Facts, Values, and the True Cost of Environmental Harm

Depth Story 02 – Dr Mimi E. Lam – Marie Curie Fellow, University of Bergen, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities and Affiliate Assistant Professor,  University of British Columbia, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries

Text and Photography by Jason Murphy – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director

Dr. Mimi E. Lam is out to prove that for people, some things are more important than money and not just in the philosophical sense. It’s a principle that she thinks should be built into our decision-making and our economy at a structural level, and that if it were, the world would be a better place.

To understand where Dr Lam has got to on all this, it helps to re-examine prevailing ideas around value.

Money plays a central role in all our lives. In many ways it shapes the world we live in–where we live, the people we meet, the opportunities that we are all afforded.

It’s a mechanism for exchange, a mechanism to store value, and for economists, a convenient proxy for thinking about the relative worth to society of all kinds of things, including ecological systems.

In the eyes of many, if something has value, whatever that value might be, money can be used to express that value in a way that is convenient and relevant to most people. Living ecosystems, for instance, can be understood in terms of their service value to society and therefore the economy.

Mimi Lam, Vancouver, BC.

Mimi Lam, Vancouver, BC.

This can be an effective way to talk about the importance of living ecosystems to business leaders and policymakers who have a responsibility to keep financial issues top of mind. And since the math often shows that resources should be protected if humankind is to receive the maximum benefit out of them (via carbon sequestration, eco-tourism, or some other method), some support this way of evaluating ecological systems as a method for achieving broad-based support for conservation initiatives.

The reductive character of the ecosystem services mindset creates problems though. Inevitably, environments and the creatures that live in them are presented as financial assets that can either be protected or (presumably) liquidated. It assumes a hierarchical relationship of humankind to the natural world, with the underlying implication that even if something should be preserved today, it could just as easily be exploited tomorrow if conditions change.

A Model That Fits With Reality

If you believe that humankind has a role as caretaker of the planet then the ecological services model does not do an adequate job of embracing those responsibilities. If you believe that humans are just one small part of a mind-bogglingly complex universe that we don’t adequately understand, let alone have the right to think about in even caretaker terms then the ecological services approach gets our relationship to the natural world completely wrong.

Mimi’s approach circumvents all this by pointing out that functioning ecosystems have a value to people that can be understood without expressing that value in financial terms. She prefers to focus on how our actions support human values like respect and responsibility–the values that we live by and that make us feel whole.

The value of ecosystems to us on a human level, she argues, can be built into our food supply chain by discovering what those human values are through research, by accepting that they are inviolable, and by making them prerequisites to any management plan.

Values and Herring  in Canada’s Pacific Northwest

Much of Mimi’s work has been focused on herring in British Columbia. In particular, working with the herring industry and local communities in Haida Gwaii. Recently her focus has broadened to include herring fisheries in Norway, the EU and globally.

Herring are an important resource. Exploited by reduction fisheries around the world, forage fish, of which herring is one species, represent $16.4 billion USD to the global economy. And while there is evidence that many stocks are relatively well managed by current standards, they also inhabit a layer of the ocean ecosystem vital to the transference of nutrients and energy from primary producers like phytoplankton to the mid-sized carnivorous fish like salmon and tuna that larger animals feed upon.

Having prioritized the human values described by the cards, participants were also asked what management approach they preferred for the Haida Gwaii herring fishery from a selection of four possible scenarios, such as keeping the status quo and a complete ban on any herring-related harvesting.

In addition, history has shown us, that it is also a layer that is easy to fish-out if modern methods are applied unchecked, and collapses in herring stocks, when they have occurred have wide-spread damaging effects on ocean ecosystems and local cultures and economies.

The battle over the fate of herring in the waters of Haida Gwaii, the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Haida people, has been fierce.

The fishery was closed in 2015 after a legal contest that leveraged the scientific data of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to make a case for preserving the future of the herring and its cultural value to the Haida.

Subsequent battles have succeeded in keeping the fishery closed, despite pressure to reopen it but officials at the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) and their chief legal counsel Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson has told us that they expect the battle to continue.

Mimi’s work, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary research team, focused on the value that the herring have to people, expressed in human not monetary terms. This was then understood in context of work led by Professor Tony J. Pitcher to model the ecological role of herring, linking the personal and cultural values that people wanted to see applied to the management of herring and the environment in general to modeled ecological impacts from those potential management approaches.

Mimi and and the team took a multi-stage approach to uncovering the human values aspect of the project.

Connecting Values to Value

Stage one was a value ranking exercise that utilized printed cards, each one outlining a concept for describing how humans might relate to the environment. A total of twelve distinct human values were described, drawn from three separate sources, including the six Haida values that have been identified to help guide conservation efforts on the archipelago with accompanying images by Haida artist and scientist April White.

Having prioritized the human values described by the cards, participants were also asked what management approach they preferred for the Haida Gwaii herring fishery from a selection of four possible scenarios, such as keeping the status quo and a complete ban on any herring-related harvesting.

The researchers found that the discussion on human values uncovered plenty of common ground, with the values of respect and responsibility rising to the fore and interconnectedness and balance also featuring strongly.

Management strategy preferences divided along geographic and cultural lines. Locals wanted to keep the fishery closed, and wanted a change of management approach. Commercial fishing interests from outside of Haida Gwaii were most likely to prefer the status quo, and completely rejected the option of closing the trawler fishery while allowing the traditional Haida spawn-on-kelp fishery to remain open.

I asked Mimi how ideas like respect or responsibility become understood in financial terms–how you explain their importance in context of the potential financial cost of living by them. Her answer is that you don’t. You simply accept them as management goals that will likely have a financial cost down the supply chain but need to be respected and adhered to regardless, if we are to do the right thing by ecosystems and aspirations for people’s relationship to them. In her words:

“We’re doing exactly the opposite of trying to equate these values to monetary values [… ] the whole motivation for our research is to try to highlight the plurality of values that humans place on or derive from herring or other marine resources,”

To do any different, in Mimi’s view, is to create a distorted supply chain, one where financial costs are being kept artificially low at the expense of the future of the natural environment and the human benefits we gain from its very existence.

She argues that addressing these issues to consumers in this way–terms she thinks most people can relate to–is long overdue and necessary and that as long as the importance of the extra costs can be accepted then mechanisms for imposing that cost and explaining how the money is spent should be relatively straightforward.

She says that “I personally have a strong reaction against the idea of putting a price tag on nature, and using that as an argument for society to either change its behaviour or come up with different institutional structures to protect marine resources [… ] I think that’s very dangerous because it can justify destructive behaviour.”

The True Cost of Extraction, A New Price for Fish

Of course, as the name implies, a supply chain transmits costs, as well as resources all the way from source to consumer, and it’s not Mimi’s belief that any increased cost should be absorbed by fishermen. In her view, the cost should be reflected in the price of fish that consumers buy, and that the need for this extra cost should be communicated to all as a response to the need to preserve human values–something she thinks has been missing from the conversation so far.

She argues that addressing these issues to consumers in this way–terms she thinks most people can relate to–is long overdue and necessary and that as long as the importance of the extra costs can be accepted then mechanisms for imposing that cost and explaining how the money is spent should be relatively straightforward.

“Our target audience is not the commercial fishermen per se, because [they are] the ones that have high stakes in the resource, they’re already engaged… what we're trying to do with our research and our outreach is to raise awareness amongst the public [and] the consumers.”

“The citizens are the public owners of the resource. The consumers are the end users of the fish that the fishermen catch. What’s [missing from] the environmental economy are the social and environmental costs of extraction of the marine resources from the waters.”

Questioning the Acceptable Risk of Harm

Mimi’s approach is to cut through layers of complexity and wrangling over the financial value of natural resources by translating the things that people find important on a human level directly into resource management goals. It’s a bold step to include the idea that some things transcend money into our thinking about supply chains in a direct and uncluttered way, and to assert that any cost incurred should be borne by consumers if supply chains are to properly reflect the reality of what we want and need to achieve.

It shifts the question from “how much should we fish” to “what are our collective goals for the ocean,” and expects the market price of fish to reflect those goals whatever they may be.

At street level, it connects consumers’ ideas of what they want out of environmental management to the prices they pay at the supermarket or their local fishmonger. It lifts the veil on the current supply chain’s distortions.

And It’s not just about environmental protection. For Mimi, it’s about a plurality of voices.

“I’m advocating for … different conversations. To start thinking in terms of harm because that is not specifically discussed in the fisheries meetings that I’ve attended… very rarely is that a conversation… it is more ‘how much do I get?’ … Also [my work focuses on] a consideration of values, explicitly, because implicitly values enter into every conversation, and decision and action that we take.”

She insists that data is an important component but stresses the need to “accept that facts and values are interwoven at the science–policy interface.” And, that the discussion must address the risks of harm that policy options imply in an explicit way because ultimately, “What risk of harm are you willing to accept?”

Money is an important and clever invention. It’s a tool that humankind has created to help get stuff done, and while it has its problems, it is useful in a multitude of ways. But Mimi is showing us that until we recognize that money is just a tool to help us reach real-world goals, that our real-world goals are ultimately to serve our values as human beings, and the primacy of those real-world goals must be built into our supply chain, we will continue to allow distorted market priorities to seduce us into getting it wrong when when it comes to our behaviour in, and in relation to the natural environment.

Dr Lam is working with these ideas and looking to bring them to effect in our environmental management processes. If it happens, it will represent nothing less than a seismic shift in how we allow value and values to drive how we function in the world.