Eli Fenichel

Knobloch Family Professor of Natural Resource Economics

Research Overview

I have a number of ongoing projects.  My research addresses two interconnected questions.  First, how do forward looking human decisions and ecological dynamics feedback, and what does this mean for management of ecological systems?  Second, how can we think about natural resources as forms of capital, and how do we move this thinking from a metaphor that is useful for guiding intertemporal management to broader application so that natural capital interfaces smoothly with traditional forms of capital?


Current Projects

1.         Valuing natural capital - with generous support from the Knobloch Family Foundation

The earliest economists thought about natural resources, such as land and forests, as capital assets.  This means that nature should be accounted for in a similar fashion as financial assets (e.g., stocks and bonds), real assets (e.g., real estate and machines), and human assets (e.g., knowledge and health). Over the past few decades the idea that nature is capital has expanded beyond economic theory. However, most natural capital, such as fish, wildlife, water, air, and forests, remains unaccounted (or mis-accounted) for in national and other public accounts like GDP.  Valuing natural capital is essential for reforming national accounts and developing other measures of social progress and sustainability. Valuing natural capital provides an approach to inform local resource management, by providing the value of conservation of natural resources to compare to the benefits of their consumption. The idea of natural capital has remained restricted to a useful metaphor despite the number of efforts underway to measure ecosystem services (the benefits people gain in terms of material, recreation, and cultural benefits from nature) and to map natural resources to understand the spatial distribution of “natural capital.” We are working to move natural capital from a useful metaphor to a measurable, actionable concept with support from the Knobloch Family Foundation. To date, we have recovered the natural capital value for:

  • Fish in the Gulf of Mexico and shown how their value jumped with the recent shift towards a tradable quota system 
  • Groundwater stored in the Kansas section of the high plains aquifer, showing a loss of $1.1B in value between 1995-2005
  • The shift toward ecosystem-based management in the Baltic Sea increases the wealth stored in that fishery by about 300 million Euros. 

Talk on valuing natural capital

For our practical approach

Applied to Gulf of Mexico reef fish see our publication in Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists

The the story on the Yale FES web page

Watch co-author Josh Abbott discuss this research  http://vimeo.com/97786830 and http://www.azpbs.org/arizonahorizon/detailvid.php?id=15021  

Applied to groundwater see our publication in PNAS, read about it on the Yale FES webpage

Covered in the Washington Post  and Newsweek also see the adaptation of the research for Science Journal For Kids

Baltic sea ecosystem analysis in PNAS or press release from Yale FES.

The nature of natural capital and ecosystem income in the Handbook of Environmental economics.

A review of the importance of human decision making in the value of natural capital in Oxford Review of Economic Policy

We have also applied our approach to threatened caribou in Alberta to develop the concept of conservation debt that is based on natural capital theory.  

2.         The value of measuring and mapping montane urbanization - supported by Resources for the Future, The Molly K. Macauley Award for Research Innovation and Advanced Analytics for Policy  

Changes in information are valuable when the changes improve decisions. Information is especially valuable in the chaos of a natural disaster. Mountain regions are hazardous places and especially vulnerable to natural disasters, e.g., droughts, earthquakes, fires, floods, and landslides. It is also especially hard to collect information in montane regions, where human communities are disproportionately poor. Climate change and urbanization are rapidly changing mountains worldwide, but knowing where people are is critical information for resource allocation in response to a disaster. Remote sensing data provide a clear case where new, potentially actionable, information is created and the value of that information can be measured once the uncertainty of the information is resolved. Actions may not yet have been taken, but are likely. The project develops and tests a framework for valuing remote sensing products. Click here for more information. 

3.         Adaptations of fish and fishing communities to rapid climate change - support from NSF 

Global climate change will profoundly reshape coastal systems and substantially impact the food, energy, recreational opportunities, and other goods and services provided by coastal ecosystems. The impacts associated with the human responses to climate change are likely to rival the direct effects of climate change. Understanding feedbacks among climate, human actions, and ecosystems is imperative to sustainability. Fishing communities in particular are tightly coupled with marine species, since they rely on links to the ecosystem for their livelihoods and cultural identity. With support from NSF, we seek to understand how climate change and fishing interact to affect the long-term sustainability of marine populations and the ecosystem services they support.  We are making extensive use of the natural capital work research in this project.

See our publication in Nature Climate Change, Story on the Yale FES web page, or coverage in Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor, or the Weather Channel

The project has also demonstrated the importance of institutions in the rates of change in fisheries, and that institutions can lead to path dependency, see our publication in PNAS.

4.       Adaptive human behavior and the spread of infectious diseases - support from NSF & NIH  

This work, funded by the NIH and the NSF, investigates how people respond to epidemics and how these responses shape the nature of epidemics.  This work involves theoretical modeling and empirical work. For some examples of my work in this area see publication in PNAS, PloS One, Journal of Health Economics, Natural Resource Model, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, BMC Infectious Disease, and EcoHealth.

We have restarted this research program to help address COVID-19. See our paper in Lancet Public Health on school closures. Or investigate the interactive dashboardpooled salvia test or just search my name on Medrxiv for other contributions. 


5.       Linkages between locusts, livestock management, nitrogen cycling, and markets - support from NSF 

This project, supported by the NSF, investigates how ecological dynamics link the decisions people make over space and time.  Locusts are a major concern for food security in many places in the world. Livestock management may influence local locust outbreaks and migratory locust plagues.  We are trying to figure out how this couple system works.  For more information see:




6.       Incentivizing land-uses that generate ecosystem services with a focus on water provision in the Panama Canal - support from NSF

This work focuses on incentives for engagement in forestry in the Panama Canal Watershed.  A key question for developing ecosystem service incentives is, how does natural capital interface with other traditional forms of capital?  Furthermore, how can hydrologic models be used to inform the targeting of land use incentives? Collaborators and I are starting to untangle this question with support from the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Fund and support from NSF. 

In this paper in PNAS we show what it would take to use land-use change as an ecological infrastructure investment. In another paper in Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists we connect credit markets with long-term land-use choices. Also see our paper on teak production in the Panama Canal Watershed.



Prior Projects

Management of recreational fisheries. This work, previously supported by NOAA, takes on some of the unique challenges of common pool resources that do not have direct market links because they provide cultural rather than provisioning ecosystem services. Some examples of my work in this area can be found at:






The Economics of Asian Citrus Pyslid (ACP) and Citrus Greening

Citrus Greening is devastating the US Citrus industry.  With support from USDA we investigated how individuals responded to ACP spread, the insect that vectors citrus greening.  Core results were that foreclosures in California seemed to have aided spread of this horrific agricultural pest


and that there are potential positive feedbacks when one individual controls the spread of the pest, it can provide incentives for others to do the same.