When economists start talking about the value of the environment, some people like to miss-quote Oscar Wilde by saying “An economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Economists have certainly done their bit to justify this criticism. However, if we spend less time trying to defend what we have discovered and more time trying to listen to people’s description of their relationship with the environment, maybe there would be less need for this cynicism.
A doctoral student and I have a project underway right now that seeks to understand a bit more about the value people place on the goods and services provided by the environment here in the central Okanagan. Our project is based on a couple of key ideas. The first, it isn’t possible for people to have everything they want. The second is that the best way to understand the value people put on the environment is to ask them to choose the best balance between the different things that they might want. It isn’t my job to tell people what the right balance is between the environment and other goals. Rather, I have to listen to what people tell me the right balance is.
Our way of asking people to tell us the right balance is with a survey. The core of this survey is a collection of possible futures. The differences between these futures are described using levels of a few important measures of environmental health. These measures include the amount of groundwater pumping, health of the Kokanee population, area of natural habitat lost, and how well protected rural areas are. Each of the futures presented in the survey have different improvements in these environmental measures, relative to a future we think is likely if nothing new is done to protect the environment. Each of these futures also has a cost to which every household will have to contribute. Each person who completes our survey will be asked to make a number of comparisons. Each of these comparisons will offer the expected future with no new policies and two futures that have different environmental improvements and that cost.
The comparison might be like the table below. Each survey offers several combinations like this. The combinations will have different possible futures, where the environmental measures and the household cost changes. For each of these combinations, we want to know which you like best, in consideration of the cost.
One big challenge with surveys like this is that people with strong opinions are most likely to participate. If you care a lot about the environment, then you will want to express that by completing the survey and choosing the futures with the best environmental health, regardless of the cost. If you care a lot about your household budget, then you will want to complete the survey and for every option choose the expected future with no increase in household cost. Most people probably fall somewhere between these extremes, caring about the environment and about their household costs. We want to hear from a broad group of people that does a good job of reflecting the diversity of the Central Okanagan.
We see the best chance of getting a broad and representative coverage of perspectives in the Central Okanagan coming from a random sample. We collected as many address as we could from online directories (canada441.ca, 411.ca, whitepages.ca), and then sent invitation letters to several thousand addresses randomly chosen from this collection. If you have one of these letters, it directs you to a website, and gives you information needed to access the survey. The survey is not short, needing about half an hour to complete. As thanks, we will be drawing five prizes of $250 that will be awarded to five people from our sample who let us know they want to be part of this draw.
If you have received one of our invitation letters, completing the survey will definitely make a valuable contribution to one Ph.D. student’s studies. We also hope that it will provide some insights that will help our current and future leaders find that right balance between development and environmental protection.