Putting a Price on Nature

Title Image Credit: Baz2121, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

How do we motivate people to protect ecosystems?

At this stage in the climate crisis, many of us are very aware that ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss are huge problems, bringing about everything from rapidly expanding deserts to global pandemics. We are acutely conscious that something incredibly valuable is being destroyed, and we want to protect it.

However, there are also people who aren’t very aware of the scale of ecosystem destruction, and therefore don’t seem to be doing anything about it. Motivating these people to protect ecosystems – or at least stop destroying them – is a huge problem. A problem so big, some people have even tried to throw money at it.

Types of Ecosystem Services,(Image Credit: Forest Trends, The Katoomba Group, and UNEP)

Throwing money at it, in this case, means payments for ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are a broad term for the vast benefits we gain from fucntioning ecosystems, and encompass everything from recreational activities (think environmental tourism) to the very food we eat (through healthy pollinator populations and stable climates). Payments for these services are become increasingly popular1, and unfortunately, they probably don’t work.

To explain why, I’m going to tell you a story about blood.

The Gift of Life

Blood donations save lives. Lots of lives, in fact. According to the WHO, over 118 million units of blood are transfused globally, each year2. In the USA alone, someone needs a blood transfusion every 2 seconds 3

However, for the sick and dying to receive blood, healthy people have to give it. How do you convince a healthy, normal person to give you one ninth of their body’s blood supply? Well, thankfully we have about a hundred years of research on the topic to consult.

The world’s first blood donation service was founded in the 1920s. Before that, family members donated blood to relatives undergoing surgery, and soldiers donated blood to one another in military hospitals. These early donors were motivated by a desire to help close friends and family. It was during World War Two that blood donation became something civilians volunteered to do, for strangers, and for free! Wars and other disasters are great for blood donation. After 9/11, the American Red Cross received so many donations, they had to throw nearly half of it away.4

People like to be helpful, when in crisis. It helps give us a sense of control. During World War Two, donating blood was an intense and direct way to feel involved. It was intimate, too – in Russia, each bottle of donated blood was labelled with the name and address of the donor. Injured soldiers would write letters of thanks to those who had saved their lives – and this system reportedly resulted in quite a few marriages.

This period also shows us huge numbers of people donating blood as a public, performative display of their own goodness (the blood equivalent of ‘greenwashing’, maybe). In the UK, morally righteous women wrote to newspapers about how they were willing to shed blood for their country – at the same time as publicly shaming young men who had not signed up to be soldiers.

A World Blood Donor Day poster, motivating people to donate before “Disaster Strikes”. (Image Credit: World Health Organisation)

Wars end, however. In the immediate aftermath of WW2, donation numbers remained high. Altruism and moral righteousness remained motivating – but so did habit. While people may have needed a good reason to start donating blood, maintaining the habit required little investment more than free biscuits and regular reminder letters. People who began donating during WW2 continued to donate long after it. Their children, too, were likely to keep up the habit.

But this effect is fading, and in the Global North, the average age of blood donors is increasing, as younger generations are not in the habit of donating. To fill the gap, some blood transfusion services began paying donors for their blood.

It was a disaster.

Comparisons are often made between the UK, where it is illegal to receive payment for any tissue or organ donations, and the USA, where payments for blood and plasma donations are common. Most famously, Richard Titmuss compared these two systems in The Gift Relationship in 1970. In the 50 years since, these systems have been examined again and again, and the reliable conclusions are these:

Healthy, financially comfortable people will donate their blood, but they won’t sell it. People who sell their blood are people in poverty, with poor nutrition, or addiction issues. These low-income donors are more likely to have health conditions which mean they shouldn’t donate blood, and more likely to lie about this on income forms. When payments for blood stop, these people stop donating.

And when payments stop, the healthy, financially comfortable people don’t start donating again. The image of blood donation as something only desperate people do sticks around. Blood donation is no longer the sacred gift of life, it’s sordid and shameful. It’s something desperate people do. It’s the trade of bodily fluids for cash. Transfusion services are worse off than they were when they started.

A thought experiment: someone wants to buy your blood. A stranger. How much would they have to pay you for it? For 1/9th of the blood in your veins right now? You have to go to a community centre, or some other boring room full of strangers. It takes a whole afternoon. You have to fill out forms and sit in a beige waiting room for hours, before and after. It’s boring.

I donate my blood for free, but if you were paying me, you’d have to pay me quite a lot. If you stopped paying me again? I don’t know if I’d donate it again. Brains are dumb.

It’s pretty simple, really. People can’t really feel altruistic when they’re paid to do something. They can’t feel morally superior for it. These intrinsic rewards (i.e. rewards coming from within the person) are crowded out by money – a cold, calculated extrinsic reward.

People almost never do things for only one reason. Except when that reason is money. Money is the one measure of value which kills all other values just by being on a playing board.

NB: To find out more about the history and sociology of blood transfusion, check out Nine Pints by Rose George. More information about the history and behavioural science on blood donation can be found there.

Money Can’t Buy You…

But hey, maybe this doesn’t tell us anything about payments for ecosystem services. Maybe it’s just a blood thing. People are a bit weird about blood, after all. It comes up in a lot of metaphors.

However, it seems like something similar happens every time something people valued intrinsically is given a value measured in money (i.e. commodification).

One study in Brazil attempted to improve school attendance in children from poor families by paying the kids to go to school. The kids in the study did end up going to school slightly more often – but overall attendance in the school dropped. The siblings of the children in the study were more likely than kids from other families to drop out over the course of the scheme. Why send both your kids to school if only one is getting paid to be there? The other kid could be making money for the family somewhere else!

Before the study happened, school just wasn’t a money thing in these parents’ minds. Once money entered the equation, the intrinsic rewards parents got from sending their kids to school (e.g. free childcare, an inherent sense that education was good, feeling like a good parent, a hope that they were improving their children’s future job prospects) were crowded out by money considerations – these were not wealthy people. Even before the scheme ended, paying people to send their kids to school actually reduced the number of kids in attendance.

NB: To find out more about Brazil’s failed experiment with paying parents for their kids’ school attendence, check out Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This book is a great resource on behavioural economics and the economics of sustainability.

And so, to ecosystem protections. Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are a relatively new phenomenon, but they are expanding rapidly. PES programmes are any where anyone is paid for land management practices which protect ecosystems and the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide. These programmes might include payments for carbon sequestration, water quality improvements, or habitat creation.

A 2018 literature review1 estimated US$36-42 billion was spent annually on PES. Very few of these programmes are evidence based. No one has really checked if they improve ecosystem protections or change human behaviour.

The evidence from psychology implies they might cause people to value ecosystems less than they would if they weren’t being paid to do so. PES programmes are variable, but all rely on a mechanism of motivating behavioural change which has been shown to backfire spectacularly. Paying people to do things they were previously intrinsically motivated to do makes them think of that thing as financially valuable, instead of as inherently valuable. These people stop doing the thing when you stop paying them, even though they may have previously done the thing for free. Even more worryingly, payments may decrease the desired behaviour in people who aren’t included in the PES programme. If your neighbour is getting paid to maintain hedgerow habitats on his farmland, why would you waste your time doing the same thing for free?

Yellow wagtail populations declines have been linked to the growth of farmland. Yet paying farmers to maintain biodiversity on their land is not the answer (Image Credit: Pete Beard, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

So, how should we be encouraging people to protect and conserve fragile ecosystems? The short answer is: it’s complicated. The long answer could fill several books.

We do know that intrinsic motivations are more robust than extrinsic ones. Internal, mental rewards like knowing you’ve saved a life by donating blood, or believing that your kid is getting a good education because of your support – these things motivate people even when external rewards like money are taken away.

The best way to motivate people to protect ecosystems is to tell them how, and to tell them why. People like to protect the things they value. People like to help during crisis. People like to feel important, effective, and helpful.

There are things money can’t buy.

Aífe Kearns is a writer, researcher, and educator, focusing on sustainability in agriculture and rural living. She recently completed a MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development with University College Dublin. Aífe is currently a Climate Ambassador with An Taisce and the co-host of too many podcasts. You can find out more about Aífe and her (too) many projects by following her on twitter at @aifekearns.

Any information on blood donation not otherwise attributed is taken from Nine Pints by Rose George. More information about the history and behavioural science on blood donation can be found there.

The case study on Brazillian school attendance was taken from Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This book is a great resource on behavioural economics and the economics of sustainability, for anyone interested in such things.

  1. Salzman et al. – The global status and trends of Payments for Ecosystem Services
  2. World Health Organisation – Blood Donors
  3. American Red Cross Issues Emergency Need for Blood Donors
  4. Why It’s Safe to Receive Blood from Donors Who’ve Been Vaccinated for COVID-19

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