Contradictions in valuing environmental services (Day 16 of Learning road trip)

Various groups co-sponsored a presentation by my road trip co-driver, Raúl García Barrios, on his various ecological and social restoration and conservation projects around Cuernavaca, México.  My role was to lead a 30-minute discussion.

The contradiction referred to in the title has three main parts:

  1. the monetary value that can be placed on ecosystem services in some of the watersheds near Cuernavaca is 1000 times less than the value that would follow from proposed housing developments (and freeways to serve those developments);
  2. the campaign to preserve the undeveloped system might succeed by appealing to legal and constitutional procedures (“defending the wall”), not market comparisons (i.e., economic valuations);
  3. the high economic values for development are based on government subsidies for home buyers and on a bubble, so blocking development is also a chance to save people from suffering when the bubble bursts, as it would eventually do.

The paper generated discussion on its own and I stepped back and let that happen.  However, as an experiment I had asked the audience to do a notecard exercise before the talk started, so I got them to do part 2 at the end.  The exercise was designed to explore how the audience view the three related questions (to follow) before versus after the presentation.

In a situation that concerns you:

  • what do you know?
  • what can be done on the basis of that knowledge?
  • what more do you need to inquire into in order to have the knowledge you need to see or show what is to be done.

Part 2 was to repeat this after the talk.

My review of the Before vs. After did not in most cases show the influence of the presentation, but the result was a rich set of issues that could be pursued in an environmental education curriculum, e.g.,

  • How to prioritize scale of response & target actors
  • Relationship between:  quest to understand complexity vs. need to act
  • Are there certain incentives that can increase good composting?
  • Look into financial structure of the tourism industry;  Tourism income doesn’t directly support conservation practices;  long term residents get little income
  • If sustainable development in subject to market rules, and thus to ethical and practical limitations therein, what are alternative pathways?
  • Low participation by minority students in environmental studies
  • Inquire into historical examples of defending the wall vs. state supported market forces
  • Delegitimation of state support for market

(back to Start of road trip; forward to later on Day 16)


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