In their commentary last week, "Look beyond market value in preserving green spaces" (ST, June 15), writers Euston Quah and Nicolas Neo proposed several non-market valuation methods to help the authorities in making decisions about conserving green spaces.
Professor Quah, who is president of the Economic Society of Singapore and head of economics at Nanyang Technological University, and research assistant Mr Neo said that while land use planning should abide by some market principles, green spaces are hard to quantify in monetary terms.
Although I broadly share the writers' sentiments about the need for more diverse ways of incorporating society's preferences into environmental decision-making, their suggestions are limited by the flawed and depoliticised language of economics. The term "preferences" here does not reflect social complexity.
Underpinning their proposed valuation methods is the ability to discover and incorporate people's "preferences" for green goods into policy analysis. "Preference" is assumed to be a given existing within people, waiting to be elicited by prices as "demand". The problem with this view is that society is portrayed in a static, reductionistic way.
However, from a social sciences and humanities perspective that takes an interpretive approach - focusing on the role of meaning in shaping human behaviour and human social life - human choices and values are formed in, and transformed by, diverse socio-political interactions and cultural norms.
Human choices and action are subjective and emergent outcomes, mediated by a diverse range of meanings, values, norms, framings and politics.
Thus, a single good could be assigned multiple, conflicting "values" by an individual, depending on the context.
Consequently, such social complexity cannot be reduced into a single, abstract, calculable all-encompassing figure known as "preference"; a point apparently lost on most economists infected with maths and physics envy.
As one academic acknowledges, "virtually all cost-benefit analysts continue to ignore the implications of the possibility of endogenous preferences (that is, generated from within a person) in their work".
Beyond pedantic academic debates, the more important point here is that Prof Quah and Mr Neo's suggestions obscure what is an inherently political issue of resource allocation and distribution.
According to them, competing land-use decisions can be resolved by surveying discrete pieces of "values" from the world "out there", subject to abstract and supposedly value-neutral calculations to produce the most "efficient" outcomes.
By emphasising expert technique, they gloss over the political nature of conserving green spaces.
As in the Bukit Brown example they highlight - some civic groups have opposed the cemetery's redevelopment for roads and housing - and other similar incidents, land-use conflicts are often a clash of values, meanings and power relations, guided by very different interpretations of social justice and equity.
Yet, it is precisely during this deliberative process that diverse viewpoints and perspectives can be articulated to foster public debate and promote social learning between competing camps.
Rather than resorting to abstract and technocratic decision-making, engaging in open and transparent debates over underlying interests and values better promotes public participation and safeguards the public interest.
Similarly, although Prof Quah and Mr Neo recommend introducing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), they limit their description of the technique to its formalised and expert-driven roles.
As much as "standards of assessments and valuation" are important, EIAs should also be valued as an avenue for public participation, promoting "openness, transparency and public accountability" in environmental decisions, as former Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal has pointed out.
My intent is not to bash economics. All social sciences (including economics) are based on abstract models with varying degrees of simplifications to promote explanation. What is dangerous, however, is when one discipline and its partial theoretical perspectives become dominant.
Economists need to show more disciplinary humility and reflexivity about their theoretical paradigms and assumptions, venturing across disciplinary divides to achieve a more expansive understanding of society.
Simultaneously, scholars and practitioners of the - comparatively marginalised - interpretive social sciences and humanities need to stop pulling their punches, and start engaging in policy and research conversations traditionally dominated by positivist social sciences (which emphasise empirical data and methodology).
In a time of complex socio-economic, political and environmental challenges, a commitment to reflexive and pluralistic knowledge is crucial for promoting a sustainable and just society.
This article was first published on June 25, 2015.
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