The Role of Numbers in Environmental Policy: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)

Tone Smith Spash

    Publikation: AbschlussarbeitDissertation

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    This dissertation explores the central role of numbers in environmental policy and discourse, with a particular focus on the "economic turn" in nature conservation. The aim has been to understand and explain why, despite the parallel increase in environmental problems and in quantitative information about the environment, the faith in and focus on numbers to do something about the problems seem as strong as ever. The dissertation draws on discourse analysis and insights from historical and sociological studies about numbers and quantification and combines it within a critical realist methodology. The main empirical case analysed is the UN-backed study of "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" (TEEB), supplemented by an historical review of the development of environmental statistics since the 1970s and a review of the developments within conservation science with respect to the role of numbers.

    The historical review demonstrates a change from biophysical numbers to new measures of equivalence (e.g. CO2-equivalents), paralleling the move from central planning and administrative rationality to neoliberalism and market rationality. While monetary valuation has been much criticised in the environmental politics literature for leading to the commercialisation of nature, this study shows a more nuanced picture: the role of monetary valuation has rather been to "bridge" the transition from administrative rationality to market rationality. It is the newly developed measures of equivalence which allow setting up new markets for financial instruments and compensation schemes for environmental damage. In the case of TEEB, monetary valuation and its related arguments of efficiency, rational decision-making etc., are first and foremost rhetorical since the main recommendations (economic incentives and markets) are taken for granted.

    The centrality of numbers in current environmental policy discourse is explained by a combination of structural conditions, the search for business opportunities and actors' perceptions of money as the only possible language of communication. Some structural conditions are of a more general kind specific for modernity, while others are specific for the neoliberal era. A main problem with the number focus in environmental policy, is that it allows to not address the underlying drivers of the problems, and hence strengthens the "actualist" perception of reality.

    The study concludes that numbers have potential as evidence of environmental problems. However, change does not happen by the numbers themselves (contra mainstream economics), but must achieve political support. Further research is needed to understand better how numerical information can be combined with approaches which move beyond actualism, instrumentalism and relativism.
    Gradverleihende Hochschule
    • Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
    PublikationsstatusVeröffentlicht - 20 Sept. 2017