Which One is the Onion Headline Again?

I admit, maybe because of that intellectual slowdown that the cold weather and dark days call, but I'm confused about which one of these is the real Onion Headline - that thing about the Brookings Institute guy or a BBC headline that reads "World Bank Leads Economic Push on Nature Protection." Really? Seriously? The World Bank? Are we sure this isn't April Fools, not Halloween?

But no, it is serious. Or at least trying to be:

The World Bank has launched a global partnership aimed at helping countries include the costs of destroying nature into their national accounts.

Ten nations will take part in the pilot phase, including India and Colombia.

The bank's president Robert Zoellick said environmental destruction happens partly because governments do not account for the value of nature.

The partnership was launched at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya, Japan.

"We know that human well-being depends on ecosystems and biodiversity," said Mr Zoellick.

"We also know they're degrading at an alarming rate.

"One of the causes is our failure to properly value ecosystems and all they do for us - and the solution therefore lies in taking full account of our ecosystem services when countries make policies."

Norway's Environment Minister Erik Solheim said re-valuing nature in this way would force business practices to change.

"We need to move from a situation where the benefits of ecosystem services are privatised whereas the coasts are socialised," he said.

Now we all know that the one of the deep problems our society faces is the externalization of all environmental costs. At the same time, however, there's something indescribably cynical about the move to put the problem of addressing this into the hands of the World Bank, which has probably done more to encourage nations to degrade their environment in the name of wealth transfer than any other institution.

Were it honestly possible to force nations and corporations to take the costs of their activities onto their balance sheets, that would be great. But somehow I don't think the World Bank is the institution to do it. That's too much like asking McDonalds to take on the project of raising healthy kids.



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There's a fundamental disconnect here. Functioning ecosystems & biodiversity are priceless. They cannot be legitimately valued in economic terms, no more than human lives can be.

Were it honestly possible to force nations and corporations to take the costs of their activities onto their balance sheets, that would be great. But somehow I don't think the World Bank is the institution to do it.

No. It isn't that the World Bank is the wrong institution to attempt such valuation. It's that you simply can't put a price on the priceless. All human economic activity and the value of all goods & services are predicated on functioning ecosystems & biodiversity. Without them there is no economy. Without them humans can't survive. The price of ecosystem health & biodiversity is infinite. They are priceless in their own right, regardless of human estimation of value. It is wrong to degrade ecosystems, wrong to decimate diversity, and wrong & counterproductive to attempt to value them in human economic terms.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

darwinsdog is right in principle, but wrong in practice. Unfortunately, if something is priceless, it has no value. Unless something has a value, it cannot be included in calculating benefit/cost ratios. This is one reason so much environmental damage has been done. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was an attempt to address this for Federal projects. The act basically says all costs and benefits must be considered, not just some. This is where environmental assessment and environmental impact statements were born. There are a lot of projects (I've worked on some) which have not happened, or have been highly modified, because of values put on things which, if treated as priceless, would simply have been ignored.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

The common cry of "I'm right; you're wrong, and I'm not playing your dirty little games" is a common one.

It's always a losing strategy. That's the way to insure that you watch the last bluefin tuna disappear forever; "no, they're priceless, you must not attempt to move their pure spiritual sanctity into the grubby world of commerce!" - is a guarantee of no agreements, no protection, no safeguards; just endless meetings, while the thieves continue to profit.

Really, we'd all benefit from just insisting that the World Bank does not exist. Not in my world. That would be such an improvement.

By ranklebiter (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

..if something is priceless, it has no value.

That's ridiculous. If something is priceless its value is infinite. Placing a finite price on something of infinite value is impossible. If it is attempted, the priceless will necessarily be devalued and subsumed under some human economic paradigm. This has things backwards, human economic systems are subsets of ecosystems and biodiversity, not the other way around. You may be pragmatic and arguing from a 'how things are not how they ought to be' perspective, Jim, but a pragmatic approach to this issue is futile and accomplishes no good. If things of infinite value are arbitrarily given finite values within the confines of some human economic system, they will be bought & sold, exploited and destroyed. When ecosystem function, biodiversity, human lives, and other things of infinite value are commodified, that's when they are seen as having little or no value and thus can be destroyed at little or no cost. The first step towards destroying something is to devalue it. Wilderness becomes a "wasteland," the "enemy" becomes dehumanized. We must change our thinking. We must see ecosystems, biodiversity and other peoples' lives as priceless, in the sense that no value can be obtained by destroying them equal to the value retained by their preservation.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

DD's comments are constantly critical and come from a biological perspective, with no regard whatever for economics. But I don't notice him offering anything constructive: how shall we restructure the world to take account of these "infinite" values of which he speaks?

This seemes too often to be the case with environmentalists. But valuing environmental services gives us a way to force economic actors to take them into account. Aldo Leopold once wrote (back in 1923) "A false front of exclusively economic determinism is so habitual...in discussing public questions that one must speak in the language of compound interest to get a hearing." And this is even more true in today's world of conservatives and financiers who bow in worship before the Gods of "free markets" (free only to enhance corporate profits, that is).

By putting a price on pollution, carbon, ecosystem services, by treating them as other inputs into the production process, we force firms and consumers to explicitly consider the true environmental costs of their decisions. For example, by explicitly valuing the various external effects of using gasoline, the producers would have to sell their gasoline at a market price of say $10 or $12 per gallon. Consumers would be much, much more inclined to carpool, leave the second car at home, buy really fuel-efficient cars (which the auto companies would see a really profitable to produce), live closer to work and pedal their bikes, etc.

By using cap and trade to control carbon emissions, an explicit price would wind up being assigned to carbon emissions (a price not set arbitrarily by government but by the cap on carbon emissions) thus forcing firms to take the cost of their emissions into account as a costly production input; thus they would try economize on this input. This technique has worked exceedingly well with sulfur oxide emissions (it was put into place under Bush One).

Economic incentives when misaligned can cause great problems; but when proper incentives are put into place, they can greatly ameliorate the same problems. Economics should not be simply criticized, neither should it be simply worshipped (a la Ayn Rand). Economic ideas can be used for both evil and for good.

Will this approach deal with the problem of increasing scarcity of oil, water and land? Are these ideas even practically (politically) doable? Well those are different questions altogether. But I'm not going to hold my breath that in this age of economic ignorance any politician is going to propose anything that's really sensible.

Dennis: "This seemes too often to be the case with environmentalists. "

That's the only line in your comment I have problems with. PLEASE don't lump actual hardworking environmentalists; bent on actually making a difference in this world, with the fringe wackos. That path leads only to blindness.

I guarantee you the tentative, deeply flawed agreement hammered out in Nagoya is absolutely the product of "environmentalists" - struggling find a way forward in this world. Which they will be the first to point out, includes money, jobs, business, and people.

Please do filter the media with some rational analysis; of course they report the rabid- it sells more papers, as they used to say. They just have no fun reporting "The meeting was calm, sincere, and rational and passionate."

By ranklebiter (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

I agree it is not effective to use an infinity when trying to assign value to something, and I agree that some value must be placed on the environment in order to motivate protecting it. My fear comes from letting the World Bank or any other financial edifice or collection of commercial interests perform the valuation.

The shortsightedness of the money institutions has been epic, and there is exactly zero reason to expect them to become enlightened in the future. We invariably run into problems such as having to pay Halliburton (actually, I don't understand why not some other company) for help cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and we come to find out a measure of the cause of the disaster was defective concrete supplied by Halliburton. WTF?

I know we will get massive resistance from corporate-controlled institutions and their political toadies, but the solution is actually straightforward. I think nobody could reasonably argue that we should not calculate value in discussions of environmental usage. What we desperately need, before it's too late, is to employ experts to do this work, environmental and economic scientists, and we need to disaffiliate them as much as possible -- something like how the IAEC operates. Furthermore, the determinations will require enforcement.

Probably it's wishful thinking; the corporate interests are trick-or-treating 24/7/365, and no one can afford to keep up.

By ereador - the … (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

DD's comments are constantly critical and come from a biological perspective, with no regard whatever for economics.

That is correct. We are biological organisms wholly dependent on the functioning of the ecosystems that support us. Without these ecosystems there is no food, no potable water, no oxygen. Human artifacts, such as economic systems, are trivial given these realities. Humans utterly immersed in culture - another arbitrary artifact - are so divorced from the physical & biological realities of the world they are a part of, as to have become quite literally insane. Insanity is the only explanation for the superstitious or fetishistic zeal in which posters embrace the commodification of nature. Btw, Leopold's comment was sarcastic, in case you missed that.

Marx wrote:

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

What other commentors on this thread do, is focus exclusively on the "value relation," on the "fantastic form," that commodification imposes on things, rather than on the "physical things" themselves. Marx called this propensity "commodity fetishism." The symbolic attribution, the commodity "value" artificially imposed (and imposed by whom, I might add?) is not what's important. What's important are the physical things themselves, and the relations between them. The relations between biotic components of ecosystems, and the abiotic resources that sustain them, is the subject matter of ecology, not of the arbitrary pseudoscience of economics. Lacking a grounding in physical reality, in biology & ecology, these creatures of culture can't help but reify, to hypostasize, to commodify. This tendency is the result of alienation from nature. When human beings are commodified, they become nothing more than consumers, producers, slaves. Their only value is in terms of what they can consume and the labor they can supply. When fisheries or forest ecosystems, etc., are commodified, their only value lies in whatever short term "benefit" their being destroyed may provide, even though their destruction brings about the collapse of the very culture that commodifies them. The collapse of culture itself becomes an "externality." This is madness. If it isn't recognized as madness this failure of recognition is a reflection on the full extent of alienation those blinded & driven mad by immersion in an insane culture have suffered. The acculturated & estranged argue, with an air & pretext of level-headedness, that only by commodifying nature within an economic system, may some vestige of nature be conserved. I argue instead that it is this very inculcated inclination to commodify that ravages ecosystems and biodiversity, and leads in large measure to the destruction of cultures that make a fetish of things that are truly priceless.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

That's all well and good, but how does that stop or modify a project which will destroy an ecosystem? Can you give an example of where this approach has been successful?

US Army Corps of Engineers Districts have an Environmental Section which is staffed with biologists of various backgrounds. They are a first line of environmental defense, backed up by biologists in US Fish and Wildlife, US Biological Survey, and state conservation agencies. If you are Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, etc. these are the people you talk to (as well as writing your congressperson) about particular environmental concerns.

As a first stem I'd like to stop us doing things which cost us more than they are worth on the face of it.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

..but how does that stop or modify a project which will destroy an ecosystem?

It doesn't. If there is short term profit to be made, prospects of ecosystem & cultural collapse are lost on alienated, shortsighted humans. A hamburger today is more compelling than the specter of famine next Tuesday. There is a 15-fold overburden of humans infesting the biosphere and this overburden, and then some, is soon going to be eliminated. This fact is unfortunate but inevitable. Attempts to assuage this reality are noble yet futile, and any such attempts risk the very co-option the biologists you mention as having sold out to the Corp of Engineers and other agencies of ecosystem destruction, have sustained. Populations that exceed the carrying capacity of their environments do collapse and the greater they exceed K the harder they collapse. The global collapse of human population threatens extinction. This is a dynamic that will be worked out, regardless of what we, individually & collectively, decide to do. I am not against fighting the good fight, of making a valiant stand against impossible odds, and all that. But I personally don't intend to get all caught up in trying to stick band-aids on hemorrhages. What I'm saying is that those drawn to such David vs. Goliath endeavors need to know what they're up against and that the commodification of nature is not going to yield the results hoped for but will contend against those results, rather. What I inveigle against here is the hubris of those who assume the role of pragmatist but only within the narrow confines of a cultural & economic paradigm that by its very nature, defeats their very purpose at the outset.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

I learned doing scientific software - if you want something to improve, measure it. You don't really have to apply any corrective action - just measure what you want to improve. The visibility and attention from above creates it's own incentive, and stimulates peer pressure to improve things.

@ darwinsdog,

I was into horses for a time. I found that if you have a treasured animal, and a friend that can't afford an expensive horse - do *not* give the horse, nor sell it for $10 or $20 bucks. Your treasure will receive the feed, vet care, and attention of a free, or $10 or $20 horse. If the friend can afford to feed and care for a horse in a responsible manner, then saving or arranging finance for a sound, healthy, sane animal will be doable - and both will be better off.

The World Bank's scheme might have it's benefits, and I totally agree that the World Bank and the scheming manipulators that work with it are unlikely to be ethical, honest, honorable, or even law abiding. They likely held their announcement until all the key players had worked out a workaround, so the plan doesn't cost them much or hinder their actions.

But, there still could be improvements down the road.

You know what has hindered the horse market in recent years? Closing the slaughter houses. Now there is no economical way to take care of extra animals, nor those that are unsound or otherwise dangerous to have - that often end up neglected in some "rescuer"s back yard. While horse meat isn't currently on many American tables, as it has in the past, there used to be a thriving export market.

So now horses eat their value in feed - and more get neglected.

Stop breeding them? Most of the problems come from backyard, amateur herds, and result in a disproportionate number of undesired horses. No slaughtering, means more are neglected - and breeding.

I noticed that gun activists have hampered hunting here in Oklahoma. I see deaths on the road from impacts with deer are up, sharply, this year.

My point? Often the "right thing to do" isn't as obvious as the helpful wish to believe.

The Kalcan pet food cannery in my hometown used to pay $400 for any horse that could stand on its hooves, Brad. Has this changed? In the late 1980s, around the time of the Yellowstone fires, the Navajo Rez was so dry and overgrazed that there was a mass roundup of wormy, swaybacked nags, many of whom couldn't be given away, let alone sold at any price. I had the idea at the time of buying up this stock for a pittance, renting stock hauling semis & shipping many of these horses back for dog meat. Fortunately, I had neither the heart or capital to carry thru with this plan. From your post I take it that the time for any such plan to be successful has came & went. Ah well, the time for many plans to have been successful is past. Back in the '70s I had a tee-shirt with a rainbow background that read "Dawn of the Solar Age." These days I'm obliged to discredit the tired old dream of fission powered energy independence on these technocopian venues. I wonder why I even bother. Those backyard breeders won't supply any useful saddle, carriage or draft stock, but at least they'll have something to eat, no?

What the World Bank is up to is the legitimization, in the eyes of fools, of the commodification of nature. Once public consensus for this commodification has been manipulated, ecosystems and biodiversity can be auctioned off to the highest bidder by gangster governments worldwide. One might think that power elites would refrain from the final devastation of wild nature out of consideration for the well being of their own descendants. These power elites aren't stupid, after all. The reason they have no consideration for their own descendants is that they understand that their progeny have no future. Knowing this, their sole intent is to plunder everything they can for the sake of their own short term enrichment. Once they are dead they will neither know or care what the consequence of their greed shall be. They aren't religious and have no fear of some kind of supernatural retribution. The aim of the World Bank and other such institutions is quite simply to grab all they can of the world's resource wealth while they are still able, with no regard whatsoever for the health of ecosystems or survival of subsequent generations, since they know full well that ecosystems are already bound to collapse and subsequent generations to perish. The sad thing revealed today is that well meaning so-called "environmentalists" are all too willing to buy into the machinations of power elites who have no consideration for anything but the maintenance of their own short term influence & wealth.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

Yo Darwinsdog, that's pretty harsh. A good start, in other words. I have no idea what the World bank is up to here, but I'll agree that they're not stupid, and that they (and most of the rest of us) are insane. Insofar as anyone here in the West thinks about it at all, in our minds Nature has already been commodified. Witness environmentalists saying that Nature should be brought onto national & corporate balance sheets. Denominated in what currency? Dollars? Rubles? This is insanity. Repeat after me: "Money has no intrinsic value." What price are you willing to pay for your next breath? We are nature. When we destroy nature we destroy ourselves. I think Derrick Jensen is all kinds of wrong about many things, but he is right about one thing; putting a price on something is the first step to destroying it.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

In large degree, I agree with Darwinsdog - and also with those who point out that the identification of something as priceless fundamentally translates in this world to "valueless" unless the infrastructure exists to back it up. The problem is that one Mona Lisa is priceless, four Mona Lisa's are just fancy toilet paper - and ecosystems are all around us.

We started destroying things long before we put a formal price on them - I neither buy the tragedy of the commons argument nor the idea that placing value on biological systems will make it more likely we destroy them - I doubt, handled as we're doing it, it will make much difference at all. What's most likely to be the outcome is that cronyism and lack of enforcement and other things getting the way means pilot programs will probably be abandoned, or any actual programs will be gutted and stripped.

That said, however, raising the price for things can be effective. Raising the price for tobacco does help people quit. Raising the price for a DUI from "hey, buddy, next time get a ride" to "automatic loss of license and time in jail" does make people think twice. Of course, it also makes people find ways not to get caught, but if the easiest of those is to alter the behavior, that sometimes works. DD is certainly right that the putting of prices on things has a cost, but it also has potential rewards - not sufficient rewards to fix everything, but there are arguments worth thinking about here.

Good conversation.