Money talks. Just be careful who’s listening

June 20, 2013

We’ve posted before about the idea of calculating the value of healthy natural systems and factoring that value into land management decisions. Great idea right? Yes, but the key is to understand your audience. It’s definitely useful if you are attempting to influence short term decisions by budget-conscious decision makers, such as the Clallam County Commissioners in this recent news story.

It’s also valuable when you can use real-world numbers—not modeling estimates—to demonstrate the value natural systems provide. For example, Earth Economics, which performed the ecosystem services study for the county (as it has done for cities, counties and agencies all across the country), points to the example from Hurricane Sandy in which New Jersey ended up with a $2.6B bill to repair its damaged water infrastructure. New York, on the other hand, had virtually no damage because its water system is based on the natural filtration and flow of water from the Catskill Mountains upstate – allowing Mayor Bloomberg to tweet this while New Jersey faced months without drinkable tap water.

Beware the money trap

Yet a word of caution when making the case publicly. Last year Resource Media conducted a messaging needs assessment around this emerging field, and found that a message built around monetizing nature has some drawbacks. Consider these polling findings:

  • Americans understand that Nature provides many, many benefits, and support efforts to calculate the value of those benefits. But, most of us are skeptical of equating benefits to specific dollar amounts.
  • And, we don’t like the suggestion that Nature is only valuable insofar as it serves our interests. It turns out that some of the things we most appreciate are the hardest to quantify (i.e. spending time in the woods with family).

In addition, the sheer price ranges common with these valuation projects can leave people skeptical and questioning the validity of the data. Looking back at the Clallam County example, the study puts the county’s ecosystem services value at somewhere between $12B and $45B. That’s a huge range.

Our advice:

  1. First acknowledge the impossibility of putting a price tag on Nature.
  2. Then you can explain the need to fill a gap in traditional economic analysis that puts the value of Nature’s benefits at zero.
  3. If you have a specific study to cite, lead with the low end of the value range (i.e. in the Clallam example, we might say the county’s ecosystem services are worth at least $12 billion).

This will allow you to get your point across in a way that’s respectful of your audience’s values and without triggering undue skepticism.

Brendan McLaughlin