[Coral-List] Value of Hawiian Reefs (Juergen Herler)

juergen.herler at univie.ac.at juergen.herler at univie.ac.at
Fri Nov 11 05:57:05 EST 2011

Dear all!

Francesca, I can well understand your frustration and this discussion must be seen as part of 
a discussion that has arisen some weeks or even much longer ago on this list and certainly 
years ago in the community. The definition of "value" is a very complicated one and can 
certainly not be restricted to economic value or but must include immaterial values such as 
ecological value and emotional value which we especially develop through our experiences 
with nature (including ourselves of course). 
Here the meaningfulness of language may be helpful. It is interesting that the term "in-valu-
able" is treated as the comparative of "valuable", while in both words the term "value" seems 
to be synonymous with economic value since it can also be expressed as "not valuable (in 
money)". That make definitions of "value" a bit more difficult than maybe in German, where 
the same meaning is expressed in a different term (unschaetzbarer Wert), which would 
translate as "a value that cannot be estimated". So I think the main problem lies in that we try 
to estimate the value of things or qualities which do not only have an economic value (which 
can be estimated somehow) but also have ecological and emotional values and in summary 
therefore appear "invaluable", or maybe better, "of incalculable value" to us. If we put a price-
tag to something we probably can better communicate this "value" to economists but we just 
show half the picture and reduce everything to a fraction of its "true" value. And why at all put 
a price-tag on something which is not for sale? Not to forget that money in itself has no value 
but only the things it can be exchanged for or the qualities it suggests have. So it is probably 
time to say good bye to the attempt of expressing everything in economic value and solve 
this issue on a more philosophical level. This of course is much more challenging than the 
already hard task of current ecosystem valuation (in economic value), especially for 
economists. Asking people for how much the are willing to pay for conserving something is 
useless if they cannot actually imagine the product or service they have to validate (in terms 
of money). Other methods such as the travel-cost-method may work for small-scaled 
projects but will of course fail when applied to entire ecosystems which provides many other 
services and also do not account for sustainability. So in addition to any economic value, 
there needs to be a good estimate for immaterial values (maybe a rating of how people feel 
or think in terms of ethics, safety for their health and future, etc. when they have to decide 
about having a power plant or huge dam versus an untouched river, coral reef versus a coal 
mine or highway versus a meadow). And of course must the requirements of sustainability be 
met and validated. Certainly this will not resolve the huge dilemma that we continue to 
consume the energy and products that are delivered by the destructive forces we try to ban.

However, if the sad statement that we do not understand anything else than dollars is true (I 
am certainly not convinced), we obviosuly do not deserve anything else than money. In a 
local initiative here in Vienna we saved a park from destruction through a large building 
project (some 20 million dollars worth) by telling the owner that the park is in-valu-able to the 
population. It took us more than a year to stop the whole story and we have never been 
talking about numbers ...
If we put a price-tag on nature, we put a price-tag on ourselves (as an integrated part of it), 
and we will eventually end up with a lot of money but with little left to buy for it. We are all 
"green" but some obviously don't know ...

Have a good day!

Dr. Juergen Herler
Department of Integrative Zoology
Faculty of Life Sciences
University of Vienna
Althanstraße 14
A-1090 Vienna/Austria/Europe
Tel.: +43-4277-76313
e-mail: Juergen.Herler at univie.ac.at

> Thank you to those that are trying to explore further the issue. I
> really appreciate their time and respect their opinions.
> Unfortunately I find the reasoning so faulty in its essence that I
> have troubles following most of the basic assumptions and flows of
> thought. Just to briefly list a couple: the necessity of expressing
> the value with a number just because economy requires it, the belief
> that dollars are the only value most people understand (or are they
> constantly taught so in our society and this is just another way to
> feed this system? Do people need to convert family values in dollars
> to understand them?). Not to mention the quote at the end of Peter's
> email that I guess is there only to "promote" the debate.
> But let me try more.
> Peter answered my question this way: 
> Q:What does it mean?That if we find a (long term?) alternative use
> for these sites worth $40 billion per year we can feel fine to blow
> the Hawaiian reefs up?
> A: NO.? It is unlikely that this course of action (blowing up the
> reefs) would supersede the opportunity costs of keeping the reefs
> healthy and protected. ?See basic premise above.
> My new question. Which basic premises? They gave a number, all we
> need is a bigger one.Why unlikely? Oil and coal companies came with
> a nice dollar number and now are "blowing up" boreal forests in
> Canada and mountains in the Appalachia together with their
> associated ecosystem services and own sake value. Reefs might be
> next.
> Non-use and existance value linked to people well being can not be
> fairly taken into account as people experiencing them can not sell
> them on the market thus their willingness to pay is strictly
> restrained to their bank account (while a mining company can use the
> gains obtained by the use of the resource to express their value for
> using it). At least this is my understanding. If people could
> convert in dollars the well being associated to intrinsic values
> (conversion that Peter calls  ?Equivalent in money, representing the
> sum of money that would have an equivalent effect on the ?welfare,
> utility, well being of individuals)? nothing on the market could out
> weight it that's for sure (my number alone likely would be
> sufficient).
> And as this was not enough, if I understood correctly, it seems that
> answers from people that in principle care about nature need to be
> "adjusted".? Why didn't I see a category for anthropocentric people,
> careless people, people disconnected from nature? "Being
> environmentalist" should be the norm not a label for a bias to be
> corrected.
> Greetings
> Francesca

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