Friday, May 28, 2010

Opportunity Cost and environmental ethics

© 2010 Joshua Stark

To be honest with you, the reason I bring up a lot of economics on this blog is because economics is the study of scarcity and our solutions to scarcity, which also happens to be a really big question in environmental ethics, only with (sometimes fake) numbers and an overly-(pseudo)scientific approach.  Here, then, is another economics concept that applies to environmental ethics:  Opportunity cost.
Strangely for economics, the term "opportunity cost" is actually very descriptive of the idea.  Opportunity cost is simply everything else you could have done when you chose to do something.  For example, if you spent $5 on lunch, you could have saved that $5 one more day, you could have bought a toy, etc.  The cost to you is every other choice you could have made with that five bucks.

Yes, it is depressing.  But, it can be really helpful in honestly looking at what you have and how you should use it - basically, your opportunities, and what they cost you.  If you get too bummed-out, just take a moment and think about opportunity benefit - what you get from your decisions.

Now, let's use opportunity cost in an example brought up by Prof. Ray Hilborn of Washington University.  The good professor contends that if we were to replace the protein we get from fishing by instead farming on land, we'd have to use additional land about 22 times the size of our current rainforests.  Dr. Hilborn then compares land-based agriculture's to fishing's impacts on biodiversity, and claims that fishing has shown to have reduced biodiversity about 30%, whereas land-based farming, in his opinion, results in a 100% decrease in biodiversity.

Dr. Hilborn is a well-known (to fisheries nerds), typically pro-commercial fishing scientist, and so his description needs to be taken in that context, but the general concepts are valid, and bear some thought.  What are the true opportunity costs to switching from fishing to on-land agriculture?

I find Dr. Hilborn's biodiversity comment a tad oversimplistic on both ends: directly decreasing biodiversity from fishing will have many impacts on food webs; and farming practices exist that provide better biodiversity impacts than his claim.  But, these questions do offer some real meat for future research as well as future decision-making by agencies and individuals regarding food choices, and these decisions will be based on the opportunity costs to the values we hold for our wild places, our oceans and lands, and ourselves.

So, that five bucks you were going to spend on a burger today... where will it go?  What else could you have done with it?

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