The reason my guesses on nuts and bolts were often very far off, even with my divide-and-conquer method, was that I never completed my calculations before an answer was required. I was always overcome by the uncertainties involved. Did the little area I counted represent one-twentieth or one-twenty-fifth of the jar? Is it representative? In order to answer that, I’d shake the jar, only to discover all the small washers were at the bottom. So, I’d have to count again and recalculate. “Time’s up. Turn in the scrap of paper with your name and number. The game’s over.” I’d end up writing down a random number and suffering the embarrassment attendant thereto. As species become extinct at an ever-increasing rate, resulting in the loss of a fifth or a fourth of all species in the next two decades, according to various estimates, I fear economists and biologists are in a similar situation.
Rather than continuing my attempt to answer this difficult question on the value of diversity, it may make more sense to take a careful look at the question itself and why we are trying to answer it. The question says a lot about us, the questioners. It is a measure of our unique arrogance that we are the only species that calls symposia and writes books to address that question. The sense of arrogance is hardly diminished when we note our usual reasons for asking it. Why are some people so insistent that we put dollar values on species diversity? Because, we are told, important decisions are being made that may extinguish other species. These decisions must be based on some kind of analytic framework (which means each species must be given value in our economic system). If we do not put some dollar value on a species, it will get left out altogether. In other words, they want us to put dollar values on species so they can compare these to the value of real estate around reservoirs and to kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power.
Suddenly, the fun goes out of our guessing game. A new analogy seems more apt: I have been in a terrible accident, and I wake up in a hospital bed on a life-support system. The hospital is short on funds, and the hospital administrators are having a meeting at my bedside. They say they have examined all the other methods to raise the necessary money, and they are proposing to sell a few spare parts from my life-support system at a yard sale. One of them says, “This equipment is so complicated, a few parts won’t be missed.” “How much do you think this part is worth?” asks another, pointing toward a piece of shiny metal. I try to see what the part is connected to, but it is screwed into a big metal box that looks important. “Or that one over there; it looks like it’s just cosmetic,” another of them suggests. I almost agree, and then I notice that a main power line passes through it. “Stop! Not that one,” I say. Just in time.
It is one thing to treat the valuation of biodiversity as a guessing game or as a set of very interesting theoretical problems in welfare economics. It is quite another thing to suggest that the guesses we make are to be the basis of decision making that will affect the functioning of the ecosystems on which we and our children will depend for life.
If we are not taken seriously unless we quantify our answer, I would like to suggest some new units of measurement. An oops is the smallest unit of chagrin that we would feel if we willfully extinguish a species we need later on. A boggle is the amount of ignorance encountered when an economist asks a biologist a question about species and ecosystems, and the biologist answers: “I don’t know,