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The Economics of Ecology

‘Sticker shock’ may lead to preservation

Stephen Farber stands on a path near the edge of the sluggish, opaque Monongahela River. Beyond the thin line of trees on the far bank lies the hillside above Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, a tight patchwork of houses blanketing the slope. A feisty breeze ripples Farber’s blue windbreaker as he takes in the landscape like a painter seeking the best vantage point. But Farber’s not interested in art. Everywhere he looks, he sees levels of value. He sees services. Farber sees the economics of nature rooted in the ecology of the Monongahela and its surrounding hillsides.

In fact, Farber’s research suggests that giving economic value to environmental systems may help to preserve those systems. His work brings together two disciplines that aren’t typically allied: economics, which seeks to assign set values, and ecology, which examines how nature works.

According to Farber, a professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, any natural vista can be analyzed for what he calls natural system services. “You could start by asking, ‘What kind of natural system services are we getting out of that hillside landscape?’” he says, gesturing across the river. “Thinking about it in a more highly vegetated and tree-covered state, that kind of hillside would provide some useful services, such as soil erosion protection—protecting the Monongahela, protecting downstream communities from dirtier water, and protecting fisheries from pollutants and sedimentation. Altering the landscape can diminish the value of some of the services we get from the land for free.”

In conducting his analyses, Farber uses a wide array of economic methods to arrive at present values for given landscapes. He might compare, for instance, the water-retaining, pollutant-reducing, aesthetic, and recreational values of a piece of undeveloped land with its value as a residential development. Considering depreciation and a variety of potential uses, Farber can determine the full cost—in terms of the natural services lost—of developing that land.

“The hard part is trying to get into the community and finding the important tradeoffs for people,” says Farber, who is also program director of environmental decision support in Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. “Knowing the science is one thing, but knowing how it affects people is important, too, because ultimately it’s a matter of addressing human need.”

The potential application of Farber’s valuation was made painfully clear by last year’s Hurricane Katrina disaster. Before coming to Pitt 14 years ago, Farber conducted the first study of the economic value of wetlands systems as a professor at Louisiana State University.

“I was on the National Academy of Sciences’ panel for Louisiana’s plan to save its coast, pre-Katrina,” says Farber. “One of the questions posed to us was, ‘Is it possible to save Louisiana’s coast?’ The answer was yes, if we had enough resources. The other question was, ‘Is it worth saving?’ The answer was yes as well, because there were significant economic and social implications—both regionally and nationally.”

A crude rule of thumb, he says, is that three miles of wetlands will reduce storm surges by one foot, and an acre of wetlands provides roughly $20,000 worth of services. But that same acre would sell for only $500. “The gap between market value and social value is huge,” Farber says. “Markets, then, cannot be relied upon to preserve resources of great social value, such as wetlands.”

Katrina drove home Farber’s point. “New Orleans has lost its surrounding wetlands, making it more vulnerable to storms,” he says. One need only look at New Orleans a year after Katrina to see the economic value of those lost wetlands.

Even though it’s at the other end of the Mississippi River watershed, Farber says the same problem applies to Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh has lost a lot of its tree cover, and as a result, it doesn’t have the water-storage capacity that’s needed to hold back the rainfall runoff from a storm.” The result: greater potential for devastating floods.

Farber believes that putting the importance of healthy ecology in economic terms can help the environment get the attention it needs and deserves. “Money is the traditional currency of American decision-making,” he says. “When you start talking economics, policymakers start to listen.”
—Tom Imerito

 

Par without Pain

Good news for golfers with back injuries

John Lucas takes a few practice swings with his driver. He feels a little strange with pressure plates under his feet and 28 sensors stuck to his body with Velcro straps. He takes about seven swings to warm up before the technician gives the go-ahead. Lucas lines up his shot, pulls back, and whacks his Titleist Pro-V1 golf ball into the screen in front of him.

Lucas is an avid golfer with a seven handicap and serious back problems. He made his way into Pitt’s Golf Fitness Laboratory hoping to take advantage of a distinctive program combining biomechanical swing analysis with strength, flexibility, and stability tests. The lab also customizes exercise programs geared toward clients’ weaknesses. The program is scientifically validated to improve golfers’ fitness and their performance on the golf course.

Scott Lephart, acting chair and associate professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, created the program as part of a golf medicine initiative with the University’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory and UPMC’s Center for Sports Medicine. His early goal was to research the root causes of lower back pain in golfers and to develop rehabilitation techniques to treat and prevent injuries.

“The performance enhancement and fitness improvement are exciting offshoots from our original intention,” says Lephart, who directs the Neuromuscular Research Lab. “If you work at your level of fitness, you will not only improve your ability to play golf, but improve your overall fitness, health, and wellness as well,” he says. Lephart’s research brings to light the concept that golf is a sport that requires fitness. A fit body, he says, is a critical foundation for a good golfer.

Lephart recently entered negotiations to commercialize the research project. Since 2004, the lab has offered its services as a for-profit business. Golfers like Lucas pay a fee for a physical and biomechanical analysis that was previously only offered to elite athletes.

At the end of his eight-week, custom exercise program, Lucas’ shoulder flexibility and core strength have both dramatically improved, greatly reducing his back troubles. But that’s not what excites him most about hitting the links. Since his time at the golf lab, his drive has increased by 15 yards.
—Katy Rank

 


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