New research we’ve conducted provides further evidence that advancing the economic case for conservation is risky. It may undermine the foundations upon which deeper public concern about the environment will be built.
We know that there are a range of problems with attempts to use estimates of the financial value of nature as a reason for conserving it. George Monbiot laid many of these out in his lecture at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute last summer.
Common Cause highlights one reason that these attempts are particularly problematic (the one, incidentally, to which Monbiot also attaches the greatest importance in his lecture). It is this: the values which motivate concern about economic performance seem to be almost perfectly opposed to the values which motivate concern about the preservation of nature.
Engaging and strengthening concern about the economy seems to risk undermining concern for the preservation of nature – even where concern about the economy draws attention to the economic benefits of conserving nature.
This is a case that Common Cause has advanced for many years – Tim Kasser and I lay it out in full, in our book Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (see especially Section 4.2.1). There we cite Douglas McCauley, writing in Nature back in 2006:
“[Conservationists] may believe that the best way to meaningfully engage policy-makers… is to translate the intrinsic value of nature into the language of economics. But this is patently untrue – akin to saying that the civil rights advocates would have been more effective if they provided economic justifications for racial integration.”(p.28)
Conservationists should take note: Martin Luther King had a dream, not a cost-benefit analysis.