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Is the Soil an “Ecosystem Service” That Can Be Priced?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? –Matt 7:9-10 Readers familiar with Betteridge’s Law need read no further! For those still reading: Today’s perambulation into the biosphere will be even more of a high-wire act than usual: Normally, I know nothing of the topic before beginning my research. Today, although we have had occasion to write on soil before (see here, here, here, and here) that which I do not know today involves both ecology and economics. I hope readers will be kind and suggest more sources I should look at (particularly around the concept of “ecosystem services,” which I’ve been muttering about for some time). We linked to this article from Quanta — “A Soil-Science

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? –Matt 7:9-10

Readers familiar with Betteridge’s Law need read no further! For those still reading: Today’s perambulation into the biosphere will be even more of a high-wire act than usual: Normally, I know nothing of the topic before beginning my research. Today, although we have had occasion to write on soil before (see here, here, here, and here) that which I do not know today involves both ecology and economics. I hope readers will be kind and suggest more sources I should look at (particularly around the concept of “ecosystem services,” which I’ve been muttering about for some time).

We linked to this article from Quanta — “A Soil-Science Revolution Upends Plans to Fight Climate Change” — back on 7/28. I will begin by quoting great slabs of it to make its thesis clear, or at least those parts of the thesis necessary for a pivot to the question in the headline. (As a spoiler alert, it seems to be that only the most sociopathic of market makers — “an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is” — will attempt to price goods whose nature is not known. If the Quanta article is correct, carbon markets, and markets for ecosystem services generally, will have turned out to be such markets made by such makers[1]).

First, let’s look at the Quanta article (and kudos to Quanta for finally producing an article I can extract from):

[Carbon sequestration] plans depend critically on the existence of large, stable, carbon-rich molecules that can last hundreds or thousands of years underground. Such molecules, collectively called humus, have long been a keystone of soil science; major agricultural practices and sophisticated climate models are built on them…. But over the past 10 years or so, soil science has undergone a quiet revolution, akin to what would happen if, in physics, relativity or quantum mechanics were overthrown. Except in this case, almost nobody has heard about it…. A new generation of soil studies powered by modern microscopes and imaging technologies has revealed that whatever humus is, it is not the long-lasting substance scientists believed it to be. Soil researchers have concluded that even the largest, most complex molecules can be quickly devoured by soil’s abundant and voracious microbes. The magic molecule you can just [sequester and] stick in the soil and expect to stay there may not exist.

“I have The Nature and Properties of Soils in front of me — the standard textbook,” said Gregg Sanford, a soil researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The theory of soil organic carbon accumulation that’s in that textbook has been proven mostly false … and we’re still teaching it.”

Note the similarity to the long-taught droplet paradigm as applied to Covid transmission, slain or at least severely wounded by a new paradigm produced by the aerosol thought collective (Wired, “The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill“). I find such paradigm shifts encouraging; to me, they’re a sign that science is “popping,” as William Gibson has it. Back to soil:

[B]y the mid-20th century, the humus paradigm was “the only game in town,” said Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist at Cornell University. Farmers were instructed to adopt practices that were supposed to build humus. Indeed, the existence of humus is probably one of the few soil science facts that many non-scientists could recite.

What helped break humus’s hold on soil science was physics. In the second half of the 20th century, powerful new microscopes and techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance and X-ray spectroscopy allowed soil scientists for the first time to peer directly into soil and see what was there, rather than pull things out and then look at them.

What they found — or, more specifically, what they didn’t find — was shocking: there were few or no long “recalcitrant” carbon molecules — the kind that don’t break down. Almost everything seemed to be small and, in principle, digestible.

We don’t see any molecules in soil that are so recalcitrant that they can’t be broken down,” said Jennifer Pett-Ridge, a soil scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Microbes will learn to break anything down — even really nasty chemical.”

Lehmann, whose studies using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy were among the first to reveal the absence of humus, has become the concept’s debunker-in-chief. A 2015 Nature paper he co-authored states that “the available evidence does not support the formation of large-molecular-size and persistent ‘humic substances’ in soils.” In 2019, he gave a talk with a slide containing a mock death announcement for “our friend, the concept of Humus.”

Over the past decade or so, most soil scientists have come to accept this view. Yes, soil is enormously varied. And it contains a lot of carbon. But there’s no carbon in soil that can’t, in principle, be broken down by microorganisms and released into the atmosphere. The latest edition of The Nature and Properties of Soils, published in 2016, cites Lehmann’s 2015 paper and acknowledges that “our understanding of the nature and genesis of soil humus has advanced greatly since the turn of the century, requiring that some long-accepted concepts be revised or abandoned.”

Old ideas, however, can be very recalcitrant. Few outside the field of soil science have heard of humus’s demise.

Including people who own capital, and those in the political class who service them:

Beyond the Salk project, momentum and money are flowing toward other climate projects that would rely on long-term carbon sequestration and storage in soils. In an April speech to Congress, for example, President Biden suggested paying farmers to plant cover crops, which are grown not for harvest but to nurture the soil in between plantings of cash crops. Evidence suggests that when cover crop roots break down, some of their carbon stays in the soil — although as with suberin, how long it lasts is an open question.

Now, it looks to me like the author of the Quanta article may have gotten some pushback:

To me, the key point is that we had soil all wrong and for many years. We did not know what soil was. We thought humus was a thing. It wasn’t. It was as if we thought we were doing astronomy, when in fact we were doing astrology. And — to pivot toward the second part of this post, the economics part — the value of an astrological chart is very different from the value of a star chart. Especially if you’re on the bridge of a spaceship called Earth.

Now let’s turn to the other thing I don’t understand, economics. I’m going to take it as read that the concept of “ecosystem services” was devised so that the biosphere could be commoditized and sold for a price[2]. But how is the price to be determined? The seminal article on pricing and ecosytem services (at least according to Wikipedia, sorry) is from 2002. I’ll quote a great slab from Stephen C. Farber, Robert Costanza, and Matthew A. Wilson in “Economic and ecological concepts for valuing ecosystem services. They provide a helpful history of use value and exchange value, leading up “the end of history,” neoclassical economics:

The history of economic thought is replete with struggles to establish the meaning of value; what is it and how is it measured…. The diamond–water paradox observed that while water has infinite or indefinite value, being necessary for life, its exchange value is low; yet unessential diamonds bear a high exchange value. Following this observation, there was widespread recognition of the distinction between exchange value and use value of goods.

[The utilitarian H.H.] Gossen proposed that in order to maximize satisfaction from a good, such as labor or money, an individual must allocate that good across different uses to equate their marginal utilities in each use. Hence marginal utility would provide a basis for explaining exchange value. If we treat things such as iron, cement, fertilizer, natural agents and labor as incomplete consumable goods, the marginal utility of the goods they produce can be used to explain their exchange value. This logic established a full theory of value. It also demonstrated that exchange values could be based on use value. While the diamond–water paradox had been solved many times, the classical economists, such as Smith and Ricardo, could not resolve it using their labor theories of value. It was resolved only by recognizing the importance of utility and scarcity in determining exchange values, and the role of margins in value determination.

While the classical theorists sought a standard physical commodity unit for measuring exchange value, neoclassical theorists did not need such a commodity. As value was assumed to be determined by utility on the margin, and consumers were assumed to allocate money optimally across uses, the marginal utility of money was the same for an individual in all its uses. Money thus became the standard unit of measure. The significance of the marginal utility theory of value to the evolving concept of ecosystem service valuation is that it can be used to measure use values, not just exchange values, in monetary units. The general optimization model of labor/ leisure and consumption/saving given time and wealth constraints would yield equivalencies of goods for money, goods for time, and time for money. Time or money can thus be used as a standard of measure of use value; how much time or money will a person willingly sacrifice to obtain commodity X? In sum, as the pursuit of an economic theory of value traversed the broad metaphysical terrain of economic thought, the answer appears to have been found in the concept of value in use. The utility-based values of goods and services are reflected in people’s [willingness to pay (WTP) to attain them], or their [willingness to accept (WTA)] compensation to forego them. WTP and WTA become measures of these values.

The fundamental issue: We did not and do not know the use value of soil. We thought soil contained humus, and hence would be useful for carbon sequestration. Not only does soil not contain humus, there’s no such thing. And soil may be useful for carbon sequestration, but as the Quanta author points out, we don’t know. In the words of the epigraph, bread turned out to be a stone, and a fish a snake. This makes a nonsense of willingness to pay (for what?) and willingness to accept (why?). Now, it may be objected that now science has told us the use value of soil, so pricing can proceed as before (retrofitting all the prices we got wrong). First, no, it hasn’t. Second, why would we believe that it can? Perhaps the use value of soil is so complex that it’s not determinable by systems available to us (or not in time). Third, now do the use value of the ocean. After that, the use value of air[3]. Then go back and do the use value of soil all over again, because both

I conclude that the entire ecosystem services project is flawed, because only the use values of services so small as to be toys — for example, a coral reef — can be priced[4]. The project is a mad endeavor to create the institutional certainties of a smoothly-trading market where no such certainty is to be had. What to do? From Norman, Read, Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Climate models and precautionary measures“:

[W]e should ask “What would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?

We have only one planet. This fact radically constrains the kinds of risks that are appropriate to take at a large scale. Even a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us – there is no reversing mistakes of that magnitude.

It is the degree of opacity and uncertainty in a system, as well as asymmetry in effect, rather than specific model predictions, that should drive the precautionary measures. Push a complex system too far and it will not come back. The popular belief that uncertainty undermines the case for taking seriously the ’climate crisis’ that scientists tell us we face is the opposite of the truth. Properly understood, as driving the case for precaution, uncertainty radically underscores that case, and may even constitute it.

Now, I don’t know where the institution is that can ask the question Taleb is asking, or in what forum they would be answered. I do have two intuitions: First, only something with the power of a religion, possibly a new one, could have the desired effect (as religion did, for example, with the Abolitionists, who were remarkably effective in a short space of time). Second, profit should always be treated with at a minimum with hermeneutic of suspicion and better with a sense of taboo and revulsion, as usury once was, given that — all the jury rigging of carbon taxes and markets in ecosystem services aside — profit during an ecological crisis will tend to reinforce the institutions that are creating the crisis (exactly as has been happening during the pandemic).

Comments from those actually knowledgeable in neoclassical economics and ecosystem services welcome.


[1] “These are not eating sardines carbon credits, they are trading sardines carbon credits.”

[2] If you are an NGO seeking funding for your coral reef project, for example, being able to put a dollar value on the reef is helpful.

[3] That won’t be easy. From Quanta:

In the 1960s, scientists began writing large, complex computer programs to predict the global climate’s future. Because soil both takes up and releases carbon dioxide, climate models attempted to take into account soil’s interactions with the atmosphere. But the global climate is fantastically complex, and to enable the programs to run on the machines of the time, simplifications were necessary. For soil, scientists made a big one: They ignored microbes in the soil entirely. Instead, they basically divided soil carbon into short-term and long-term pools, in accordance with the humus paradigm.

More recent generations of models, including ones that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses for its widely read reports, are essentially palimpsests built on earlier ones, said Torn. They still assume soil carbon exists in long-term and short-term pools.

I would imagine that models for the air and the ocean are just as over-simplified, if not more so.

[4] That’s before we consider the well-known flaws in markets that the last 2021 – 2017 = fourteen years have shown as, as fraud, rigging, phishing, and so forth.

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