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Obituary: Professor David Pearce; Economist who priced the environment

28 September 2005

The economist David Pearce [UCL Economics] cared passionately about the environment, but never let emotion override his powers of reason "a trait that could be irksome to those with less disciplined minds.

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His most provocative idea was that environmental harm was not caused by greed or indifference or malevolence. It was caused by the environment's being under-priced.

To many people, the idea of pricing the environment seemed immoral. To Pearce, letting it be used for free was worse.

When asked in a recent BBC interview how he justified putting a price on the environment, Pearce replied that he lived 'in the real world of real policy. I look at the forces that destroy nature, and I try to use those same forces to conserve nature.' And so he did.

It was the Cambridge economist A.C. Pigou who first thought of the idea of taxing pollution. Pearce's contribution was to operationalise and, yes, market the idea. He argued that the value of environmental services could be calculated, and he reveled in showing politicians his numbers. …

Pearce's first chance to shape policy came in 1989, when he was appointed an adviser to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Chris Patten. How to reconcile the market principles of Thatcherism with the newly expressed concern for the environment?

Pearce "though no Tory" gave an answer that appealed to Conservative ideology: use the market, he said. … [He] took this idea directly to the public in the form of a book … Blueprint for a Green Economy (1989). … [It] remains the biggest-selling book on environmental economics ever published. …

In academia, sticking to a topic can be a wise move, or a poor one " and only hindsight can tell which". Pearce found his subject early, and never let go of it. His first paper on the subject of private and social values was published in 1966 … he persisted with his research agenda through a succession of appointments, finally joining University College London in 1983 to become Professor of Economics.

When … Pearce … was head of the Economics Department at UCL, he reckoned there were no more than five environmental economists in the whole country. Today, there are dozens. Every one has been touched one way or another by David Pearce. …

When the World Bank was criticised for neglecting the environment, Pearce was asked to recommend changes. … When the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development looked for a common rule to guide environmental policy, Pearce encouraged the organisation to adopt the polluter pays principle. It did. …

Pearce was a prolific writer, but, unlike most academics, he did not write only for his peers. He wrote for students. He wrote for policy makers. … And by doing that, he brought recognition to the entire field. It is just one of the reasons he was awarded the first Lifetime Achievement Award by the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists last June.

Another reason: he gave others his time, his encouragement, and his inspiration, cultivating a new generation of environmental economists.

He established a research capability in the London Environmental Economics Centre, run jointly by UCL and the International Institute for Environment and Development, and the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, based both at UCL and the University of East Anglia.

He also created an MSc in Environmental Economics at UCL "a programme that spread the discipline to every part of the globe."

It is interesting to know the spark that lights a fire in a person like this. A story Pearce told may hold the clue. Soon after David and his wife Sue were married, a group of locals, hunting on their property, killed one of their cats. The hunters offered £12 to prevent a legal action, but, with the help of the League Against Cruel Sports, the Pearces sued. The judge, who made it clear that it was somewhat improper to take the renowned Hambledon Hunt to court, ordered the group to pay exactly £12 compensation. This meant that the Pearces' legal fees were not covered, but no matter: the judgment in their favour changed the law of trespass, and, to David Pearce's delight, was cited in the Reader's Digest Family Guide to the Law. The incident inspired Pearce to investigate the connections between property rights and externalities, between private and social values. It was to become his life's work. …

Pearce died very suddenly of leukaemia, only hours after being diagnosed.

Scott Barrett, 'The Independent' September 17 2005

To read Professor David Pearce's obituary in 'The Guardian', use the link at the top of the article.


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