Some insights into values as defined by panda preservation:
Who wouldn’t want to fly across the world and spend a week with giant pandas? They are undeniably cute.
Well, I'm assuming a lot of people, since not many people actually do fly across the world to spend a week with giant pandas. That's the p[oint of revealed preferences. Actions reveal preferences. Now I know what you are thinking: I would go if I could afford it! But that's really the point of understanding economics--you can't afford everything, otherwise everything would be free. So you make decisions based on your preferences and your constraints: budget and time. The trade-offs you make among those things you want reveal the relative value you place on those things.
For this story, we traveled to Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people. It’s the capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China. Chengdu is known for spicy Sichuan chili dishes that make your tongue go numb, but also for being the hometown of the giant panda. Back in 1987, when it became apparent that pandas were seriously endangered in the wild, the Chinese created the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Starting with just six pandas from the wild, they’ve successfully bred more than 100 pandas.
The work done at Chengdu and other breeding centers costs millions of dollars a year. Experts believe more money is probably being spent to save the giant panda than any other species in the world.
But is that a good idea?
I'm assuming they are now going to interview an economist trained to understand such difficult questions.
While this may sound like heresy to panda lovers, is it possible that we’re spending too much to save the giant panda?
“I think we have to make tough choices,” British wildlife expert, Chris Packham, said. “I think that, ultimately, we have to be pragmatic as well as sentimental. You know, we can't allow our heart to rule our conservation head… And if we channel this much into just one species, then many others, which could be far better helped, many other not just species, but communities and ecosystems, could be better protected at the expense of one fluffy, cuddly bear.”
Wow. A sensible, non-extreme, almost economist sounding, wildlife expert. I'm impressed.
One small quibble: The trade-off is not just between pandas and other species, or pandas and ecosystems, but also between pandas and racecars, or pandas and iPhones. In other words, the question should be what is the value of the next best alternative...what would we do if we didn't spend millions on panda rescue? That's the true opportunity cost of panda rescue.
Packham is in the minority here, but a growing number of scientists agree.
Bexell and her colleagues at Chengdu’s breeding center are not among them. They firmly believe the panda is worth saving. And they worry that without the panda as a symbol for the conservation movement, people might not give any money to saving any species at all.
“Where would that money go? Maybe people would go and buy a new iPod instead. You know, instead of throwing that money towards conservation,” Bexell said.
And I'm assuming you think that is wrong? That's a nice opinion, but unfortunately one opinion doesn't dominate the need to make difficult decisions. We can't save everything...resources are scarce.
Humans pushed giant pandas to the brink of extinction, Bexell said, and it is up to us to find a way to save them.
“I think pandas are symbolic. We all love them. We all want to share the earth with them. And if we truly cannot save space for giant pandas, what does that say about us as a species? And how could we ever have hope for any of the others if we can't save the one that we profess to love the most?”
Despite the gross overstatements and generalizations of knowing everyone's preferences, (we all love them? Well, we all loved Hostess Twinkies too, but that didn't save them from extinction now did it?), this does bring up an interesting point--there are values that go beyond the value of being able to fly around the world to spend a week with the pandas. If you were to ask everyone in the world how much they would be willinng to donate to save the pandas, I'd be willing to bet you would get a really big number. Even if it's only $.01 per person in the world, that's still a willingness to pay of $70m to save the pandas.