Current Research Projects

  • Economics of Land Degradation (ELD)

    The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) is a project on the economic benefits of land and land-based ecosystems. It aims to make the economics of land degradation an integral part of policy strategies and decision making by increasing the political and public awareness of the costs and benefits of land and land-based ecosystems.

    This project highlights the value of sustainable land management and provides a global approach for analysis of the economics of land degradation. The goal is to transform global understanding of the value of land and create awareness of the economic case for sustainable land management that prevents loss of natural capital, secures livelihoods, preserves ecosystem services, combats climate change, and addresses food, energy, and water security, and to create capacity for the utilisation of economic information for sustainable land management.

    For more information, see the project website.

    Publications related to this project:

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

    The SDGs represent a major potential tipping point in the future of humanity. For the first time in human history we have a set of goals and targets agreed to by all countries that include the full range of factors that contribute to equitable and sustainable well-being. We must not squander this opportunity to change the trajectory of humanity toward a sustainable and desirable future.

    To guide real global development (and replace the misuse of growth in gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary national policy goal) the SDGs need an overarching goal, with aggregate metrics of progress toward that objective. In this project, we are working on developing such an aggregated metric based on the SGD goals and targets.

    One way to do this, is to replace the static, linear model by integrated natural and human system models that incorporate the dynamics of stocks, flows, trade-offs, and synergies among the full range of variables that affect the SDGs and overall human and ecosystem wellbeing.

    Publications related to this project:

  • Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)

    The GPI is one way to measure wellbeing. It is designed to measure the economic welfare generated by economic activity. Countries, states, and regions around the world have used the GPI to track progress.

    This metric is calculated by starting with personal consumption expenditures, a measure of all spending by individuals and a major component of GDP, and making more than 20 additions and subtractions to account for factors such as the value of volunteer work and the costs of divorce, crime and pollution.

    Crucially, unlike other measures in the first group, GPI considers income distribution. A dollar’s worth of increased income to a poor person boosts welfare more than a dollar’s worth of increased income does for a rich person.

    US states of Vermont and Maryland have begun using the GPI as an official measure, while other states have also begun calculating GPI.

    Publications related to this project:

    • Costanza R., I. Kubiszewski, E. Giovannini, L.H. Lovins, J. McGlade, K. E. Pickett, K.V. Ragnarsdóttir, D. Roberts, R. De Vogli, and R. Wilkinson. 2014. Time to leave GDP behind. Nature 505: 283-285.
    • Kubiszewski, I., R. Costanza, C. Franco, P. Lawn, J. Talberth, T. Jackson, and C. Aylmer. 2013. Beyond GDP: Measuring and Achieving Global Genuine Progress. Ecological Economics 93: 57-68.
    • Kubiszewski, I., R. Costanza, N.E. Gorko, M.A. Weisdorf, A.W. Carnes, C.E. Collins, C. Franco, L.R. Gehres, J.M. Knobloch, G.E. Matson, J.D. Schoepfer. 2015. Estimates of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for Oregon from 1960-2010 and Recommendations for a Comprehensive Shareholder’s Report. Ecological Economics 119: 1-7.
    • Kubiszewski, I. and R. Costanza. 2015. Measuring Genuine Social Progress. Chapter 5, pp 44-51 in: J. Murray, D. McBain, and T. Wiedmann (editors). The Sustainability Practitioner’s Guide to Social Analysis and Assessment. Common Ground Publishing, Champaign, Illinois.
    • Costanza, R. J. Erickson, K. Fligger, A. Adams, C. Adams, B. Altschuler, S. Balter, B. Fisher, J. Hike, J. Kelly, T. Kerr, M. McCauley, K. Montone, M. Rauch, K. Schmiedeskamp, D. Saxton, L. Sparacino, W. Tusinski, and L. Williams. 2004. Estimates of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for Vermont, Chittenden County, and Burlington, from 1950 to 2000. Ecological Economics 51: 139-155
  • Overcoming Societal Addictions

    Societies, like individuals, can get trapped in patterns of behavior called social traps or “societal addictions” that provide short-term rewards but are detrimental and unsustainable in the long run. Examples include our societal addiction to inequitable over-consumption fueled by fossil energy and a “growth at all costs” economic model.

    This project explores the potential to learn from successful therapies at the individual level. In particular, Motivational Interviewing (MI) is one of the most effective therapies. It is based on engaging addicts in a positive discussion of their goals, motives, and futures. We suggest that one analogy to MI at the societal level is a modified version of scenario planning (SP) that has been extended to engage the entire community (CSP) in thinking about goals and alternative futures via public opinion surveys and forums. Both MI and CSP are about exploring alternative futures in positive, non-confrontational ways and building commitment or consensus about preferred futures.We conclude that effective therapies for societal addictions may be possible, but, as we learn from MI, they will require a rebalancing of effort away from only pointing out the dire consequences of current behavior (without denying those consequences) and toward building a shared vision of a positive future and the means to get there.

    Publications related to this project:

  • Future Visions and Scenarios for Policy and Planning

    Our civilization’s challenge is to create a positive and detailed vision of a sustainable and desirable future. This needs to be a future in which living in harmony with nature enhances everyone’s quality of life, a future that can captivate and motivate the public, a future that we are proud to bestow on our grandchildren. Until we create and widely share this vision, we have no hope of achieving it.

    As ecological, economic, and social crises deepen, human societies are seeking new designs for a sustainable and desirable world. Although it is widely recognized that isolated initiatives will not form an adequate response to our interconnected plights, current efforts to promote sustainability rarely pervade all aspects of our lives. Our failure to craft holistic solutions is due, in part, to the lack of a shared vision of what a sustainable world looks like.

    Envisioning is a process in which community members collectively identify shared values, describe the future they seek, and develop a plan to achieve common goals.1 Envisioning complements more traditional forms of planning, serving as a tool for determining community desires and initiating the process of change. It generally begins by establishing consensus on a community’s goals and desires through public forums and group discussions.

    Publications related to this project:

    • Costanza, R., I. Kubiszewski, S. Cork, P.W.B. Atkins, A. Bean, A. Diamond, N. Grigg, E. Korb, J. Logg-Scarvell, R. Navis, and K. Patrick. 2015. Scenarios for Australia in 2050: A synthesis and proposed survey. Journal of Future Studies. 19:49-76
    • Costanza, R. and I. Kubiszewski (eds). 2014. Creating A Sustainable and Desirable Future: Insights from 45 Global Thought Leaders. World Scientific, Singapore.
    • Jarchow, M. E., G. L. D. Larsen, G. Zdorkowski, R. Costanza, S. R. Gailans, N. Ohde, R. Dietzel, S. Kaplan, J. Neal, M. R. Petrehn, T. Gunther, S. N. D’Adamo, N. McCann, A. Larson, P. Damery, L. Gross, I. Kubiszewski, M. Merriman, J. Post, M. Sheradin, and M. Liebman. 2012. The Future of Agriculture and Society in Iowa: Four Scenarios. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 10:76-92
    • Bohensky, E. L., J. Butler, R. Costanza, I. Bohnet, A. Delisle, K. Fabricius, M. Gooch, I. Kubiszewski, G. Lukacs, P. Pert, E. Wolanski. 2011. Future makers or future takers? A scenario analysis of climate change and the Great Barrier Reef. Global Environmental Change 21: 876-893. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.03.009
    • Costanza, R., W. J. Mitsch, and J. W. Day, Jr. 2006. A new vision for New Orleans and the Mississippi delta: applying ecological economics and ecological engineering. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4:465-472
    • Farley, J. and R. Costanza. 2002. Envisioning shared goals for humanity: a detailed shared vision of a sustainable and desirable USA in 2100. Ecological Economics 43:245-259
    • Costanza, R. 2000. Visions of alternative (unpredictable) futures and their use in policy analysis. Conservation Ecology 4(1):5.
    • Costanza, R. 1999. Four visions of the century ahead: will it be Star Trek, Ecotopia, Big Government, or Mad Max?. The Futurist 33:23-28.
  • Valuing Natural Capital in Agroecosystems

    Working with the National Australian Bank (NAB) to demonstrate that investment in natural capital or good management of it is correlated to improved business resilience and profitability (accounting for other variables). It is a critical prerequisite for exploring how natural capital risks can be appropriately priced into business (including in lending) decisions.

    Farmers who invest in their natural capital assets (including soil health) reap benefits including improved profitability and/or increased business resilience (more consistent yields and profits over time).

    However, there is a lack of analysis on large-scale, longitudinal and multi-criteria data sets that is able to unpack the relationship between natural capital management and financial performance. Such analysis is needed to be able to clearly demonstrate the answers to questions about whether, how and under what conditions good management of natural capital reduces business risk and improves business resilience and/or profitability.

    Publications related to this project:

  • Valuing Pandas and Panda Reserves

    Pandas are one of the most iconic flagship species and a national treasure of China. In this project, we estimate the value of pandas as national and global iconic species and the quantity and value of ecosystem services from the 67 panda reserves in western China.

    China’s National Conservation Project for the Giant Panda and its Habitat provided the impetus for the establishment of a panda reserve system, which today numbers 67 reserves covering 1.3 million hectares of suitable panda habitat. The biological diversity of these panda reserves is unparalleled in the temperate world and rivals that of tropical ecosystems.  The goal of this project is to estimate the value of ecosystem services of these reserves as a means of informing policy and future development.

  • Ecosystem Services Games

    Building an interactive gaming platform on top of an ecosystem simulation model will allow individuals to “play” the system to create their version of the “best” landscape.

    Humans currently spend over 3 billion person-hours per week playing computer games. Most of these games are purely for entertainment, but use of computer games for education has also expanded dramatically. At the same time, experimental games have become a staple of social science research but have depended on relatively small sample sizes and simple, abstract situations, limiting their range and applicability. If only a fraction of the time spent playing computer games could be harnessed for research, it would open up a huge range of new opportunities. We review the use of games in research, education, and entertainment and develop ideas for integrating these three functions around the idea of ecosystem services valuation. This approach to valuation can be seen as a version of choice modeling that allows players to generate their own scenarios taking account of the trade-offs embedded in the game, rather than simply ranking pre-formed scenarios. Our prototype provides a potential pathway and functional building blocks for approaching the relatively untapped potential of games in the context of ecosystem services research.

    Publications related to this project:

  • Claim the Sky

    We, as global citizens can claim property rights over the planet’s atmosphere. By asserting that all of us collectively own the sky, we can begin to use the public trust doctrine and existing legal institutions surrounding property rights to protect this collective ‘atmospheric’ property, charge for damages to this asset, and provide rewards for improving this asset.

    The Paris Climate Change agreement was a great step forward. However, we know very well that there is still a lot to do to turn a global agreement into effective implementation around the world, not only across governments, but also in business and society. One important way in which we can all support the global climate deal is to Claim the Sky. This adds ‘legal muscle’ to the agreement using a number of existing national and international legal frameworks and processes.

    For more information, see the project website.

    Publications related to this project:

    •  Costanza, R. 2015. Claim the sky! Solutions 6(1):18-21.
    • Barnes, P. R. Costanza, P. Hawken, D. Orr, E. Ostrom, A. Umana, and O. Young. 2008. Creating an earth atmospheric trust. Science. 319:724