What good is wilderness?

posted on October 9th 2011 | 0 comments

The Economist debates the use of wilderness:

This house believes that untouched wildernesses have a value beyond the resources and other utility that can be extracted from them.

In one corner: an environmentalist. In the other: someone purporting to hold up the flag for rational economics. Through day five (of fourteen), 90% of readers are siding with the environmentalist. It’s the feel-good choice. It also doesn’t help that the “economist” seems to argue—at least by implication—that things aren’t all that bad and likens greens to “Judeo-Christian sects.”

How would an environmental economist vote—someone who agrees with scientists who tell us that things are bad and getting worse but also takes the economics seriously and wants to do something about the state of the planet?

Funny you should ask.

I voted for the motion—because of a linguistic technicality, and the much larger argument around practicality and political realism.

First, linguistics: the word “extracted” in the motion has a rather negative connotation, especially when it comes to wilderness. It sounds a lot more like mining than canoeing. I wonder how votes would fare if the word “extracted” was deleted in favor of: “enjoyed.” But that’s still only half the story.

You can indeed derive all sorts of jollies from wilderness. One such pleasure is the simple fact of knowing that wilderness exists. That, strictly speaking, is still a form of utility. The “economist” in the debate makes that point eloquently.

There’s also a lot to be said for moving beyond all-or-nothing conservation. We can’t just set aside the atmosphere to stop global warming, nor can we put enough land under permanent protection to keep everything just dandy regardless of what we do to the rest. Instead, we ought to protect biological hotspots, where most of the world’s biodiversity resides, and responsibly manage the rest.

That’s where practicality and political realism enter. It would be splendid to devise the perfect benefit-cost analysis of all the world’s wilderness areas, and then make the rational choice to conservation. We can’t. We can and should use economic thinking as a guide, but any benefit-cost analysis we attempt will be skewed toward economic growth and against wilderness for one simple reason: We have much better data about the economics than the environment.

We simply can’t measure all the utility we extract enjoy from wilderness. Hence, for very practical reasons:

This environmental economist believes that untouched wildernesses have a value beyond the resources and other utility that can be enjoyed—and measured—from them.