Economics and Ecology

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Ecologists benefit from interactions with economists in at least two distinct ways: 1) synergy in approach, as ecology has historically borrowed and adapted analytical modeling approaches from economics, and 2) many of the environmental issues that ecologists are concerned with are explicitly influenced by economic considerations(1).

Bringing economists to work with ecologists and environmental scientists on projects at NCEAS fuses the analytical capabilities of both disciplines, and incorporates expertise of the economic factors that play an important role in conservation and management decisions(2,3). Thus, the NCEAS research model enables collaborations that strive to better understand both human interactions with ecosystems, and the economic implications of those interactions(4). As a result of the synergies between economics and ecology, results of these collaborations have been published in journals specializing in each discipline.

Natural environments provide important services to humans that may be lost when those ecosystems are degraded(5). For example, coastal wetlands: provide critical habitat for animals that are harvested, reduce shoreline erosion, filter water before it enters the ocean, and buffer inland communities against storm surge--all of which are valuable(6). Ecologists and economists work together at NCEAS to identify and establish the economic value of such services to society(7-9). Where multiple management and conservation actions are being considered, economic expertise can help to identify an approach that achieves desired conservation and management goals while minimizing societal costs(10). Alternatively, economics provides a decision-making framework within which to maximize conservation benefits of an environmental policy given a fixed allocation of resources(11).

A number of NCEAS projects have combined the perspectives of ecology and economics to address issues important to both humans and the natural environment. For example, researchers at NCEAS have:

  • Used satellite imagery to estimate the relative contributions of marketed products and ecosystem services to national economies(12).
  • Developed a model to evaluate how pollinator declines may affect markets for crops that require insect pollination(13).
  • Estimated the economic costs of damages due to non-native invasive pests(14) and pathogens(15).
  • Evaluated alternative methods for extracting resources while minimizing environmental impacts, while simultaneously considering ecological and economic factors(16).
  • Discovered that the fish species targeted by fishermen are determined by profit potential, rather than the size of the fish(17).
  • Calculated and compared the value of a single species performing an ecosystem service, such as pest control in agriculture, to alternative methods of performing that service(18).

Marine topics have generated a substantial body of research at NCEAS. In their geographic scale, ecological and political complexity, and importance to human society, the oceans present a significant challenge that benefits from collaboration between ecologists and economists. In particular, applying ecosystem-based management in the oceans presents new challenges in ecology, economics and governance. Due to the range of territorial distinctions in the oceans, the geographic boundaries of governance of marine ecosystems frequently does not match the range and size of area necessary to adequately manage important marine species(19). Nonetheless, interdisciplinary groups of NCEAS researchers have worked together to develop strategies that integrate ecology and socioeconomics.

This discourse between ecologists and economists has invigorated researchers at a fundamental level, as they break new ground in their respective fields. Equally important, the results of these NCEAS projects provide management and conservation professionals with critical tools for effective and informed decision making.

  1. P.R. Armsworth et al., Resource and Energy Economics 26, 115 (2004)
  2. Kolstad, Resource and Energy Economics 26, 103 (2004)
  3. P. R. Armsworth et al., Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16, 229 (2001)
  4. J. Justus et al., Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24, 187 (2009)
  5. G. Heal, Resource and Energy Economics 26 (2004)
  6. E.W. Koch et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7, 29 (2009)
  7. R. Costanza et al., Nature 387, 253 (1997)
  8. K.M. Konarska et al., Ecological Economics 41, 491 (2002)
  9. R.S. deGroot et al., Ecological Economics 41, 393 (2002)
  10. F. W. Davis et al., Ecology and Society 11 (2006)
  11. C. Costello & S. Polasky, Resource and Energy Economics & 26, 157 (2004)
  12. P. C. Sutton et al., Ecological Economics 41, 509 (2002)
  13. P. G. Kevan et al., Conservation Ecology 5, (2001)
  14. K.F. Kovacs et al., Ecological Economics 69, 569 (2010)
  15. K. Kovacs et al. Journal of Environmental Management 92, 1292 (2011)
  16. J.F. Kitchell et al., Bulletin of Marine Science 74, 607 (2004)
  17. S.A. Sethi et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 8317 (2010)
  18. C. J. Cleveland et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5, 238 (2006)
  19. L.B. Crowder et al., Science 313, 617 (2006)