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Uncovering “Taboo tradeoffs” in ecosystem services

In some professions routine decisions are emotionally charged. A doctor must choose which of two children to give the life-giving liver transplant, for example. Everyone can identify with this dilemma, and few would judge the doctor harshly for her decision. But if the choice was between a liver transplant operation for a sick child and investment in updating a wing of the hospital then the reaction changes. Bringing economics into the equation shifts the balance. Even considering such a tradeoff would be considered distasteful or offensive to many.  

Psychologist Philip Tetlock calls these situations "taboo tradeoffs.” Tetlock proposed that offering money for something people consider sacred, be it a flag, a place or a person, can lead directly to the rejection of a compromise solution more firmly than when money isn’t mentioned. People consider trading sacred values for money morally offensive and vehemently reject such proposals.

The idea of taboo tradeoffs has been applied to many diverse fields, such as international negotiations about nuclear weapons, health care policy, and even how to change office culture. But, no one has applied the idea of taboo tradeoffs to conservation policy. This may explain why some policies to protect ecosystems fail: uncomfortable tradeoffs have been simply ignored for a simple economic solution to improve conservation. Recently, as part of the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, my colleagues and I looked more deeply at the idea of tradeoffs in conservation policy. We wanted to see if there was anything missing from the equation. Who were the true winners and losers in a particular tradeoff?

People benefit from nature in a huge variety of ways. Over the past several decades scientists have begun to systematically study these benefits using the term ecosystem services. Typically these services are classified as provisioning services, regulating and cultural services.

Provisioning services are the things people get from nature, such as a food, timber, and water. Regulating services are ways that ecosystem provide a reliable world in which people live, for example by moderating climate, reducing flooding, and storing carbon.  A diverse set of other benefits given by nature include recreation, beauty and spiritual benefits and are termed cultural services. Some of these benefits, such as tourism are well understood and studied, but other more personal and internal benefits such as the ability of time spent in nature to relax and focus people’s thoughts are more difficult to assess and understand.

The concept of ecosystem services allows us to understand how a change to an ecosystem that may bring some economic benefits, say for example building a golf course or growing food, can reduce the availability of other benefits from nature. Placing an economic value on natural resources hitherto considered valueless or entirely ignored is a rapidly expanding area of research. But it is also controversial. The attraction of valuation is that it can convert a complex set of ecosystem benefits into clear numbers that can be compared to one another. However, such efforts are often opaque and fictional. The processes to generate these numbers are not easily understandable because it is unclear who receives the benefits and what these number mean in a decision context.

But a deeper problem with valuation, which has not been widely discussed, is that valuing the sacred is often considered deeply offensive. Just as some Catholics are deeply offended by art that uses sacred symbols, people who care about nature, human rights, or specific places can be deeply offended and indeed disgusted by efforts that place secular monetary values on species, livelihoods, or places that they view as sacred. When Gretchen Daily and Robert Costanza first promoted the notion of ecosystem services their goals were to avoid this type of response.

Costanza argued that ecosystem services “highlights the interconnected, dynamic interdependence between humans and the rest of nature. If anything, it is the conventional environmental and economic views that perpetuate the myth that humans are separate from the rest of nature. Environmentalists want to protect nature from people, economists tend to ignore nature as irrelevant. Both separate nature from people. Ecosystem services makes human's interdependence with the rest of nature more obvious and tangible.”

If research and policy interventions relating to ecosystem services ignore taboo tradeoffs then the resulting policies can cause offense and will not succeed.

Our research was a collaboration between Swedish, British and Kenyan scientists. and focused on Nyali, a fishing community near Mombasa, Kenya. We worked with local communities to examine tradeoffs in coastal fisheries by identifying the pathways by which local marine ecosystems benefitted five groups: captains of illegal but widely-used large beach seine nets; laborers used in teams to pull beach seine nets; independent fishers using other fishing gear, such as small gill nets and spears; male traders, who specialize in large fish for high-value markets; and female traders, who buy smaller and cheaper fish, typical of beach seine catches, and fry them to sell to local communities. Taking a more socially inclusive and holistic view of the system uncovered the interconnections between the groups who used the fishery, and showed that tradeoffs were pervasive, but some were hidden, and often ignored by managers. For example, a simple analysis of ecosystem services suggested that conservation and economic goals could be achieved by removing illegal nets and reducing the number of fishers. But this missed an important and morally offensive tradeoff: this fishing ground was also a crucial source of income for very poor women in the region.

Psychological research has shown that taboo tradeoffs can be dealt with by reframing discussions to avoid directly trading sacred and secular values. The keys are to: firstly, align sacred values with one another, and secondly, create the space for open dialogue about the types of tradeoff and values. Our evidence backed this up. We developed a forum for dialogue between fisheries managers and the rest of the community to explore all tradeoffs. This forum provided a way for groups who benefited from the fishery and managers to openly deal with these thorny issues, and by embracing the complexity of the problem we could discuss the routine and tragic tradeoffs, which are more socially acceptable, rather than provoking disgust at taboo tradeoffs.

We believe that the concept of taboo tradeoffs offers a useful way of looking at tradeoffs among ecosystem services that complements and extends approaches focussed on quantifying and valuing ecosystem services. This offers a practical way of developing more sophisticated methods for using the concept of ecosystem services in the real world. Rather than adopting simplistic ideas from economics, discussions of ecosystem services must recognize the psychological and social contexts and process that values are embedded within to usefully reconnect human society with the ecosystems that support them.

This work was supported by the UK Government through the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) research programme.

Further reading

Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being

Tim M. Daw, Sarah Coulthard, William W. L. Cheung, Katrina Brown, Caroline Abunge, Diego Galafassia, Garry D. Peterson, Tim R. McClanahan, Johnstone O. Omukoto, and Lydiah Munyi.