Joe Roman


On ecological economics

Cover Interview of November 01, 2011

The World Bank wasn’t ready for it. Even though the 1992 report Daly was working on was dedicated to sustainable development, his diagram was dropped from it.

These ideas have become part of the emergent school of ecological economics.

One of the branches of ecological economics attempts to value the benefits of nature.

You can call those benefits nature’s services, natural capital, or ecosystem services.  Economists, ecologists, and conservation biologists have been trying these terms out for years to see what sticks with the public.

Whatever it’s called, this is capital.

This capital can be cultural: a bison on an old Sioux hunting ground, a bald eagle flying over the Potomac, a wolf pack in Yellowstone.  It can be recreational, ranging from whale watching to a hike out your back door.  In Yellowstone, one study found that wolves are now a $35-million-a-year tourist industry. In fact, Americans spend more than $120 billion a year hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching. That’s more than the Super Bowl. It’s more than professional football. It’s more than was spent on all spectator sports, amusement parks, casinos, bowling alleys, and ski slopes combined. And it’s much more than just tourism.

When you protect dunes for endangered mice, you also protect the homes behind them from storms and erosion.  There are tradeoffs in all our policy decisions, of course, but endangered species should be seen as sentinels for a healthy environment and their protection can help all of us.

Natural capital can even save lives—ecosystems provided a new drug for breast cancer, thanks to the Pacific yew— and restructure the tree of life. A heat-loving bacterium discovered in Yellowstone catalyzed the molecular revolution and helped decode the human genome.