Statistics, Services and Success

How do we assign values to the environment and its services? Can we assign value to ecosystems? What factors influence people’s decisions to pay a certain amount for nature? 

These were all questions I had at the end of August when I embarked on my internship with Professor Andy Keeler. Three months later, and this research project on ecosystem services valuation has added statistical software experience, a couple hundred miles to my car and nearly a dozen questions to the list above. I’m bummed that the semester is coming to an end, because this project has become one of the best parts of the school year. It’s been no cake walk, but the challenge has made the project all the more worthwhile and relevant for further research. 

To start off, Andy assigned me two books to read. Yes, two entire books! At first I was overwhelmed and thought I had signed myself up for the wrong position, but that quickly changed when I realized a book can be read almost anywhere and doesn’t need to be confined to an office cubicle. 

Multitasking at its finest- sunbathing and reading about economic markets!

After reading Nature’s Services by Gretchen Daily, I was inspired to really dig into valuation techniques used by economists to attribute market values to ecosystem services. More specifically, I chose to look at how different individual attributes, such as ethnicity and income, influence how people make value choices towards the environment. In other words, I predicted that white people from higher income households would be willing to pay more money to protect, conserve or enhance the environment compared to nonwhite populations and those with lower income.

The next step was to start modeling. Andy and I were super excited to use Stanford’s inVEST software, that claims to give ecosystem service values as outputs in GIS. Sounds perfect for my project right?  Well, after a painful process of trying to learn how to use ArcGIS on YouTube, as well as understanding the different variables required by inVEST, all I ended up getting was a blank map and no numbers. Even though the model ended up being a dead end for my project, the software was a good starting point to work with and more relevant for research not focused on calculating willingness to pay. 

The next stage of my project was familiarizing myself with two surveys that I ended up using for my statistical analysis. One deals with NC hemlock trees, and the other looks at harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Both surveys were kindly supplied by ECU economics professor, Dr. Gregory Howard. I ended up driving to ECU to meet and discuss how to interpret the survey results and input it into statistical software. 

Here’s where the really fun part begins. After a long spring semester of econometrics and Stata, I vowed to never touch the software again. Low and behold I’ve spent the past month maneuvering it, yet again, along with another program called JMP. Even crazier, this project has made me finally appreciate statistics and I’ll be taking applied econometrics next semester! 

My old friend, Stata.

Now, since we’re giving our internship presentations later this week, I’m not going to reveal my “results” quite yet. However, I can divulge the stuff I’ve learned, from a less quantitative perspective. First off, I learned that Andy is working in the coolest field there is. Having him as a mentor for this project and hearing his experiences in this field of economics has been eye-opening to the kind of opportunities I will have after college. For the longest time I thought I was beginning to make-up the term “ecological economics” because so many people told me it was too abstract to build a career, or even degree, off of. When I got my majors switched to Environmental Studies and Economics, the advisor told me it was “the weirdest combination he had ever seen in all his years of advising.” Thankfully, my doubts have dissipated; I think I’ve found my niche in academia.

No, I am not an expert in ecosystem service valuation methods and literature, nor am I even remotely qualified to complete advanced statistical analyses on large data sets, but I do know that this is what sets my curiosity on fire. I have found something that I can run with not only in my academics and career, but also from an advocate’s standpoint. Knowing that there are potentially gaps in how people view and value the environment because of something like ethnicity and income is not only concerning from a researchers perspective. Yes, they’re important gaps we need to understand and interpret, but more importantly they’re gaps we need to address. I think acquiring all of this knowledge and results the past few months has given me a responsibility to address these gaps, not only to make ecosystem service values more accurate and robust, but also to help people have a better connection with and understanding of nature. I know that’s not something I’m going to achieve today, but here’s hoping I can work towards my goal within my career and own personal contributions to society. This realization is ultimately what made this internship a success.

Two Islands, One Storm

This past week, instead of hanging out at the beach or studying at CSI, I was in Chantilly, Virginia. A mere forty minutes from the nation’s capital, I drove to my Aunt and Uncle’s house to evacuate for Hurricane Dorian. At the start of the evacuation, I had all the intention to drive into DC, go to a few museums and check out Georgetown coffee shops. In the end, I spent most of my time at the house doing homework while Scarlet, a 15-pound miniature labradoodle, snuggled next to my laptop. However, since this blog post can’t be a detailed description of the ridiculously cute antics of Scarlet, and her brother, Gus, I thought I’d talk about the Bahamas.

Scarlet chilling on the couch with me the day after we got evacuated.

My Aunt works for a company called the Martin Group and goes to the Bahamas frequently for business. Don’t ask me exactly what she or the company does though, because I could not tell you. She was already planning to fly out on Sunday to Nassau for a week of meetings, before news of Hurricane Dorian broke. The entire week leading up to her departure, she ran to every Target and Walmart in Loudon county to purchase supplies for relief efforts. One of the days I was there I went with her to a local Walmart, and we filled up three shopping carts with toothpaste, diapers, ibuprofen, soap and other basic necessities. We emptied entire shelves and eventually managed to pack everything into bins so we could fit it all into her car. While checking out, one of the store clerks wandered over to our aisle to watch the absurd number of products move from my hands to the conveyer.

Aunt Erin, AKA the “Selfie Queen”, snapping a picture of the Bahamas supplies we collected before dropping them off at the airport.

The Bahamas are a chain of islands. They rely heavily on tourism and have a deep connection with their own coastal ecology. Manteo rests on Roanoke Island, and similarly relies on a steady churn of tourists. As we’ve experienced, the locals love their coast and the respective processes, wildlife and weather that comes with it. In the Bahamas, people spend early mornings fishing. Last week, we did the same. On weekends, those who seek adventure fight for the perfect wave in the Abacos. Last Thursday, we spent an entire afternoon at a surfing competition. In the evenings, Bahamians gather around tables to eat a meal with family. The first week we were here we met our Community Advisory Board and bonded over a Country Deli dinner.

The WRV Pro Surf Contest at Jennette’s Pier!
After thirty minutes of attempting to catch one of these elusive crabs, I finally “reeled” one in (and threw it back in the water, of course)!

Last week, the Bahamas and Roanoke Island were impacted by Dorian. Bahamians took shelter and waited, while Roanoke natives packed up their cars and drove inland. In the middle of the Atlantic, parents first hand watched their children drown, while a Roanoke “evacuee” stared blankly at a television screen in the suburbs of Virginia. On Friday night, Bahamians ransacked homes to try to find supplies, while a “displaced” North Carolinian munched on a $5 vegan cupcake. Last week, thousands of Bahamians died, even though the news will tell you it was less than fifty. Last week, thousands of trees fell to their death on the east coast of the United States.

No, Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks have not gotten off scot-free from the hurricane. Fallen trees, flooding and loss of power can harm businesses and private households financially for years to come. The process of moving your family is a challenge in and of itself. Trying to find and afford a place to stay for an entire week, in addition to not making money from a job, is a heavy burden. First hand responders put their lives at risk trying to aid individuals who decided not to leave. While the majority of people remained safe and comfortable, damage to a small community can be a difficult problem to fix. We’ve seen that over the course of orientation with the septic tank leachate just in a small part of Dare county. One small leakage in the OBX system, whether ecologically or economically, can create large challenges for business owners, city managers and citizens.

Looking at this from a broader perspective though, I have realized just how much privilege I have. I would never want to oversimplify the damage from Dorian on our coast, but in comparison to what happened in the Bahamas, I am appreciative for the resources and infrastructure we have. Whether or not people left, it is a privilege to know that it was possible to leave. From bridges, highways, cars and planes we were able to get out of the path of the storm. In the Bahamas people did not have that basic privilege and were forced to endure Dorian’s wrath. Pity is a complicated feeling. I think a lot of American pity comes from a place of feeling bad for people because they do not have the same life as us, one filled with comfortable suburban mansions, Saturdays spent at the baseball field and 24/7 access to a McDonald’s. Whether or not the hurricane hit, you will hear people saying they feel bad for Bahamians because they don’t live that lifestyle. I don’t want to pity these people because they lost their loved ones, homes and businesses. Pity is to merely recognize that someone else is suffering, there is no attempt to understand or feel it. We need to move more towards compassion, where we actively feel for people who are in pain, and try our best to listen and alleviate it.

Now, I’m no saint; I acknowledge that this is something I also need to work on. As inconvenient as it was to pack up my dirty laundry and hit the road for a five-hour drive filled with traffic, it really was a privilege to be able to do that. And as horrible as downed power lines and broken trees are, I know that the nation as a whole will not violently suffer from Dorian. While the Bahamas has no choice but to focus on the devastation, the people on Roanoke Island, and elsewhere in the U.S., should take the time to actively appreciate the security and love we have not lost.