Interview: Taylor Ricketts

02-14-2012 By Joshua E. Brown

Species extinction. Climate change. Soil erosion. “Look at any trend you care to pick out of the box,” says Taylor Ricketts, “we’re losing.” That’s why he’s helping lead a new conservation movement--that seeks bankers as much as birdwatchers--built on understanding the economic value of nature.
(Photo: Joshua Brown)
Don’t expect to see for-sale ads on Craigslist that read “Wetland: works good,” or “Rainforest: fixer-upper.”

But that doesn’t mean ecosystems have no value, or are beyond price. Indeed, Taylor Ricketts is determined to show the many precise, market-real ways that woods, swamps, hedgerows, estuaries, farm fields, and other lands and waters provide services to people.

“Ecosystems like forests support our lives in a whole variety of ways,” Ricketts has written. “When we don't place any value on them it makes it too easy to cut them down."

These services — like water filtration, soil creation, carbon storage, and crop pollination — are as authentic, Ricketts says, as anything else in the economy and essential to human wellbeing too.

Ricketts is at the forefront of a global movement to get serious about the marriage between nature and the human economy — looking for ways to have venture capitalists and governments protect “natural capital,” as he calls it, as vigorously as anything else in their portfolios and with the same urgency as more traditional conservationists.

This past fall, Ricketts joined the University of Vermont as the director of Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

In 2000, Ricketts received his doctorate in ecology and conservation biology from Stanford University, studying with luminaries of ecology and economics Paul Ehrlich, Gretchen Daily and Peter Vitousek.

From there, he led World Wildlife Fund’s conservation science program for almost a decade — while authoring more than 60 scientific publications, serving as a lead author in the United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and co-founding the Natural Capital Project, a partnership working to map ecosystem services around the globe and estimate their value as a tool to inform conservation investments.

UVM Today wanted to hear Rickett’s vision for leading the Gund Institute and how he sees ecological economics evolving.

Rather than sitting down in his new offices at Johnson House on Main Street, we decided to take a walk in Burlington’s Intervale, an amble among community garden plots, CSA farm fields, past the McNeil wood-burning electricity plant, through Adam’s Berry Farm and north along the eroding banks of the Winooski River.

Here are some selections from our conversation.

UVM TODAY: Both ecology and economics can get very technical and narrow. But take us to the mountaintop. What are the big issues that shape your work and thinking?
Taylor Ricketts: I’m interested in the question, how can we use land to benefit both people and nature?

This is a good setting for our conversation because agriculture is at the center of this question. It’s one of my big interests. Forty percent of the world is covered in agriculture — and there is not much scope to go higher than that. Most of the rest of the world’s land is tundra or desert or rainforest — mostly inaccessible or unsuitable. That doesn’t spell good news for being able to expand our agricultural lands.

On the flipside, how can we conserve nature? Protected areas and parks cover twelve percent of the land — and it’s difficult to imagine that expanding much either. We’re not going to quadruple that. It’s a fact that the future of the majority of biodiversity on earth lies outside of parks. We can’t build enough parks — so most species will be outside of them.

You put those two things together and it means we have to figure out how to manage working landscapes for both people and nature. We are heading toward nine billion people, so we have to do a lot better job getting foods from the lands we already cultivate. We’re going to have to be very clever about managing landscapes like this one, for the species that live here and the food that we need.

That is the grand challenge of the century. So that is a big focus of my research, and I’m planning on having that be a big focus of the Gund Institute’s work going forward.

How do we manage the landscapes we live in to sustain not only ourselves but the native species that live there, too?

One of the things I’ve studied a lot is the pollination of crops. We truck honeybees around in boxes to pollinate crops, but native bees that are living in the landscape — wild bees — also do a remarkably good job of pollinating crops. Very few people know that. So one of the things I’ve studied is the value of keeping woodlots and forests, like that one (Ricketts points to a row of trees on the edge of a plowed field), around as sources of these bees. Those provide habitat for bees — so let’s quantify the economic benefit of those pollinators to farmers that happen to live nearby.

We’ve done that in Costa Rica with coffee and shown that coffee farmers within a kilometer of the nearest rainforest patch produce twenty percent more coffee, of higher quality, than farmers further away.

Once you do that ecological experiment, it’s not hard to do the calculation to know what the economic value of those patches are. In Costa Rica, we showed that a couple of patches were worth about $60,000 of increased revenue to just one coffee farm.

Since that study, there have been about twenty-five others of similar design around the world. The results and patterns are pretty robust across different crops, countries, types of bees: proximity to nature translates into more pollination benefit.

There is probably an optimal way to manage landscapes to keep nature around, which benefits many species, including these that support agriculture. Conservation in the right circumstances can lead to dual benefits, to people and to nature.

What are the incentives for conservation, for better land use?

There are two main classes of incentives. One is: if the benefits are local then the incentives should be local too. For example, look at this pond. (Ricketts points to a stagnant detention pond abutting a tractor road.) If there is a farmer with enough land that he or she could restore some of it to forest and realize better water quality or soil, right on their own farm, then they may not need any external incentive or institutional payment.

On the other hand, if someone’s conservation actions are benefiting somebody else that is when external incentives come in. The biggest form of these incentives have been payments for ecosystem services, like pollination and flood control.

One good example is water funds in the Andes. Lots of cities there, Quito among the first, have noticed that their water comes from surrounding landscapes that are being increasingly turned to agriculture. So the cities are beginning to devise payment schemes for upstream farmers to manage lands better.

Some of the most exciting experiments these days are with incentive schemes: what motivates people to act? Those payments can be money, but that often is the least effective currency. Instead it can be infrastructure, like: we’ll build a school or houses or we’ll pay the upfront costs of new farming practices that save water and save your soil.

This seems very practical, so why don’t we see payments for ecosystem services being used more around the world?

It often falls down at the incentive stage. Part of the explanation is because it’s been academic scientists who are making this argument — and they often haven’t known how to put policies into place or understand incentives or inform decision makers.

One project I started at WWF, and am bringing to UVM, is a partnership around ecosystem services called the Natural Capital Project. It’s between universities and NGOs. The founding ones are Stanford and the University of Minnesota, and the Nature Conservancy and WWF.

The idea is to devise new ways of quantifying the economic benefits people get from nature — and to build tools that make it easy for anybody to calculate those, so it’s not an ivory tower exercise. We devised new ways of calculating ecosystem service values, then we wrote them into a point-and-click software that you can download off the Web.

Now there are probably 15 places around the world where the Nature Conservancy or WWF are leading the application of this approach within a specific decision like whether and where to build roads across the Colombian Amazon and where to allow coastal fishing and coastal development in Belize. These are all decisions that are about to be made — and information on where benefits come from and what they’re worth could make those decisions much better.

How is this approach an improvement on the now-famous paper that Bob Costanza, your predecessor here at the Gund Institute, put out in Nature in 1997, estimating the global value of ecosystem services at $33 trillion?

That’s an enormously contentious paper. The awareness it brought goes firmly in the plus column, but the crude way it did its calculations — and the mistakes it made in doing so — goes in the minus column.

People debate this, but my own view is that the starting gun that the paper sounded was worth it. What I don’t have any patience for is still estimating economic values that crudely 14 years later. We’re just better than that now. I think it was a helpful paper, and fine for its time, but people who are doing similarly crude work now are doing everyone a disservice.

The thing they did in that Nature paper was called benefits transfer: roughly speaking, it’s looking up a per-acre value from a study and applying it to every acre of similar type.

At the risk of getting too wonky, what we do now is called a production function approach. It’s a function that relates your inputs to your outputs: this much water, labor, fertilizer, sunlight, soil carbon — gives you this much grain. In agricultural systems we’re very good now at predicting if you cut the fertilizer in half what will happen to your output.

We can do the same thing with ecosystem services. What are the things in the landscape that add up to providing service? For pollination it’s bee habitat; it’s flowers to keep them around; it’s proximity between where they live and where they need to pollinate your crop; it’s the degree to which the crop needs pollination.

And you can write all that down and study it until you have your equation roughly right. And once you have that, you’re set. Now you can say, if I cut this piece of forest down, I’m going to update my equation and tell you how the ecosystem value will change. If I replace my crop with one that needs half as much pollination I can update my equation.

It’s a lot more work on the front end, but it allows you to do a lot of things: first of all be sensitive to where you are, not just borrow a value from somewhere else, and also it lets you estimate change — and that’s what decision makers want to know: what happens if I do this, instead of that?

And that lets you put a pricetag on an ecosystem?

Frankly, what the value today is of these ecosystems: that’s not very important to know. What’s important to know, if you’re trying to build a road or not, is what is going to change if I build the road? How many people are going to lose their water quality? How many are going to benefit in cheap power or access to markets? It’s about change.

That’s another way I’ve gotten impatient with these continued reports of “here’s the value of this” and “here’s the value of that.” That approach doesn’t inform decisions. It raises awareness, but we’re done doing that. People are aware. Instead, let’s have ecological economics actually support people who have to struggle with these decisions. And the way to support them is to estimate the consequences of the decisions they are weighing. That’s what this production function approach allows them to do.

From one side there is criticism that the ecological economics approach is too crude, that it’s not able to support decisions because it doesn’t put precise or supple enough prices on things. Yet there are other critics who say: be careful of only valuing what you can measure — don’t trees have standing? What about the priceless things?

Do you mind if I reframe your question? Those are not two sides of the same argument. Those are each one side of two different arguments.

The first thing you said was it’s too crude to support decisions. The flip side of that is we are currently assuming all ecosystems have zero value so anything is better than that! If we can begin to shine some light on even partial values, in even crude ways, that is better than what we’re doing which is a tacit assumption that ecosystems have zilch value. And, also this is the inevitable first step. We’re just beginning to do this; we’re not going to be great at it. But that’s not an argument to stop; that’s an argument to get better.

And the other thing you said was: what about all the intangible stuff? That one weighs on me a lot. My answer is that estimating the economic benefits to people from nature does nothing to compete with other reasons to conserve nature.

I’ve been talking about this for ten years, and I’ve never given a talk where that question wasn’t asked. Clearly it is on people’s minds and I should be more patient about it. But the fact is I’m losing patience. Why do I have to give up on my moral reasons to conserve nature because I also think it’s effective to quantify the economic reasons?

As a guy who is committed to conservation, I don’t feel like I’ve sold my soul. I feel like I’ve taken a look at forty years of conservation, taken a look at any trend you care to pick out of the box, and I’ve seen that we’re losing. So I’m personally in the mood to try some new stuff. The arguments that founded the conservation movement aren’t enough. Any trend will show you that. So we need new arguments, we need broader constituencies, we need to argue for conservation, or at least assess the costs and benefits of conservation, in terms of human benefits, economic returns.

Take me back up to the mountaintop, to Google Earth-scale. What are the big questions that need to get answered to move ecological economics and global conservation forward?

The biggest one — cast as global conservation or just cast as global sustainability — is: how are we going to meet our needs without wrecking the place? And that is the meta-question of them all — the gazillion-foot view! How are we going to meet our needs without destroying the habitats we think are valuable? Without causing a rash of extinctions on our watch? How are we going to feed a billion hungry people and a population that is going to grow by another quarter — without having there be nothing left of nature?

But it’s not only about minimizing damage to other species; it’s about minimizing damage to the fundamental life support system that keeps us going. And that takes an approach like ecological economics; an interdisciplinary approach that blends natural science and social science and the principles of both to solve these problems.

So my vision for the Gund Institute is this interdisciplinary research institute where people from all kinds of different backgrounds — natural sciences, social sciences, ecology, economics, law, business — interact and get together to understand the big problems we face and to help solve them.