Money talks…right?

April 29, 2013

Why talk about intrinsic worth when you can put a price tag on it?

The idea of calculating the value of healthy natural systems and factoring that value into land management decisions is taking hold across the world. The idea is that with a better sense of how much these so-called “ecosystem services” are worth, we will be more likely to want to protect them.

Take a grove of trees lining a river bank. Traditionally, the trees are worth their selling price as lumber. Under an ecosystem services approach, you’d also factor in the role trees play in shading the river (keeping water cool), filtering out pollutants (keeping water clean) and stabilizing the stream bank (preventing erosion from floods).

It turns out you can assign a monetary value to all of the great services provided by healthy natural systems, giving you an economic argument that matches the dollars and cents sensibilities of many land managers.

But hold on. Money is a powerful motivator, but it turns out it’s not always the most effective argument for conservation. We shared this tip and more during a recent webinar with Kinship Foundation Fellows. We based our advice on our messaging needs assessment of ecosystem services projects in the Pacific Northwest—a project that was funded by the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation.

Here are four recommendations for communicating around ecosystem services.

  1. Beware the money trap: While a dollars-and-cents argument is often effective, it doesn’t work for everyone, including many voters. Americans understand that Nature provides many, many benefits. We support efforts to calculate the value of those benefits. But, most of us are skeptical of equating benefits to specific dollar amounts. And, we don’t like the suggestion that Nature is only valuable insofar as it serves our interests. It turns out that some of the things we most appreciate are the hardest to quantify (i.e. spending time in the woods with family). What does this mean for advocates? It’s critical to first acknowledge the impossibility of putting a price tag on Nature. Then you can explain the need to fill a gap in traditional economic analysis that puts the value of Nature’s benefits at zero. This allows you to point out the dollar value of specific benefits without offending your audience.
  2. Avoid jargon. The language used to describe ecosystem services projects is a dissonant amalgamation of scientific and financial jargon that can leave most audiences scratching their heads. The heavy use of jargon undermines the ability to convey what is at heart a relatively simple concept: compensating or encouraging land managers to manage their land in a way that provides benefits to the larger community. Instead of ecosystem services, talk about Nature’s benefits or value. Instead of markets, credits, buyers and sellers, talk about paying land managers to manage their land in a way that provides benefits. Instead of natural capital, talk about the benefits provided by healthy natural systems.
  3. You don’t have to explain everything. Practitioners tend to start their communications by explaining the larger ecosystem services concept and its many manifestations. Remember: Your audience doesn’t need to understand everything. Imagine you are trying to convince someone to open a bank account. You wouldn’t start by trying to explain the entire financial system. Instead, you would focus on what a bank account offers your audience: a secure place to store money and the ability to earn interest and more easily pay bills. It’s the same with ecosystem services. Figure out what you want to your audience to do, and focus your message on getting that point across in language your audience can relate to.
  4. Lead with the most tangible benefits. A powerful message is a simple message. Outreach materials describing ecosystem services projects often include exhaustive bulleted lists of the many, many benefits provided by natural systems. Unfortunately, the longer the list, the less likely someone will read it. So which benefits are best to highlight? Research shows that voters understand and care most about the benefits that relate to their health and safety. For example, filtering water to keep it clean for drinking and irrigation; removing air pollution; keeping soil fertile and erosion-resistant and pollination of plants and crops to help them grow. Instead of trying to get 18 points across, focus on the handful of benefits that will mean the most to your audience.

Ecosystem services is an emerging field, and so we’re all learning as we go how to best convey the value of this new approach and make projects work on the ground. Have you come across a good way of describing your project? Please send ideas and suggestions our way.


Amy Frykman