a few years.  Very interesting!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ecosystem Services in the NY Times

It's right to start this blog with a consideration of Gretchen Daily, surely one of the most forceful and admirable advocates for the Ecosystem Services approach in policy today. She was featured last month in a NYTimes writeup that served to introduce readers to her work and the concept of ecosystem services. I don't really have an issue with Daily's work as it's presented, but rather the journalistic framing. I wrote the following up as a letter to the editor that I never sent, because I decided to start a blog instead.

While Dr. Daily’s work, and the work of the Natural Capital group, has been pathbreaking, it is not the only path. The “ecosystem services” approach is presented in a slightly cartoonish, Goldilocks fashion as the rational middle ground between a kooky deep green environmentalism on the one hand and rapacious economic exploitation on the other.

We know how this drama plays out. The piece casts Dr. Daily on a too-familiar stage: on the one hand, “nature’s intrinsic worth,” and on the other, the blinkered but practical and “anthropocentric” calculus of economic worth. Maintaining the mutual irreconcilability of these approaches has been very convenient for both economics and environmentalists, and its invocation is a kind of ritual. As long as nature’s true wealth is “vast, immeasurable,” economists are allowed to ignore it or honor it in the breach – it appears on stage only to be quickly shuffled off.

Likewise, deep green environmentalists are allowed to forego calculation at all, having ceded the entire exercise of quantifying value to economists. The two views simply talk past one another, and the common conceptualization of ecosystem services does nothing to change this. The profound barrier between what Dr. Daily describes a nature’s “own realm” and the realm of “current decisions” must be overcome.

If we must render values equivalent through money it should be in the service of the larger goal of establishing decision frameworks where no values are illegible. Ecosystem services policy can either aim to find money equivalences for more and more elements of nature, or it can lay bare the limits of economic calculus by addressing the values of that vast, immeasurable country beyond.