The Extinction Market?

The Economist had a piece of commentary on crossing economic principles with conservation of species. 

It starts out by politely accusing certain elements within the scientific community of over-classifying types of animals as unique species, when maybe they could/should really just be subspecies, or not classified at all.  (Is a polar bear really just a black bear with a white coat?  Yeah, kinda, goes the subspecies argument.)

Well, we never.  Why ever would people do such a thing?  The writers suggest it’s an innocent desire to do two things: a) boost the total number of species, so the biodiversity of an area looks greater, and b) get greater attention for particular animal/plant populations. 

Bad idea!  they say.  And they dust off the old supply/demand graph you all drew on a test paper in high school.  You see, they call this pressure upward on the number of species “species inflation.”  The economic argument goes that once the number of different species balloons, people won’t think as much of losing one or two to extinction.  Further, if there are a hundred kinds of something dull (like toads, say), people will value losing even the most important or rarest kind less because of the volume. 

We think there’s some truth to the economic rationale, even if we’ll wait and see on the allegations of species-padding.  But that it doesn’t mean scientists should under-report, for a couple of reasons: 

  1. Many people already don’t care about losing species, so for this group conservationists have nothing to lose by assiduously labelling every subgroup.  You can’t devalue something already valued at $0.
  2. If there are 14 kinds of owls, there are 14 kinds of owls.  The job of science in this case is to develop, as much as possible, an objective and accurate understanding of the world.  Serving agendas by bending the truth either way would be disastrous. 
  3. The “natural” tendency of people to devalue something perceived to be plentiful is a market phenomenon, but it’s not always a government phenomenon.  Policy decisions, whether wise and honest or stupid and corrupt, won’t respond to such a theoretical supply-demand interaction.
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