21 April 2016

Life on a prawn trawler inspires economist to find better ways to measure environmental benefits 

Professor Natalie Stoeckl works with natural and social scientists to put a value on environmental benefits, such as clean air and water, which “don’t normally have a price tag.”

Natalie is a visiting professor at Lancaster University, invited by her former research student, Dr Christina Hicks, a social scientist with a special interest in small fishing communities.

Natalie is interested in fisheries as well. At 17 she went to law school in Australia, wanting to change the world.

“I soon realised I wasn’t going to change the world but that the world would change me. So I ran away to sea.”

Learning lessons on the sea

She spent three years as a cook/deck hand on a prawn trawler, only going ashore once a year. She saw first hand the impact of industrial scale fishing.

“As time went on I saw changes in the fish coming up in the nets. The fishermen weren’t intending to trash the sea, but they were trapped into quite a destructive way of doing things with constantly increasing numbers of boats.”

Eventually commercial fishing in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Natalie’s boat was based, became heavily regulated – shutting down for several months each year to protect stocks. After a series of jobs ashore including small scale forestry management, she decided to study economics.

Improving policy

“I started talking to fishery and forestry managers and became intensely interested in how people could earn a living from land without damaging it.”

So while lecturing in economics, and bringing up two children, she started a PhD in environmental economics, exploring how to value the benefits humans receive from the environment, which could then feed into policy making. The traditional approach was to put a monetary value on these benefits.

“What policy makers need is a system of defining environmental priorities, and money based valuations provide that.  There are times when these help to conserve the environment and times when they may do more harm than good.

“The most simplistic approach is to use market value, to ask people how much they would be willing to pay to look after a park, for instance. But this gives a stronger vote to rich people and doesn’t take equity issues into account”

An ecosystem approach to economics

She now works at James Cook University in Queensland, collaborating across disciplines on an ecosystem approach to economics.

“Many of the models ecologists work with have useful insights that economists can learn from. Ecologists talk about tangled webs and interconnections. Sometimes I discover we are working with the same models and just call them different things.”

“One of my favourite projects was developing an economic model looking at how much water you need to grow the Australian economy and the impact that will have on the environment and Australia’s indigenous people.

The research consortium, led by Prof Douglas (now at the Uni of Western Australia) really helped foster inter-disciplinary research.   “I worked with a team of hydrologists, who said if we extract that much water this is what will happen to stream flows, then with ecologists who said if that happens to stream flows, it will have this effect on fish, and then with anthropologists and human geographers who said that if this happens to fish then it will have this impact on the Aborigines.”

Evaluating non-market valuation techniques

Natalie is now working on a paper on “the good, bad and ugly’ things about non market valuation techniques, with her former research student, Christina Hicks, who “sees things that other people don’t see, particularly when it comes to valuation work.

“A lot of these techniques are asking people to express their preferences, to say which things matter most to them.

“An approach that really captures my imagination is asking people how content they are with life and what is contributing more to their well being, for example a secure job, the size of your house, or spending time in the bush or with your children.

She is also working on a big project trying to quantify some of the economic, social and cultural benefits of Indigenous land management practices in Australia, some of which are now being adopted by mainstream farmers.

She is enjoying exchanging ideas with colleagues at the Lancaster Environment Centre for example Dr Dmitry Yumashew at The Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, who is exploring the economic impact of climate change and extreme events.