Have you ever wondered how someone with an economic or social science background can contribute to conservation?

I had asked myself that question many times while we were preparing for the sabbatical and our volunteer work in Costa Rica. I searched the internet looking for examples of volunteer work in conservation and it seemed to me that they were all oriented towards students or researchers with a background in ecology, sustainability, environmental sciences, or biology.

Social Sciences? Not really.

Now, some weeks after starting with our volunteer work it is clearer to me how social scientists can contribute to conservation. For those interested, there are two good articles about conservation social sciences here and here. So I will not go into social sciences in general but focus on Economics.

And more specifically on how different branches of economics can contribute to conservation. But let me start with a simple question

What has economics to do with conservation?

The Conservation perspective

For most people in Conservation, the answer seems to be rather obvious:

Everything.

The ultimate causes for population decline and extinction of species are according to Jepson and Ladle (2010) are (tarararararaaa, drumming in the background):….

  • capitalism,
  • poverty,
  • population growth and
  • economic development.

These ultimate drivers are responsible for habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, introduced species, and climate change, which are the visible causes for population decline and species extinction.

So, economics is at the very root of the decline of species, which is precisely what conservation fights against.

The Economics perspective

For economists on the other hand, what economics has to do with conservation is not so obvious.

This is mostly due to the fact that the importance of protecting nature and safeguarding the environment is -to put it mildly- almost completely absent from most economic degrees. So much, that many of my colleague economists will plainly admit that they do not know “anything about sustainability”. Only growth. And competitiveness.

Even for those of us that are deeply committed to sustainability and involved in various conservation causes the answer is not straight forward.

So, maybe this post (and the ones that will follow) about how Economics can contribute to conservation can help to bring both disciplines a bit closer.

But let me start saying that the question is flawed by the beginning…since talking about economics, in general, is as flawed as talking about engineering or medicine in general…As there are many different types of engineers and medical specializations, so there are many different types of economics. Surprised? Yeah, not the first one.

The different branches of Economics

Throughout this period as a volunteer in conservation, I have found myself saying too often that I was not “that kind of economist”.

It seems to me that biologists (and natural scientists in general) are quite aware of the different specializations in biology but have never given any serious consideration to the fact that something similar may happen in Economics or social sciences in general.

It might come as a surprise to some but not all of us –the “Economists”- have a spark of joy doing cost-benefit analysis or number-crunching. Neither are all of us keen on putting a price tag to nature or assuming that nature is just there as an input to the economic system (who, many would argue, is the only thing that matters). SIGH!.

There are “those types of economists” of course. And, unfortunately, they dominate the field of Economics. But they are not the only ones. Ecological Economics, Economics of Innovation, or Development Economics are some of the heterodox branches of economics that, from my perspective, can clearly contribute to conservation.

Why understanding the different branches of Economics is important for conservation

I was surprised some weeks ago to see a job announcement by a conservation organization asking for an “ecological or environmental” economist for a project on reforestation. As if it was more or less the same.

I wondered if they actually knew what the (HUGE) differences between Ecological and Environmental Economics are in their principles, methodologies, and theories. For me, it would be the equivalent of asking for a marine biologist for a project on the conservation of mountain gorillas.

My point here is that an environmental economist and an ecological economist will have very different perspectives, assumptions, and techniques when doing a cost-analysis of the reforestation project. For instance, the former will try to give a monetary value to nature while the later will include also non-monetary measures of the value of a certain natural resource. Their respective theoretical and methodological baggage matters a lot for conservation as it may (wrongly) communicate to the market that nature has a price after all.

So, in follow-up blogs, I will discuss how different branches of economics can contribute to conservation. In doing so, I hope to help conservation projects to tap into the most adequate economist for their projects and economists to visualize how they can contribute to conservation.

Next blog: Ecological economics and conservation

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