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Using Economics to Solve the Conservation Conundrum

Isabella Blair, Portland, Oregon

Week 10: Sunday, November 11

The interdisciplinarity of environmental studies became very relevant this week when I learned an economic approach to conservation in my economics class. This approach felt like the perfect mathematical answer to the ideological problem we were facing in the conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl. 

In environmental studies, we had to weigh the costs and benefits of different approaches to solving the issue of the Northern Spotted Owl. In economics, we studied marginal social benefit and cost. Using marginal social benefit, one can calculate a socially optimal amount. One of the articles we read, “The Marginal Cost of Species Preservation: The Northern Spotted Owl,” used this economics approach to explain that saving a species is not an “all-or-nothing choice but rather a marginal one.”

In economics, we understood marginal social benefit using the example of pollution. Marginal social benefit is the sum of the willingness to pay of all members of a community for something. This may be for the conservation of the spotted owl or for a lack of pollution. Marginal social cost is the sum of the costs that are imposed on a community. This can represent the negative effects of pollution such as asthma, cancer, etc. In the case of the spotted owl, this would be the social effects that forest conservation have on communities dependent on the logging industry. In order to find the social optimal quantity of pollution, or spotted owl conservation, we must find the point where marginal social benefit and cost meet. If you want to learn a little more about environmental economics, click here.

Northern Spotted Owl

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Environmental studies is interdisciplinary, which allows us to use economics to weave in some understanding. We must keep in mind that it is difficult to calculate marginal social benefit and cost. One of the most important things we learned in economics was that the social optimal quantity of pollution, for example, is not zero! Basically, to be optimal for society, we cannot save all of the spotted owls, and we cannot also abandon spotted owls entirely. I think that this is really important to keep in mind when it comes to conservation because every decision that is made is going to have to account for negative and positive outcomes. We must work on finding the middle ground.

In the 1990s, the Conservation movement in the US focused on the Northern Spotted Owl. An article I read by Jim Proctor, “The Spotted Owl and the Contested Moral Landscape of the Pacific Northwest,” questioned why we chose to focus so much on this animal. The owls conservation was dependent on the conservation of old growth forests, which didn’t sound like a bad idea to most conservationists. But Proctor also explained the associated values that are present in the owl. Throughout history, humans have associated owls with gods, such as the Greek God Athena, wisdom, death, and even as being humanlike. He also talked about the similar physical features that humans share with owls, which can explain the affinity between the two species.

Conservation is inherently an entanglement of ethics, values, and moral upbringings. This is why conservation can be so controversial. It is important to discuss conservation from different approaches, such as the economic approach, for this very reason. We must be open to viewing our issues in different lens so that we may discover the social optimal quantity.