Chapter Introduction

A New Yorker cartoon depicts a pair of Puritans in stiff collars, doublets, and cloaks leaning over the rail of the Arbella as it made landfall in the New World. One says, "My immediate goal is to worship God and celebrate His Creation, but long-term, I plan to get into real estate."

The cartoon presents two visions of the natural world. On the one hand, we may regard nature as sacred, as having a value in itself, a history, autonomy, and diversity that command our appreciation and respect. On the other hand, we can regard the natural world as a storehouse of economically fungible resources to be developed for human benefit. With these two visions of nature come two conceptions of salvation. The first is personal; if one learns to commune with Nature and to study its meanings and messages, one may become more secure and decent in one's soul.1 The second is collective. If humanity develops natural resources efficiently over the long term, it can maximize wealth and well-being. With the advance of science and technology, humanity may escape from scarcity, and where there is no want (as the philosopher David Hume argued) there is no injustice.2 An efficient economy can bring Heaven to Earth.3

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."4 This book argues that an intelligent society can hold these two opposed ideas of nature or salvation in mind, balancing them as well as it may, without reducing or collapsing either into the other.


The New Yorker cartoon points to an opposition or inconsistency between two ways of regarding nature - one as a source of religious inspiration, the other as an object of economic exploitation. For more than a century, environmentalism has lived within this contradiction. Historians often set the preservationist tradition of John Muir, who compared forests to cathedrals, against the Progressive tradition of Gifford Pinchot, who saw forests as sources of wood and water needed by the economy over the long run. Muir called on biblical images. "God began the reservation system in Eden," he wrote, "and this first reserve included only one tree. Yet even so moderate a reserve was attacked."5 For Pinchot, in contrast, "The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development."6 He added, "Conservation demands the welfare of this generation first, and afterward the welfare of the generations to follow."7 This book elaborates the distinction between these two conceptions of the value of the natural environment. The first regards the intrinsic properties of nature as sources of reverence and obligation.8 Society has a duty to preserve the wonders of nature for what they are in themselves, that is, for the properties through which they appeal to moral intuitions and aesthetic judgments. Biodiversity - the variety of living things -provides the standard illustration of the glories of nature that move us to feelings of curiosity and respect. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin points out, many of us believe that we have an obligation to protect species that goes beyond our own well-being; we "think we should admire and protect them because they are important in themselves, and not just if or because we or others want or enjoy them."9

No shortages of timber loom; huge tree plantations in the Southern Hemisphere as well as enormous boreal forests in Canada and Eastern Europe assure a more-than-adequate supply.10 As economist Amartya Sen has written, we may nevertheless wish to protect old-growth forests and creatures native to them for their own qualities, not for any benefit they offer us. There would be no contradiction if a person were to say: "Our living standards are largely - or completely - unaffected by the presence or absence of spotted owls, but I strongly believe that we should not let them become extinct, for reasons that have nothing much to do with human living standards."11

People tend to express their affection for nature in religious terms. In a survey, Americans by large majorities agreed with the statement, "Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it." Many of the respondents who answered this way said that they did not profess a religious faith. The anthropologists who ran this survey found that "divine creation is the closest concept American culture provides to express the sacredness of nature."12

The economic goals we pursue as a society (as should be no surprise) concern the performance of the economy. The performance of an economy is usually assessed by criteria such as employment (absence of involuntary unemployment), price stability (low inflation), competitiveness, the production of more, better, and less expensive goods as technology advances, and a more equitable distribution of income.13 When I was a child, I remember seeing in trolley cars in Boston an advertisement in which a secretarial school promised "gd jbs w hi pa" to those who enrolled in its speedwriting classes. I have since then associated the performance of the economy with the idea of "gd jbs w hi pa." In Chapter 4, I shall refer to a large literature in social psychology that demonstrates that people are happier in places where there is less or no involuntary unemployment, where prices are stable, and where the overall economy performs well.

The following sections of this introductory chapter will explore how society has kept in mind two contrasting conceptions of the value of nature - one intrinsic, the other instrumental. Of course, these two ways of "valuing" the natural world may conflict. They conflict in theory or in logic. It is one thing to be committed to protect an object of nature "for its own sake"; it is another thing to judge its worth in terms of its economic consequences. These two ways of "valuing" nature sometimes -but not always - conflict in practice. Whether they conflict depends on the economic importance of what is at stake. Draconian reductions of greenhouse gas emissions may be needed to protect the natural environment but they could slow the economy. On the other hand, President G. W. Bush protected 140,000 square miles of oceanic habitat northwest of Hawaii, by far the largest marine protected area in the world. The effects on the economy, if any, were inconsequential.

This book will argue that as a matter of practice or policy, society should strive to balance these two ways of construing the value of nature, and I shall provide examples and suggestions. In many circumstances, as I shall argue, we can enjoy "gd jbs w hi pa" and still respect the sacredness of nature.14 On the other hand, we can engage each other in fruitless and futile debate about which way to care about Creation is "correct." These ways to "value" the natural world will stymie and bollix each other if we try to place them within the same normative and conceptual framework - in other words, if we lack the intelligence "to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment