Thursday, January 20, 2011

With Both a Whimper and a Bang

How to describe the loss of biodiversity has become an issue here at Rabett Run, and Eli would like to offer a few thoughts. The FUND model, and most of the bunnies are looking at whimper like loss, loss of a percentage of species over time. The back and forth revolves around how to value this loss, but more concerning and more immediate is the bang model, rapid loss of a few, or even one key species. In climate speak, a large explosive volcano, an ozone hole as it were rather than a thinning of the ozone layer.

As a practical matter such damage can result from an additional species, or introduction of a species into a new region. An example of the bang model would be wiping out of a key pollinator species and we have seen hints of this in Colony Collapse Disorder. Such a bang need not be an existential threat, but rather an economic one, as the loss of the Cavendish banana to Tropical Race Four which accounts for 99% of cultivated bananas. Loss of the Cavendish threatens an entire industry and the people whose livelihood depend on it (and there is not yet a replacement which has to be transportable as well as delicious). Increasing stress from all directions makes such loss both more possible and more concerning. Certainly climate change could/would be one such stress, but the damage would most likely come from a combination.

Such issues should be included in any model of biodiversity loss.


Anonymous said...

The willingness-to-pay model may be useful for deciding how many cars to let into Yosemite National Park on a given day. But it appears a rotten model for biodiversity. Here are a few problems off the top of my head:

1. Standardizing WTP across income levels. Vietnamese fishermen may feel very strongly about the preservation of a vibrant, bio-diverse ocean community that supports both commercial and recreational (dive boats) fishing fleets, but as it's a really poor country, their WTP is not going to compare to some American who'd rather eat the last [whatever] than leave it in the ocean.

2. Inaccurate ability to foresee the future. What was the WTP of the members of the North Banks cod fishery fleet in the years before the crash? Or of the Monterey Bay sardine fleet? Or the current Atlantic cod fleet? What's the WTP of the people eating their catch? As someone famous once sang: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

3. Depriving future, wealthier people of their greater WTP. I'd really like a Monterey sardine right now. And my grandkids have told me via the Ouija board that they're going to be p*ssed off if there aren't any tuna left.

4. Combined effects. What's your WTP of a soil bacterium, even if it's the watershed of your drinking water, zero? What's your WTP of the bio-sphere as a whole, which provides high-quality potable water with minimal treatment?

Lawyer Mouse

Horatio Algeranon said...

It's pretty basic that "You can't model what you don't understand".

Who really understands the value of the earth's species to us humans?

Raise your mouse finger.

Jim Bouldin said...

Biodiversity, and ecosystem sustainability in general, are not in the final analysis, reduce-able to economic arguments.


There are such things as moral arguments. This is where science stops and ethics take over.

Jim Bouldin said...

"No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged."

John Muir

Anonymous said...

"Biodiversity, and ecosystem sustainability in general, are not in the final analysis, reduce-able to economic arguments."

Nonsense. Total ignorant nonsense. Economics is the study of scarcity and how we organize around scarcity. Of course those ideas can be examined with an economist eye.

Anyone that suggests otherwise is a total buffoon.

Hank Roberts said...

Hell, it's only a few years since the scientists found evidence for what Aldo Leopold knew many decades ago, that ecosystems are maintained by the top predators not build up from the bottom.

No, humans don't succeed, on evidence so far, as top predators. Amateur readers like me can find this stuff by looking -- and listening.

Listen to Jim. He knows this stuff.

Eschew the anonynits.

Jim Bouldin said...

Thanks for the definition of economics "anonymous", very helpful. Now try to wrap your mind around what I might have meant by "in the final analysis" instead of resorting to knee jerk insults.

jyyh said...

What is the scarcity of an extinct animal species and does it present problems for mathematicians to divide by zero? The same question might be applied to another attributes such as food or water (preferably clean).

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Clownshoe still thinks the Wall Street Urinal and Faux News are news organizations. I'd suspect he probably saw nothing wrong with this justification for the Laffer curve:

You run into idjits like Clownshoe all the time on the intertubes. They think they're economic experts because they took a couple of classes in Bidness school. They think the purpose of models to get numbers rather than insight. They mistake the model for reality.

Anonymous said...

"ecosystems are maintained by the top predators not build up from the bottom"

Not always though.



Chris S.

Nils Simon said...

Hey Eli, a comment of mine containing some links appears to have been deleted. Could you check? Thanks!

Hank Roberts said...

Chris, that 2005 article describes plankton as the base for a a marine ecosystem, but what fertilizes the plankton? (This is also an example of what "eco"logy and "eco"nomics share if they're done right -- attention to what's going on before trying to value bits of the process as though they could be taken out without changing the whole system.)

A filter-feeding whale isn't a wolf-like top predator -- but marine ecosystems are different all the way down to the smallest animals.

Hank Roberts said...

PS, that reminds me of something I read in the 1970s -- it was either a parody/reduction-to-absurdity of, or an actual proposal from, some "Chicago School" economist, proposing the economically correct approach to an investment problem. They observed declining whale populations being chased by relatively unprofitable money invested overbuild and underused whaling fleets.

The proposal was to (1) liquidate the whales completely, (2) liquidate the whaling fleet for scrap metal value, and (3) invest the money in the stock market, where it would grow much faster than any natural population.

It must've been a parody --- the point was that on average worldwide, natural stocks increase at something like three percent a year -- and so any attempt to extract more than that is stripmining biological resources.

Point is, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" is a basic realistic problem of both ecology and economics; science started being done well after declines in many resources due to overharvesting, so we don't even have good baselines.

The witless claim they know what something is worth because they know how many pieces of printed currency someone will give or take for a single one. And they tell you that tuna fish and salmon are worth far more per pound nowadays than back when they were common and easy to catch.

You know where that leads.

Hank Roberts said...

pps -- the papers citing that 2005 paper are interesting reading; see

Anonymous said...

Hank, I'm aware this conversation is pretty much OT so I'll be brief. The essential point is that ecosystems can be controlled top-down, bottom-up or even (usually perhaps) both, and not just in marine systems.

Chris S.

Anonymous said...

Fusarium oxysporum, Panama Disease. The reason Cavendish are so popular is that they are resistant to Race 1. Bugs evolve.

Little Mouse

Bouldin said...

Chris, you are right. I think Hank's point though, is that the idea that systems could be controlled top down at all was a bit of a finding. Bottom up has been obvious from the beginning, but top down not nearly so. It's also spurred me to look into how far Leopold was ahead of the curve on the issue. The answer "way far" would not surprise me in the least.

Hank Roberts said...

Thanks Jim, that's what I was trying to say.

I raised the point not to dispute Chris's but to flag misuse of that older science. The 'bottom up pyramid' notion got used to argue there was no worry knocking off the top animals in an environment, because the next step became the top, all still supported from the bottom.

Remove the wolves and hunters would take their place harvesting deer; remove the buffalo and other grazers would take over.

Marine ecosystems are different partly because the offspring of the large fish _are_ among the plankton that the filter-feeders sweep up.

As are whole bunches of organisms we only discover by tracing DNA:

Not claiming any expertise in this; I raised the point to reply to the anonynoise about economics -- we don't know enough about eco-logy to adequately do eco-nomics.

An isolated fact that some fool will pay or spend $X for something doesn't mean that's its value. It doesn't even mean that's "a thing."

The first rule of intelligent tinkering -- recognize the parts; what we see as "one thing" and "another thing" may only exist together. The second rule, when tinkering: keep all the parts.

We're missing a lot of parts already. Can anyone estimate the value over time ongoing that could have been derived from the stocks entirely lost?

Hank Roberts said...

I'll stop now, but I had to point to this wonderful blog post, appropriate to this topic in several ways:

Dulvy, N., Sadovy, Y., & Reynolds, J. (2003). Extinction vulnerability in marine populations Fish and Fisheries, 4 (1), 25-64 DOI: 10.1046/j.1467-2979.2003.00105.x

Vetemaa, M., Eschbaum, R., Albert, A., Saks, L., Verliin, A., Jurgens, K., Kesler, M., Hubel, K., Hannesson, R., & Saat, T. (2010). Changes in fish stocks in an Estonian estuary: overfishing by cormorants? ICES Journal of Marine Science DOI: 10.1093/icesjms/fsq113

Anonymous said...

Hank, I now see your point and agree. I have run in to a few "ecosystems are controlled from the top down only" arguments in recent years and thought this was similar. Neither 'top-down' nor 'bottom-up' paradigms really allow you to predict what will happen if you knock out a link somewhere in the middle though.

On a different note, it's not just biodiversity loss we should be paying close attention to. I'll leave others to contemplate the effects on the worlds agri-economies of 4 or 5 extra generations of aphid as predicted here:

Chris S.

Hank Roberts said...

Thanks, Chris, I needed the help to make my thinking clearer there.

> aphids

Oh, my, the ants that farm aphids are going to be having surplus commodity market price troubles.

Oh, wait ...

Hank Roberts said...

The good news: when an ecosystem is already damaged, careful subtraction of some species may be a workable approach to rebalancing.

The bad news (for a certain widespread primate species) is that Gort and Klaatu will be doing the selection. However, we do have friends:

Hank Roberts said...

> friends

Hank Roberts said...

Well, paging back a ways, perhaps the original plan would work too: