Compromise And Community

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The students in the class I taught had no trouble understanding the difference between the judgments they make as citizens and the preferences they entertain as individuals. They also understood the importance of their "positive" freedom to lobby for their views politically and their "negative" freedom to pursue their personal interests without undue interference from the state.34 Plainly, these freedoms, like these values and preferences, are bound to come into tension or conflict. If the nation preserves every mountain as a wilderness heritage, there will be no place for these young people to ski.

The students in my class found it fairly easy to resolve the tension between their consumer interests and their public values with respect to the example of Mineral King. They recognized that private ownership, individual freedom of choice, and the profit motive (to recall the remarks of Dr. Kneese I quoted earlier) would undoubtedly lead to the construction of the Disney paradise. They reasoned, nevertheless, that we should act on principle to preserve this wilderness, which has an enormous cultural meaning for us, since the resort, though profitable, would not serve important social ends. The students argued that because there are a lot of places for people to party, we do not need to make a ski resort of Sequoia National Park.

But what if the stakes were reversed? What if we should have to make enormous sacrifices to protect an environmentally insignificant landscape? (The example of the "1002" area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comes to mind). Suppose industry would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce air pollution by a small, perhaps an insignificant, amount? The students in my class answered these questions the way they answered questions about Mineral King. Just as they rejected the dogma of the perfect market, they also rejected the dogma of the perfect environment.

The students recognized that compromise is essential if we are to act as a community to accomplish any goal, however idealistic it may be. To improve air quality, for example, one needs not only a will but a way; one needs to express goals in parts per billion or, more generally, to deal with scientific uncertainties and technical constraints. The goal of environmental purity, like the goal of economic efficiency, can become a Holy Grail suitable only as the object of an abstract religious quest. To make progress, we need to recognize that God dwells not only in the mountains but also in the details - in the minutia of testing, monitoring, and enforcement.

Although the students thought that social policy usually involves compromise, they kept faith with the ideals they held as citizens. They understood that if we are to take these ideals seriously, we must evaluate them in the context of the means available to achieve them. To will the end, in other words, one must also will the means: one must set goals in relation to the obstacles - economic, political, legal, bureaucratic, scientific, technical, and institutional - that stand in the way of carrying them out. We do not function as a political community simply by sharing public goals and by celebrating a vision of harmony between nature and society, even if ceremonies of this sort are a part of citizenship. To function as a community we must also reach the compromises necessary to move beyond incantation to political and economic implementation.

This is the reason that the Mineral King example - and the difference between citizen and consumer preferences it illustrates - may serve to introduce a course in environmental ethics, but it does not take us very far into the problems of environmental policy. The interesting problems arise when we move, in Winston Churchill's phrase, "from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement."35 Then we must chasten our goals by adjusting them to economic, legal, scientific, and political realities. How can we do this and still retain the ethical and aspirational nature of our objectives? How do we keep faith with the values of the citizen while recognizing the power of the consumer?

The following chapters discuss these questions. In the next chapter, I complete my argument intended to show that WTP is not a credible measure of the good - that preference in the sense of WTP is not normative - and that therefore economic science cannot explain or measure the value of anything. I shall then demonstrate the failure and fatuity of attempts to use WTP as a measure of the value of environmental goods -for example, attempts to attribute to "ecosystem services" much higher prices than are usually paid for them. The useful function of economic science and analysis is not to assign "values" but to show how economies can perform better in terms of employment, productivity, price stability, and so on. Economic analysis is also useful when it explains how people can organize their activities in ways that minimize conflict and maximize collaboration and cooperation.36

The remaining chapters describe widely shared cultural and religious commitments and beliefs that can explain the kinds of values the natural world possesses - spiritual, aesthetic, ethical, and historical. I hope these chapters will help counter the alienation from nature that necessarily accompanies attempts to assess its value in economic terms.

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