Ecological economics

Ecosystem services are valuable

Ecosystem services are enormously valuable (see Reference [7]), yet they are not counted in our economy. The largest reason for omitting ecosystem services is that they are generally gotten for free, so they have no explicit market value—even though it would cost users a great deal to develop and deploy these services using technology rather than nature. The science of ecological economics is based on estimations of the costs of technological replacements for natural services.

Ecosystem services, and proper functioning of the ecosystems that provide them, are dependent on uninterrupted space in which ecological processes can occur. We propose that a first step in bringing ecosystem services into the economy is to bring open space into the economy, A first step in bringing ecosystem services into the economy is to bring open space into the economy.and to give space specific market value. For reasons explained elswhere on this web site (jump ahead to here if you want a preview), the introduction of space into the marketplace demands that it be measured in the right way—and it turns out that measuring space as area is not the right way.1

Our dependence on ecosystem services

We all depend on natural resources. The old—and now obsolete—understanding of this principle was that we need things from the earth that make industry and industrial products possible:

  • coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium ore for energy
  • ores for metals
  • salt, sulfur, potash, and other things for chemicals and fertilizers
  • wood for homes and other buildings

as well as fertile land for agriculture and water for several purposes:

  • growing food
  • drinking and other domestic use
  • industrial processing.

The understanding of our dependence on natural resources underwent a profound change in the second half of the 20th century. We now understand that human well-being depends on a host of interacting natural resources; in short, it depends on ecological systems. Probably the most important contribution of the widespread recognition of ecosystem services is that it reframes the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
—— Costanza et al., 2014 [7]
Ecosystems operate within the landscapes and climates in which they are embedded. All living ecosystem components—and some non-living ones, such as streams2—adapted to pre-human conditions or low density human populations, and they are now challenged by human induced changes. There are many places where ecosystems no longer function properly; buffeted and constrained by human perturbations, they now are maladapted, and the same forces that adapted them to earlier conditions are now operating to bring about a new dynamic balance; this balance often looks quite different from the earlier balance, and most often it has lower biological diversity and resilience, which means that the new balance is actually less stable than the old balance. Thus, future ecosystem services are becoming less stable and predictable.

What have we lost3? Confidence in the future availability of:

  • Clean water
  • Natural control of water flow and sediment movement
  • Food production (loss of soil or fertility; loss of water or precipitation)
  • Pollinators for crops
  • Diversity of plants and animals
  • Recreation opportunities (deforestation etc.)

Space for ecosystems

What is often overlooked is that ecosystems need uninterrupted space in which to operate. This is not just area, for reasons explained elsewhere; space means uninterrupted freedom of movement in all directions. This gives streams room to gather their tributaries, plants to attempt to expand their ranges through root extension or seed dispersal, and animals to wander without isolation from their potential mates or from all of their potential sources of food and shelter.

Space is relatively easy to bring into the financial realm so that economic incentives and disincentives can be brought to bear on the utilization and loss of space, using free markets to do the work.The preservation of space is, therefore, a central ingredient in protecting ecosystems. Space is, in a sense, a “metaservice”—a service that is essential to the operation of other services. And, as the work of illustrates, it is relatively easy to bring space into the financial realm so that economic incentives and disincentives can be brought to bear on the utilization and loss of space—importantly, using free markets to do the work.

How does space-as-commodity protect space?

When space becomes a commodity, then it has monetary value, and this value can then be tapped to preserve other space nearby. When space is not a commodity—the current situation—then there is no value that can be used in a like-kind trade between loss and preservation. These topics are expanded at great length throughout this web site.

Read more…

Open Space—Our Vanishing Resource

Our economy provides financial rewards for filling (loss) of space, and no rewards for preservation of space. Road construction is the main physical driver of space loss.

An Open-Space Future is Possible

What would it take to create a system in which space filling (loss) incurs a cost, and to commit that cost to preservation of nearby space?

Steps to Space Preservation

Rules and institutions are needed to bring space into the economy. Some of the details are found here.

1 A rough analogy to measuring space as area would be to measure fluids by the size of the puddles produced when poured on the ground. Area misses the essence of spaciousness—space without interruption. See Measuring Space I.
2 A stream adapts to its regime of water flow—which varies over time—and sediment supply, by changing channel shape, meandering, and so on. Humans disrupt streams in many ways: by changing climate and precipitation; diverting water out of streams; building dams to store in-stream water; accelerating runoff by building impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots, rooftops, etc.—where water cannot filter into the soil and the earth below). All of these induced changes cause streams to adapt over time and space.
3 For a comprehensive list, see reference [7] and the publications that it cites.