Quantified Conservation

This post is a review of the book Quantified: Redefining Conservation for the Next Economy, by Joe Whitworth. At the start of this year, I included a TEDx talk he did in a post I wrote and mentioned that this book was on my reading list.

I found Quantified to be a quick read. Most of the ideas in it weren't new to me (refer to the post that I linked in the introductory paragraph and other things I've written on this blog), but I thought the author did a great job presenting them; this would be a good starting point for someone interested in learning more about cutting-edge results-oriented approaches to conservation. Because of the author's role in The Freshwater Trust in Oregon, it is mainly focussed on conservation/restoration of rivers and fresh water, but certainly has wider applicability, too.

Quantified is not a business book (per se), but it has a lot in common with that genre. The style reminded me of Real Life MBA by Jack and Suzie Welch which I read last year, for example, as they both have a lot of concrete examples and suggestions for practical applications. The similarities go further than that, with Joe Whitworth recommending improvement strategies for the conservation world that would not be out of place in the business world.

Simply put, quantified conservation is a twenty-first-century approach to solving the twenty-first-century problems that confront us. It offers a framework built on the following five principles, all of which the business world relies on for its success: Situational awareness... Bold outcomes... Innovation and technology... Data and analytics... Gain

There are nine chapters in Quantified. The first one introduces Joe Whitworth's strategic approach, while the second and third attempt to define the problem facing conservation groups. Chapters 4 and 5 are on the use/needs of fresh water of agriculture and industry, respectively. Then the book turns to the topic of solutions/improvements. Chapter 6 is about how philanthropists and government granting agencies could allocate their funding more effectively. Chapter 7 is on the concept of water flow trading (as applied in the Murray-Darling basin in Australia) and chapter 8 is on water quality (e.g. nutrient credits) trading mechanisms. The final chapter is intended as an inspirational call to action.

The central focus is trying to get the best value out of the limited spending on conservation projects (specifically river restoration), and to leverage further investment by demonstrating results:

And the immutable truth is that restoration takes cash. We've got to pay for these projects with both public and private dollars. Quantified conservation allows us to stretch existing dollars by tying them to measurable gains achieved for the environment. It also paves the way for market mechanics to channel additional funding into restoration while using proper design to balance the needs of the environment with those of the economy.
It's hard to imagine any successful twenty-first-century business spending money on a program without measuring its results. Yet when it comes to environmental funding, that's exactly what we're doing. Each year, we spend billions of public and private dollars on freshwater ecosystems in the United States without truly knowing what we're getting. (emphasis added)

I liked how the book took a balanced view, rather than an us-vs-them posture toward businesses and farmers:

The reality is that we need agriculture and industry, and we need a healthy environment. In this era, these are not "nice-to-haves". These are "gotta haves". There's no getting around the fact that humans will use resources—we always have throughout our existence. We need to eat, so we need farms. We also need to eat in the long term, so we need agriculture to operate within a healthy ecosystem. Likewise, we need clothing, housing, transportation, and a range of other daily necessities, so we need industry.

I think this is wise, because the business world can adapt quickly once it is convinced a new way of doing things is worthwhile. As the author notes, about 2/3 of Global 500 companies have already put in water efficiency measures. And just recently I saw news that Walmart is pressuring its suppliers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Businesses see this as a way to reduce their exposure to risks facing natural resources. This perspective is becoming quite mainstream, with Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, writing a book (which I haven't read yet) that apparently discusses how businesses can have a positive environmental impact.

Chapter five is quite relevant to what I do professionally, as it discusses the freshwater needs of industry. In fact, I decided to share the following quote from that chapter on LinkedIn:

Without [freshwater], the corporate world would grind to a halt. From automobile manufacturing to consumer packaged goods to high-tech, almost every industry relies on water for at least some part of its process. Water is behind almost every product we buy, yet most people are unaware of it.
Making smart decisions about water is critical to corporate risk management. A solid water use plan reduces a company's operational costs. It prevents disruptions to production. It helps companies avoid conflict with farmers and communities. And it ensures that the company has enough water to secure its operations well into the future.

That chapter has many examples of water footprints of various goods, and of how various companies have faced water issues. I was familiar with some of them from conferences I've attended and other books I've read, but also encountered some examples that were new to me.

Water quality credit trading (typically on temperature, nutrients, or sediment) is something I've come across before, so I found the discussion about it in Chapter 8 to be interesting. The author has some suggestions on how water quality credit markets should be designed to be most effective. The goal is to promote spending on natural infrastructure (e.g. riverbank restoration), not just built environmental infrastructure (e.g. cooling towers) in cases where the former would provide better value for a given investment.

Nutrient overload is an issue in the Mississippi River due to the amount of intensive agriculture that occurs in its watershed. This causes a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico near its mouth. One thing I found notable was the possible impact on water quality from efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels by growing more corn for making biofuel (ethanol):

Both the amount of nutrients and the size of the dead zone at [the Mississippi's] mouth are expected to expand as a result of the federal mandate to grow corn for ethanol.

This illustrates the unintended consequences that can arise from such top-down mandates. A nutrient credit market would be a more decentralized approach that, if properly designed, should channel financing toward the local solutions with the best return on investment.

Toward the end of Quantified, there were frequent mentions of "ecosystem services". That is, the author feels that we should put a value not only on natural resources, but also on natural services:

[science and technology] can bridge the gap between economic and environmental interests by giving them a common language with which to make tradeoffs. ... We now have the tools to accurately describe the environment according to the services it provides to humans and to broader ecosystem resilience, and we can quantify these services in a way that can ultimately assign them a dollar value in order to make the right tradeoff.


For evidence that a new way of looking at the world has been taking hold, check out almost any website that discusses ecological issues, and you'll read about nature performing vital services that can be assigned a quantified value and translated into dollars. The idea of ecosystem services has been rapidly spreading, and it's gradually replacing the old idea that the economy and the environment are at opposite corners of the boxing ring. The idea that what's good for the environment is bad for the economy has passed its "use-by" date, and it's giving way to a new paradigm in which the economy and the environment are an integrated whole.

These services can range from provisioning food, to controlling erosion, to pollinating crops, to cultural/recreational value.

I think things like markets for water rights and nutrient credits can be implemented in the short-term (and indeed are in some places), while this vision of valuing ecosystem services in a quantified, comprehensive way is probably further over the horizon.