Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The environmental economics of nature films

Nature documentaries are potentially valuable on a number of levels. There is the obvious monetary worth associated with fees paid by filmmakers to individuals/organizations who can provide access to certain filming locations, jobs provided to those involved in the development and production of the films, and income earned from sales of DVDs and screenings. Then there is the cultural worth of entertaining, providing information about particular species and habitats, and increasing tourism activity associated with the featured locations. And what does Nature herself get out of all this? Some would argue that documentaries enlighten, inspire interest in--and a feeling of connectedness with--the environment, and--when filmed, distributed, and/or broadcast in conjunction with ecologically-minded partners--can generate support and revenues for conservation projects.

Others would argue that it is time for Nature to receive some recompense for her role in the many nature documentaries that are produced each year. This is the stance taken by collaborators from the University of Oxford, Oxfam, and the Zoological Society of London. In an "environmental economics" essay in the latest issue of Science, the authors describe their view that documentaries are an ecosystem service (ES), comparable to natural processes such as pollination, clean water provisioning, carbon sequestration, and many more. Many organizations are now initiating efforts to pay for those services, thus generating a flow of capital that can be used to keep ecosystems healthy and functional. The authors of the current paper argue that the media should participate in similar payment schemes in order to avoid "free-riding"--not by harming nature in the course of making heir films, but by "profiting without contributing."

This is sure to anger those who feel that the media sufficiently "gives back" by creating films that bring far-flung realms and species to viewers' front rooms, thereby increasing knowledge of, and interest in, biodiversity. The authors point out that some documentaries generate phenomenal revenues: Blue Planet, for instance, earned US$62.5 million, while March of the Penguins raked in $127 million. Even a small percentage of that income could make significant contributions to conservation and management efforts. The authors feel that it is important to create a more "direct link between the use of the [ecosystem] service and the funds generated through [its] representation, broadcast, and marketing." In order to do this, they recognize that it will be necessary to develop a system in which the cost is not directly passed on to the viewer, who may then no longer find the product quite as desirable.

Their solution to this conundrum is a "trust with a certification system." The trust would consist of funds deposited by broadcasters to cover each viewer attracted or each DVD/download sold. It would be governed by a sort of conservation-oriented United Nations: an "international, apolitical" group of experts who would disperse the funds to worthy efforts. The authors propose that the certification system be put in place in order to recognize those individuals and organizations who achieved the minimal requirements--as measured by rates of payment and reports on the film-making process; this would be similar to the "Fair Trade" or "Bird Friendly" labels that can be found on other "green" products.

According to the authors, this system has several advantages. For instance, payment into the trust would be proportional to the earnings of each film, ensuring that less successful distributors would not be overburdened. Further, the monetary contributions would be made by broadcasters and distributors, who have more financial leeway than filmmakers and customers. Additionally, the certification scheme could be used to increase the "reputation and brand value" of particular broadcasters; just as some shoppers only buy Bird Friendly coffee, some viewers might limit their patronage to stations featuring "green" films.

However, the authors do also recognize some challenges associated with their proposed plan. One of the biggest hurdles would be the careful selection of the trustees in order to ensure fair and wise distribution of trust funds. Another will be determining an ES payment scheme that doesn't "stifle" film-making, but still raises a useful amount of money. The authors worry that some broadcasters might try to initiate private negotiations with filmmakers in order to offset costs.

Though they realize that the ideas in their essay may not appeal to everyone, they stress that it is important to find "innovative sources of additional finance for conservation" in order to fund the preservation of species and habitats. In other words, the authors believe that it is time to start thinking outside the box. They hope that their essay gets people thinking not just about whether and how the media might pay for ecosystem services, but also about what other professionals might be included in similar schemes. On an even broader scale, the authors also suggest that it may be time to evaluate the role of wildlife films in our society and consider the relationships that exist--or should exist--between conservation organizations and the media.

Jepson, P., Jennings, S., Jones, K.E., and Hodgetts, T. 2011. Entertainment value: should the media pay for nature conservation? Science 334:1351-1352.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

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