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Monetizing Nature Is a Fool’s Errand

[fa icon="calendar'] Aug 19, 2015 10:46:27 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By: Carol Pierson Holding

How will damage from the Gold King Mine spill of Silverton Colorado be valued? The lawsuits against the EPA for dislodging the toxic yellow sludge into the Animas River and beyond haven’t yet been filed, but injured parties are lining up.

FrozenRiverRecognizing imminent danger accident, the EPA tried to allocate Federal funds earmarked for cleaning Superfund sites.  before the accident, the EPA tried to allocate Federal funds earmarked for cleaning Superfund sites. But Silverton is a town that subsists on tourist dollars. And it gets its water from another site. Concerns about upstream water weren’t enough to warrant the tourism-destroying Superfund label.

So the EPA had to do more inspecting to bolster its argument for Superfund designation and accidentally breeched a secret dam built inside the mine to hold back accumulated snowmelt, unleashing three million gallons of poisonous sludge.

Sure enough, as in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, the tourism industry is the first to call for monetary damages.

Then come livestock owners whose animals might be poisoned. And the vegetable farmers whose produce could be ruined unless they find an alternative source of water.

Then there’s the cost of the clean-up itself.

But even those billions of dollars don’t account for the loss of gorgeous, irreplaceable natural habitat along the now three hundred miles of fouled rivers.

In our monetized, quantified world, we are driven to assign a value to this resource. And economists have a mechanism.  Called “contingent valuation,” the tool is a survey in which subjects are asked their willingness to pay to protect nature.

Intuitively, we know this is not remotely adequate. Economists and policy makers agree. And so scientists have set about trying to develop a better metric.

A study on the neuroeconomics of valuation was just published in the journal PLOS One and summarized in a New York Times article by study authors Paul Glicher and Michael A. Livermore. Previous MRI’s of the brain structures responsible for valuation showed great similarity across a wide variety of decisions, from consumer goods to entertainment to daily activities. But as the authors put it, “The brain did not respond to contingent (environmental) valuation studies the way it did to all other known classes of economic behavior.”

In other words, when subjects tried to “value” nature, their MRIs showed different areas of the brain at work than those areas used to value other decisions.

Could nature be on a different spectrum altogether? Maybe our brains process nature’s value in ways unrelated to money.

Those of us who walk in nature would agree.

As it turns out, many economists agree too.

One of them is Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. A 2009 report by the Stiglitz Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress looked at how economic statistics such as GDP fall short of measuring true economic performance:

“For example, traffic jams may increase GDP as a result of the increased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life. Moreover, if citizens are concerned about the quality of air, and air pollution is increasing, then statistical measures which ignore air pollution will provide an inaccurate estimate of what is happening to citizens’ well-being.”

The Stiglitz Commission goes further, insisting that “The assessment of (environmental) sustainability is complementary to the question of current well-being, and must be examined separately. …Both pieces of information are critical and distinct.”

Another way of saying that even rising public policy metrics such as Gross National Happiness in Bhutan or Subjective Well Being in the UK don’t adequately address the value of the environment.

Nature brings solace and sanity. If you haven’t experienced the succor of nature personally, science has proved its benefits, most recently in a National Academy of Sciences study whose results suggest that “accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.” Or to put it another way, nature’s true value is priceless.

Photo courtesy of Fishermansdaughter via Flickr CC


Carol2Carol Pierson Holding is President and Founder, Holding Associates. Carol serves as Guest Blogger for CSRHub. Her firm has focused on the intersection of brand and social responsibility, working with Cisco Systems, Wilmington Trust, Bankrate.com, the US EPA, Yale University’s School of Environmental Sciences, and various non-profits. Before founding Holding Associates, Carol worked in executive management positions at Siegel & Gale, McCann Erickson, and Citibank. She is a Board Member of AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation). Carol received her AB from Smith College and her MBA from Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 15,000+ companies from 135 industries in 130 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in EPA, Gold King Mine spill, Superfund, Uncategorized, Silverton Colorado, the environment, National Academy of Sciences, nature, Paul Glicher and Michael A. Livermore, Subjective Well Being, Animas River, BP, Carol Pierson Holding, contingent valuation, Gross National Happiness

Politicians and Psychologists Address Climate Change

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 19, 2013 9:00:17 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

The day after President Obama’s pro-climate-action State of the Union address, I foundwilderness myself having lunch with Lisa Reddick, a professor of Ecopsychology at Antioch University Seattle. Reddick and her boss, Dean of Psychology Jane Harmon Jacobs, were celebrating Obama’s speech, noting how dramatically his language has evolved. There was no ambivalence when he talked about the “overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change and proposed a definitive and permanent solution, that “we shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”

And yet only a few weeks before Obama’s speech, Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, sounded much more pessimistic. In an interview with Bill Moyers called “Ending the Silence on Climate Change,” Leiserowitz describes how deeply the fundamental question that Ecopsychology asks is embedded in our culture, and explains how human evolution is inseparable from the climate system:

I think one of the most interesting things that comes out of science that challenges some of our long held cultural beliefs that somehow human beings are fundamentally different than the natural world is the recognition that at root, when you look at the DNA, we are kin. We are literally relatives. Does that change the way you perceive your relationship with the rest of the world?

Obama talks about changing policy. Leiserowitz talked about changing the most basic understanding of who we are as humans. Obama’s change will affect some sectors of America. Leiserowitz would change everything, from business and government to the hard sciences to social sciences such as economics. One example: a look at the sustainability performance of nearly 7,000 public companies on CSRHub.com tells you that of the twelve socially responsible categories they measure, those involving employees and social issues have higher average scores  than the performance ratings on energy and environmental management.

Overturning the assumption that humans should dominate the earth is as world-altering as Copernicus insisting that the earth revolves around the sun. And yet overturning that assumption is exactly what we must do, not only to save our ourselves from the effects of climate change, but also, if Ecopsychology is correct, to preserve our mental health.

A report released in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) supports this hypothesis. Called The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared, the report describes the alarming increase in mental health trauma due to weather related disasters, and predicts even higher rates of depressive and anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides, and widespread outbreaks of violence.

This is just what Ecopsychology anticipates. Founder Theodore Roszak recognized the problems stemming from separation of man and nature, the failure to recognize nature’s value to the human spirit and its potential for healing and harming.  In Roszak’s seminal work on Ecopsychology, The Voice of the Earth, Roszak argues that modern psychiatry "has...cut itself off from nature at large and [ministers] to the psyche within a purely personal or social frame of reference.” Nature is relegated to a hostile, alien force.

Professor Reddick is seeking to change this belief through language and stories. Her exemplar is Rachel Carson,  “…a scientist who was able to write to the people in a way that moved them with words like ‘Silent Spring’ (referring to birds silenced through use of toxic chemicals in farming) instead of ‘Oh my gosh run for your lives DDT is everywhere...’” Her students practice their art at Today’s Weather, blogging about the impact climate change has had on their senses. Their language can be apocalyptic but is just as often resilient and hopeful.

Politicians are finally willing to support climate action to preserve our way of life.

Proponents of Ecopsychology and other conservationists argue that only when we feel the exhilaration of our true place in the universe can we be healthy in not only body but mind and spirit too. It’s an agenda as overwhelming as reversing climate change. Shouldn’t they go hand in hand?

Photo is courtesy of Carol Pierson Holding


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on nearly 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 7,000 companies from 135 industries in 82 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Anthony Leiserowitz, climate change, DNA, Ecopsychology, President Obama, pro climate action, Uncategorized, politicians, sustainability, Theodore Roszak, Jane Harmon Jacobs, lisa reddick, nature, state of the union, Carol Pierson Holding, changing policy, CSRHub

Heartland Institute’s Climate Skeptics vs Children: Bet on the Kids

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 21, 2012 5:00:00 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last week, someone posing as a Heartland Institute board member persuaded  a staff member to send him a “new email” board package, which he then released to environmental activist websites. The package contained descriptions of Heartland’s intention to develop curriculum for K-12 children that would recast current teachings on global warming as a scientific controversy.

This change in basic science curriculum is surely as doomed to failure as the challenge to teaching evolution. Already, a group of climate scientists has urged Heartland to “recognize how its attacks on science and scientists have helped poison the debate over climate change policy.” But it is interesting to consider what might happen if such a change were instituted. How vulnerable are children to misinformation about the environment? Do they even care?

Kids_vs_HeartlandIt’s a fair question. Children have never been more remote from nature. As a Children and Nature Networks paper summarizing 45 studies on the topic reported:

  • In the early 2000s, 71 percent of mothers recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 percent of them said their kids play outdoors daily.
  • In 2007, 42 percent of children ages 6 to 17 participated in outdoor activity less than 30 times a year.
  • Between 1975 and 2005, walking and bicycling to school dropped nearly 25 percent.
  • In 2005-2006, children between 8 and 18 spent an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media, though 1.75 of those hours are spent with music.

I first considered whether my daughter’s generation would carry the environmental torch in 2005 when I heard talk given by Richard Louv at a Conservation International event. Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and coiner of the term “nature deficit disorder,” told us a story about when he took his children to a party at a park that sat above a river. His children bounded out of the car towards the water. The party’s host shrieked in fear – they would be unsupervised! and exposed to God knows what! Louv used this story to illustrate that children are raised to see nature as something scary rather than as a source of wonder. Making his nature-deprived argument even more urgent, Louv asked, where will we find the people with the will to safeguard our National Parks and Forests? To run the EPA? Who in future generations will have the visceral love of nature that underscores its protection, even when that protection impedes growth?

Two things give me hope. First, the trend seems to be reversing. Though visits to US National Parks fell in recent decades, there are now signs of rebound, possibly due to the recession or greater public awareness about the benefits of nature for children. A 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research demonstrated that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.  Participation in outdoor education was directly associated with improved conflict resolution skills and cooperation. Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against obesity is focused on getting kids outdoors again. The National Wildlife Federation has a parallel effort called Be Out There, citing research that connects the lack of outdoor time to not only increased obesity, but also depression, stress, diabetes, ADD and poor performance in the classroom. PTAs are insisting recess be reinstated into the school day.

And I wonder if kids would even buy a teacher telling them that our behavior is not causing climate change. In her blog for CSRHub (my sponsor), Cynthia Figge posits that “(Those under 30) have an innate understanding of the ecological and social issues facing the planet. They do not debate whether these challenges exist or are an imperative for their generation.”

Figge calls them “sustainability natives,” arguing that just as citizens under 30 are digital natives for having grown up in an era where it is hardly an option not to be digital, so today’s young people consider sustainability an immutable part of their culture.

At a very early age, society teaches children to act as-if they understand what their older siblings learn in school about climate change in simple acts like separating the recycling at home and outside too, at places like McDonald’s and the movies.

So even if children are faced with a curriculum that demotes climate change to a scientific controversy, they will still act as-if because it’s their native culture. It’s built in to their screen time: the code for bad-guys is someone who smokes or doesn’t recycle. WALL E was their first hero. They cheered in Avatar as much for the aliens as for the natural beauty that man was set to destroy. My bet is that Heartland will be hard-pressed to convince this generation otherwise.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Landwehr.


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHUB.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in climate change, Uncategorized, youth, nature, science education, Carol Pierson Holding, children

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