Gretchen C. Daily: Putting a price on nature to protect it

Gretchen C. Daily
Gretchen C. Daily

We all live on a crowded planet that is getting more crowded all the time. So how should we practice conservation, keep plant and animal species from going extinct and preserve the economic, social and aesthetic benefits that nature provides to humans?

The answer, according to ecologist Gretchen C. Daily, cannot be to create many new reserves where the environment is protected in a natural state, untouched by humans.  There is not enough room. Instead, Daily told a University of Minnesota audience on June 13, the answer has to be to look for ways the plants and animals we most need can survive in coexistence with agriculture and other human  activities.

Read an Aug. 9, 2011, New York Times profile of Daily. View video of Daily’s presentation, listen to audio of the talk or download a podcast. View slides from the lecture. Read a Finance and Commerce newspaper account of Daily’s talk. View archived video from past lectures.

And the answer to protecting nature in the face of human population growth,  Daily said, almost certainly will involve putting a

Stephen Polasky makes a point during panel discussion

Stephen Polasky, left, makes a point, while David Tillman,
Krist Blann, Gretchen Daily and Robert Elde, the College
of Biological Sciences dean, look on.

price on everything  we get  from nature so the environment’s value is recognized upfront in every decision-making process, rather than after ecosystems have been irreparably damaged.

In a lecture titled “Harmonizing People and Nature: A New Business Model,” Daily, a Stanford University biologist, described the emerging science of ecosystem valuation, a blend of ecology and economics. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

About 200 people attended the lecture and later peppered Daily and a panel of Minnesota experts with questions about the techniques of ecosystem valuation and the justifications for putting a dollar sign on the environment.

The panelists were: Kristin Blann, a Nature Conservancy freshwater ecologist; Stephen Polasky, a University of Minnesota ecological economist who is working with Daily to develop a software system for making cost-benefit analyses on ecological decisions; and David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecologist whose recent research has focused on calculating the full environmental and economic costs and benefits of grain crops, food-based biofuels and biofuels made from prairie perennials.

Daily and Polasky are key figures in the Natural Capital Project, a partnership between Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Daily’s lecture was the fifth in the Moos Family Speaker Series, a series of lectures funded by an endowment honoring the late Malcolm Moos, president of the University of Minnesota from 1967 to 1974.

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