Richard Conniff has an eloquent piece up at Yale Environment 360 discussing how we place economic value on species and biodiversity in general. He tells the story of how farmers in India inadverdantly killed 99% of the country's vultures by feeding their cattle anti-inflamatory drugs. The drugs caused renal failure in vultures feeding on the carcasses. With the vultures gone, India's feral dog population skyrocketed, and the feral dogs gave many people rabies. The loss of vultures is estimated to have cost the country at least $24 billion.
This story illustrates how species matter, but it also shows us mind-bogglingly complex and unpredictable ecosystems can be. Could anyone have anticipated the cost of losing India's vultures? (Or the numerous other examples we have of cascading effects of species loss?) Bryan Norton used this metaphor to describe our ignorance and argue against the idea of placing dollar values on species:
I have been in a terrible accident, and I wake up in a hospital bed on a lifesupport system. The hospital is short on funds, and the hospital administrators are having a meeting at my bedside. They say they have examined all the other methods to raise the necessary money, and they are proposing to sell a few spare parts from my life-support system at a yard sale. One of them says, "This equipment is so complicated, a few parts won't be missed." "How much do you think this part is worth?" asks another, pointing toward a piece of shiny metal. I try to see what the part is connected to, but it is screwed into a big metal box that looks important. "Or that one over there; it looks like it's just cosmetic," another of them suggests. I almost agree, and then I notice that a main power line passes through it. "Stop! Not that one," I say. Just in time.
Norton concludes, "The value of biodiversity is the value of everything there is." I agree philosophically. Practically, though, I draw a different conclusion. We need to move away from species-centric valuation, and find ways to make economic decisions based on aggregate measures of ecosystem health and stability. This, of course, will open a whole other can of worms (How to we measure it? Who is responsible for it?), but I think the whole-system perspective will serve us better.