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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57


The Thought Leader Interview: Gretchen Daily

Earth is obviously not a sterile place. But it’s in the midst of a mass extinction. If we keep going at current rates, we’re expected to lose 50 percent or more of the plants and animals that exist now by the year 2100, mostly from wiping out their home ecosystems, such as forests and wetlands. This will rapidly transform huge areas of the planet into systems that are very reduced in their capacity to generate vital life support services for society. The affected areas will include not just cities and suburbs, but areas of intensive agriculture and grazing; from a species and ecosystem perspective, they will be more and more like moonscapes.

S+B: What kinds of life would you bring back to these “moonscapes”?
DAILY: There are four priorities. The first is the plants and animals that provide goods that people consume directly. This in itself is an extensive list. It includes food, timber, fiber, and medicinal plants — the natural precursors to our pharmaceutical products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs on the market in the industrialized world, about 120 owe their origin to natural products, mostly to plants.

The second priority includes life support services, living things that help protect people from risk. Flood control, water purification, pollination of diverse plants, generation of the ozone layer, renewal of soil, and the use of forests to draw carbon from the atmosphere fall into this category, as does disease control. In the northeast United States, the risk of Lyme disease is higher where forests have been cut back to tiny patches, where there are fewer mammals like chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, weasels, and coyotes — wildlife that would have kept down the population of mice or deer, which are now likely to infect more ticks with Lyme bacteria.

The third priority encompasses the many cultural values that make living feel worthwhile: the inspiration that people draw from nature, the spiritual attachment many people have to natural places, the aesthetic beauty, and the recreation that people look for in nature.

S+B: And the fourth?
DAILY: It’s what economists call option value. That is the value of protecting something for possible benefits to be discovered in the future. We don’t know how many types of plants and animals are needed to sustain human well-being, or which combinations. Each year we discover new uses and values associated with nature.

But merely assigning economic value to these four categories will do nothing to ensure the protection of natural systems — unless people are required to factor their value into decisions. And that’s where table manners come in. The name of the game today is to change policy: to develop incentives and prices and new public and private finance mechanisms so that people will behave in ways that reflect the real worth of these ecosystems.

Costa Rica and China

S+B: This sounds like the “environmental economics” movement of the late 1980s. Ecologists have been trying for years to assign values to nature and charge the costs back to those who pollute or exploit land. What’s different now?
DAILY: It’s true; in fact, you can trace these ideas back to the 1950s, to classic economic work on the problems of open-access fisheries. You can actually trace some of these ideas back to Plato. But just in the last few years, the threats to ecosystems have grown more dire — and there’s also been a real renaissance of innovation. In many countries, people are for the first time looking beyond that first category of ecosystem goods to the steep declines in life support services, and they’re taking action.

S+B: For example?
DAILY: The two most prominent examples are Costa Rica and China.

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