Wednesday, December 7, 2016

ELC Essay #5: Beyond Zero-Sum Thinking for Environmental Law

by Keith Hirokawa

The issue addressed by this meeting of the Environmental Law Collaborative—zero-sum thinking and its application to environmental law—questions whether environmental quality is appropriately characterized as a zero-sum game in which regulation is an expensive, job-destroying monster. Describing a choice as a zero-sum game can be insightful for understanding the architecture of choice in a battle of particular circumstances. The notion of the zero-sum game comes from game theory and describes an “I win, you lose” (or vice versa) situation in which the amount you lose is proportional to my gains in winning. The game provides insights into how particular resolutions may have been predictable or even beneficial under the circumstances. However, when posed as a zero sum-game, environmental quality appears too costly: every dollar spent on the environment takes food from the table of some employee.

Aside from the problem that the zero-sum characterization is seldom, if ever, an accurate description of environmental regulation, this zero-sum framing presumes that environmental values are somehow divorced from economic livelihoods.

Ecological economist Gretchen Daily defines “ecosystem services” as the “wide range of conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that are part of them, help sustain and fulfill human life.”  In addition to the goods (food, timber, etc.) produced in the environment, functioning ecosystems supply essential services, including drinkable water and breathable air, biodiversity, habitable climate circumstances, and even spiritual and culturally significant experiences. Of course, because the services provided by functioning ecosystems are often not exchanged in the marketplace, they have been routinely ignored and undervalued. The study of ecosystem services illustrates the manner in which ecosystem processes have real value according to the benefits provided.

The ecosystem services approach helps to overcome zero sum rhetoric in at least three ways:  

(1) More and better information. Valuing the environment as a provider of  services recasts the problem of environmental degradation as one that can be calculated. Viewing the environment as services also helps in identifying the types of information needed to solve environmental problems, such as baseline information on environmental function and the potential of conservation and resiliency planning to secure the continuing receipt of ecosystem benefits. By prioritizing this information, ecosystem services analysis helps to calculate the cost of losing ecosystem function by revealing the direct and indirect benefits people and communities receive from the environment.

(2) Willingness to pay. Ecosystem services requires an appraisal of ecosystem functionality. This approach helps explain why the interruption of ecosystem process (by transformation, degradation, or displacement) results in real losses to human well-being. Typically, our reliance on and need for particular ecosystem functions is undervalued until we experience changes in the environment. Once essential ecosystem services are diminished or lost, we understand their value as a cost of finding substitute services: clean water, clean air, water quality control facilities, and so on. Likewise, information regarding the flow of ecosystem benefits provides an understanding of human well-being that identifies people as the beneficiaries of environmental quality and supports protection of ecosystem function as an investment that yields great returns.

(3) Availability of win-win-win alternatives. To see an alternative in which everyone wins is not to force an exception or search for an outlier. The winning alternative is almost always available and, when promoted as such, can be very persuasive. Recent examples include green building (which not only drives innovation and development, but produces healthier, longer lasting structures); renewable energy development (driving technological developments to produce cheaper, cleaner energy); and energy and water efficient products (products that demand fewer resources in design, construction and operation). Better calculations of ecosystem services facilitates a conversation about cooperation, complementary values and co-benefits, revealing that sound environmental choices do not result in “I win, you lose.” For instance, an assessment of urban tree functions shows that trees in urban areas provide services (shade and climate control, water filtering, stormwater capture) that offer significant benefits at a minimal cost for installation and maintenance. In comparison, construction and maintenance of the grey infrastructure alternatives (A/C systems, water filtration plants, stormwater control facilities) are expensive to construct and maintain.

Zero-sum descriptions can be useful. However, they may also misdirect our attention in matters of  environmental decisionmaking, and to that extent, thinking about environmental problems in zero-sum stories is short-sighted. Communities that investigate the alternatives created by ecosystem services have made efficient, valuable choices that will contribute to community well-being in significant ways. Watershed planning for water supply in New York City, urban forest planning in Charlotte, North Carolina, and wetlands planning in Portland, Oregon have proven that ecosystems serve human well-being in essential ways. Win-win-win alternatives are found in functioning ecosystems. We only need to see ecosystems as opportunities.

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