Valuing biodiversity

2nd February 2015

News, Alumni news

Can we put a value on biodiversity and are we able to measure it? After a thought-provoking and passionate discussion, Wadham’s annual Circles’ Debate closed with a two thirds majority voting against the motion that the value of biodiversity is immeasurable.

  • Nat Seddon and the expert panel present their arguments on the value of biodiversity in Wadham's Holywell Music Room.

  • Warden Ken Macdonald QC chairs the discussion. Professor Georgina Mac spoke against the motion "that the value of biodiversity is immeasurable: there is no quantifiable value of biodiversity.”

  • Wadham Fellow and Director of the Biodiversity Institue, Nat Seddon

  • Professor Georgina Mace, UCL

    Professor Georgina Mace, UCL

  • Professor Colin Mayer

  • Robert, Lord May of Oxford

Alumni, current students and guests attending the debate were persuaded by the arguments of Professor Georgina Mace, UCL, and Peter Moores Professor and Wadham Fellow, Colin Mayer, who spoke against the motion “that the value of biodiversity is immeasurable: there is no quantifiable value of biodiversity.”

Proposing the motion were Nat Seddon, Wadham Fellow and Director of the Biodiversity Institute at the Oxford Martin School and Robert, Lord May, a Professor in the Department of Zoology and Fellow of Merton College.

Dr Seddon set the scene by reminding the audience that threats to biodiversity, the variety of life from the level of gene to the level of ecosystem, are increasing and that we’re heading for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction with major negative consequences for humanity. Measuring and valuing biodiversity to bolster economic argument for conserving nature has become a huge industry. However, Dr Seddon outlined the practical and ethical problems with this approach. Biodiversity, she argued, is a multidimensional concept, and while there are some quantifiable aspects, the value of biodiversity cannot be reduced in a way that can be robustly compared among taxa and regions. If much of the value of biodiversity can’t be measured the big risk is that only a small subset will be protected. Dr Seddon then moved onto the major ethical obstacles to putting a value on biodiversity. One major problem is that different stakeholders see different value (e.g. indigenous people compared with commercial interests). Another is that this approach assumes a lot about the needs of future generations. Above all, she argued, the approach is dangerous because it results in turning biodiversity into a commodity. Biodiversity, like human life, has intrinsic value and efforts to protect it should not be motivated by purely economic arguments. If we do so, Dr Seddon concluded, we reduce the value of nature, and risk losing the aspect to biodiversity that is actually meaningful to us.

Lord May reiterated that the rational conclusion must be that we preserve biodiversity for our future, and measuring the cost at each step misses the point.  Drawing upon a Star Trek reference, he wondered whether on other planets where there is life, there may be more rational people who can immediately see, like the logical Spock, that we must preserve biodiversity whatever the cost.

Professor Georgina Mace, stated that in order to preserve the environment and biodiversity, not only the costs of conservation should be measured but also the potential effects of their loss.  The value of biodiversity can be defined as the cost of preserving it, thus forming the basis of policy and economic decisions. 

Professor Colin Mayer reinforced this argument by stating that not only is it possible to measure the costs of preserving biodiversity but it is actually being done by several organisations in both the public and private sectors.  Furthermore it is vital that it is done if companies are to take proper account of their impact on biodiversity and if governments are to implement appropriate policies. Without it, we cannot begin to reverse the damage that is being done.

Audience questions ranged from definitions of ‘value’ to “how many new species have arisen in the same period that recent extinctions have been recorded?” Audience members also queried whether the message of extinction really appeals to the public or whether we should we be speaking about successes in conservation. More than anything, the debate shed light on how complex the task of preserving biodiversity is, and the importance of forging a global dialogue between scientists and decision makers.

Warden of Wadham College, Ken Macdonald QC chaired the debate asking for a show of hands before and after the discussion. The vote shifted from a fifty-fifty split before the motion to a two-thirds majority agreeing that the value of biodiversity can be measured and is quantifiable.

The annual Circles’ Debate, held in the Holywell Music Room, welcomes members of the Dorothy, Nicholas and Wilkins Circles to lunch followed by a topical discussion to thank them for their ongoing support of Wadham College.  

  • Members of the Dorothy, Nicholas and Wilkins Circles enjoy lunch in the Old Library

    Members of the Dorothy, Nicholas and Wilkins Circles enjoy lunch in the Old Library.