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Environment's cash value focus of Teale lecture

Economics and ecology should no longer be seen as two isolated fields of study and can cooperate to improve the local and global ecology while keeping the economy growing, according to a renowned environmentalist.

"We have to change the value that society puts on the ecosystem," said Robert Costanza, an environmental science professor at the University of Maryland, who is president and co-founder of the International Society for Ecological Economics and chief editor of its journal, Ecological Economics.

According to Costanza, the environment is worth $33 trillion, as compared to the global gross national product of $25 trillion.

"Giving the environment a monetary value provides a new perspective on how people think of the environment," he said during his Sept. 24 lecture, Economics and Ecology: The Value of Ecosystem Services, the inaugural lecture in the new Teale lecture series, Nature and the Environment.

Costanza, the author and co-author of more than 180 scientific papers and 10 books, discussed the need for an integration of economics and ecology. Opening a dialogue between economists and ecologists will provide a framework to improve the quality of life for ourselves and for all other life on the planet, he said, adding that integrating these disciplines will help build an understanding of ecological problems and how to fix them.

Costanza's economic outlook on ecology generated controversy for both ecologists and economists when he and his colleagues published an article in the May 15 issue of Nature. According to the article, ecologists, economists and society need to think of the environment not just as the nature around them, but also as a limited economic resource.

The article spurred a debate on whether a value can be placed on nature, said Kathleen Segerson, a professor of economics, after the lecture.

"The ecosystem can affect the economy and the economy can affect the ecosystem. This is changing the way people think," she said.

The year-long series includes a lecture each month of the academic year, focusing on nature and the environment.

The series, the result of interest expressed by faculty and graduate students in addressing environmental issues, was named after Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), a Connecticut author, naturalist, and photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his book Wandering Through Winter.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, economics, English, philosophy, and political science as well as the Dodd Center, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School, the environmental engineering program, the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, and the Museum of Natural History.

Eileen Labenski