How we value nature’s contribution to human culture

Nature plays a central role in our culture and our emotional well-being.  And yet because we struggle to describe or assign value to these things we are missing the chance to make a passionate argument for conservation.

Environmentalists are increasingly designing financial mechanisms to pay for the services that nature provides hoping that this will make a stronger case for conserving nature. These so-called ‘ecosystem services’ were described in 2005 (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) as falling into four categories: provisioning – such as providing water or fish, regulating – such as controlling climate, supporting – such as pollination by insects, and cultural.

But what are the cultural services of nature? According to the MEA, these include the recreational and spiritual functions of nature – the intangible qualities that are harder to put a dollar value on. According to our lecturer today, this label, ‘cultural ecosystem services’ is actually a grab-bag of both services and valuees and we ought to be calling them the subjective or experiential services. Personally, cultural services is fine with me as long as we do a better job of defining this label.

Now what I found most interesting out of the conversation today were two concepts:

1) nature can have emotional, ethical and cognitive significance for us

2) when it has these meanings to us we may care about it more than when it has financial value

Example: the UK government is proposing to sell its forest lands so that they will be managed for productive (i.e. lucrative) use. The argument is that they can be sustainably managed and money can be made. And you know what? The public is outraged. They view the forests as their commons, their landscapes and their heritage and that means more to them than the financial benefits that might be generated.

What do I take from this? Emotional connections to nature are the way to win people over to conservation. I know that ‘money talks’ but unless we change peoples’ values we just won’t get anywhere. Cultural significance could be a good starting point.

And another conclusion for me here is that we should do a better job of putting a value on the emotional, ethical and cognitive roles that nature plays in our lives so that when we design cost benefit models we make sure we count what matters to us at the deep emotional level. Perhaps instead of trying to put these ‘intangible’ cultural qualities in monetary terms, we should be converting the monetary values to a rank value system (high medium low)?

Decision analysis for dessert

Blogging again, after a bit of a break. This one is mainly for amusement’s sake.

One of the classes I am taking for my course is ‘Decision Analysis’ in which the lecturer has given us an in-depth explanation of the model used in the IPCC reports on climate change. This is called the PAGE09 model and is a way of weighing the costs and benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies to help us decide whether it is worth doing anything about it. Basically, if it will cost us more to do something about climate change than it would to live with the impacts, we should just carry on with business as usual. If the impacts (cost) of climate change without any attempt on our part to slow it down would be more than the cost of doing something about it now, then we should take action!

It was interesting to see what kinds of variables go into the model, and to see that it does make sense financially to try to both slow and adapt to climate change. And I have learned that models are better than reports because they stay current as you fill them in with different numbers for the different variables.

But… I still don’t feel like I would be able to apply any basic concepts of decision theory or analysis to my life. I was hoping to learn some strategies that would help me make one of the most frequent decisions I have to make in my life: dessert. Let’s see how I might apply some of what I learned…

Scoping document for DESS11, a draft model for deciding whether or not to have dessert and what kind in order to minimize environmental damage

Assuming that the choice and consumption of a dessert is the proposed development with recognized emotional benefits and environmental impacts, it is important to evaluate the costs and benefits of implementing the choice to have dessert. The following variables should be built into the model with the caveats about uncertainties listed below. [I hope some lateral thinking will allow you to draw parallels to the climate policy decision framework.]

Direct costs:

  • monetary cost (multiplied by a factor of 0.3 because cost is of little relevance when it comes to dessert)
  • length of time I need to wait to get it (opportunity cost and discount rate)
  • reduced well-being (as a result of guilt)
  • reduced health and resilience

Indirect costs:

  • empty calories consumed at the detriment of health
  • biodiversity/environmental impact of ingredients
  • carbon footprint of ingredients
  • carbon footprint of production process


  • size (ability to share and maximize utility)
  • enjoyment of taste
  • enjoyment of texture
  • enjoyment of temperature
  • well-being derived from chocolate content
  • suitability to current craving (related to above variables)
  • marginal benefit of each additional bite (sometimes one bite is enough)

Uncertainties to consider when building the model:

  • likelihood of inadequate chocolate intensity
  • likelihood of taste sensitivity (the first bite might be good, but tipping points may be reached after which factors
  • incomplete information

So how do we quantify these things? That is kind of the point: if we don’t value the environment with some numbers, then it will be given a zero (0) value. And that is why decisions about dessert and nature are so difficult. Without models, decisions are made irrationally, without weighing costs and benefits, and are susceptible to skepticism.

Please contact me if I can hire you to write my dessert decision analysis model.