The Oopound Gorilla

For over thirty years, Americans engaged in making environmental policy primarily - though not exclusively - through what might be called the pattern of "legislate and litigate." Having the advantage of an outpouring of aspirational environmental statutes enacted in the 1970s, environmental organizations sued governmental agencies to force them to apply these laws. Environmental organizations staffed up with economists, scientists, lawyers, and policy analysts to represent before Congress, agencies, and the courts whatever interests those groups defined as "environmental" and therefore as their own. An academic establishment of environmental experts and analysts now seeks to wring the last drops from the quasi-scientific controversies of the 1970s concerning the value of nature and the control of pollution. This nomenklatura of environmental experts - primarily ecologists and economists -consider themselves representative as long as they are interdisciplinary. After playing on the political stage for thirty years, however, the zero-sum, winner-take-all, ideologically driven "legislate and litigate" strategy has run out of steam, albeit having accomplished many popular and principled gains.

In 2005, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, two highly respected consultants to environmental organizations, published an influential and compelling essay titled, "The Death of Environmenta-lism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World."45 The essay observes that a meaningful and intense national and international conversation has arisen concerning the problem of energy use and global climate change. The debate over what to do about energy - how to (1) find alternatives to oil, coal, and other carbon-based fuels, (2) burn them far more cleanly and efficiently, and (3) still offer the aspiration of prosperity to people everywhere - seeks to do two things at the same time, namely, to protect atmospheric systems and still allow economies to expand. This is not a conversation that can be framed in terms of pollution, that is, the traditional problem of reducing or controlling the kinds of emissions and effluents that violate personal and property rights and that cause the kinds of harms that ground civil actions in common law. Rather, it is a different conversation that contemplates investment, which is already happening, that can create a postindustrial economy, investment in technologies that can continue the economic growth the world is experiencing while responding to the challenge of climate change.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus identify the reasons that the environmental community has failed significantly to enter, direct, or influence this conversation - the reasons "that modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis." According to these authors, environmentalists have engaged in a branding exercise to capture the problem of energy as "environmental" -thus framing it as their special interest requiring their scientific expertise. "The environmental community's belief that their power derives from defining themselves as defenders of 'the environment' has prevented us from winning major legislation on global warming at the national level." These commentators argue that the environmental leadership defeats itself by seeking foundation and government support to craft techniques, such as cap-and-trade strategies, mileage standards, carbon sequestration, and ecosystem "valuation," and sell them "to legislators through a variety of tactics, such as lobbying, third-party allies, research reports, advertising, and public relations." According to this critique, environmentalists defeat themselves by thinking always in terms of limits, reductions, and restrictions. Thus, "environmental leaders are like generals fighting the last war - in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago."

Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that the environmental movement makes itself irrelevant by seizing on climate change as a narrowly environmental problem - branding it as its own professional bailiwick -instead of joining with many other constituencies who understand that it is also or that it is primarily a geopolitical problem, a trade problem, a problem of industrial and transportation policy, and a military or a strategic problem insofar as nuclear energy can lead to nuclear weapons and oil fields become battlegrounds. "The carbon threat from China and other developing countries drives home the point that a whole series of major policies not traditionally defined as 'environmental,' from industrial policy to trade policy, will be needed to deal with global warming."

The problem of global climate change cannot be approached as one of measuring and balancing values, that is, as a traditional problem of cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, conservation biologists and ecological and environmental economists are so enmeshed in methodologies to measure WTP for this or that environmental good, the necessary conversation about global climate change eludes them and passes them by. The interesting long-term research has moved away from academic departments of environmental studies, economics, and conservation biology and toward more recently created centers for the study of energy policy and climate change. These centers are not populated by ecologists, conservation biologists, or environmental or ecological economists. They are mostly staffed by physicists and engineers.

The conceptual framework of environmentalism, which draws largely from the vocabularies of economics and ecology, produced many successes over the last thirty years. It is now exhausted. The closet of "valuation" - which brings together ecologists and economists to speculate about the "benefits" of environmental protection - has become particularly suffocating. Lost in surveys of WTP and in conjectures about the economic value of nature's services are the reasons one might honestly care about the protection of biodiversity, the reduction of toxic pollutants, the preservation of natural and historic places, and the stability of the atmosphere. These reasons do not depend on methods to measure willingness to pay. They have to do with religious or spiritual beliefs and affections, aesthetic and moral judgments, economic prosperity, homeland security, geopolictal strategy, and personal and property rights. As Bill McKibben has written, the problem of climate change is creating a politics that is no longer environmentalism but that is forcing environmentalism to become something else. "If it has success, it won't be environmentalism anymore. It will be something much more important."46

The following chapters apply philosophical analysis to environmental policy. One role of applied philosophy is to give defunct theories a proper burial.47 This clears the field for new theories, new vocabularies. As Hegel said, "the Owl of Minerva takes flight only when the shades of night are falling." When philosophy paints its gray in gray, you know a form of life has died.48


Here is a road map to the chapters that follow. The next one describes a meeting I attended in a town near Buffalo, New York, where residents felt threatened by nuclear wastes. The chapter discusses relationships in power between (1) those who engage in cost-benefit analysis to evaluate social policy and (2) those whom social policy affects. It analogizes the relation between welfare economists and the public they serve to the lawyer-client relationship and especially to the therapist-patient relationship. It criticizes the "value neutrality" of the cost-benefit analyst as a pretext by which a professional class (a nomenklatura) justifies its collectivization and manipulation of society.

Chapter 3 argues that we play two different roles - as consumers and as citizens - in affecting social outcomes and that we should not try to reduce or explain one in terms of the other. Individuals may help determine social outcomes first as economic actors in markets and second as citizens participating in political institutions and processes. The chapter contends that these roles or these personae are really different. The goal of economic activity - this is a thesis I defend throughout this book -is to provide lots of jobs at good wages and to increase the quantity and variety while lowering or at least stabilizing the prices of products people want to buy. The government has a responsibility, of course, to help secure the conditions in which the economy will perform well, for example, by defining and enforcing property rights, reducing transaction costs through legal and institutional reform, and securing equality of opportunity.

Through political activity, however, citizens can support many social goals that are justified in themselves - as expressions of the intrinsic values of the community - and not simply or primarily because of their effects on the performance of the economy. These goals include the flourishing of the sciences and the arts, the support of education, the protection and improvement of public health, and the pursuit and preservation of a common cultural and natural heritage.

Chapter 4 argues that WTP fails to provide a normative basis for environmental economics. Any statement that connects WTP to a conception of value - such as "benefit," "well-offness," or "welfare" - is merely a stipulation, that is, an arbitrary definition or tautology. To say that the economic value of a good is measured by someone's WTP for it is only to say that someone's WTP for a good is measured by his or her WTP for it. Having a preference (or WTP for something) may give the individual a motive to try to satisfy it; that in general he or she should be free to do so in ways that respect the same freedom of others is a piety I do not question. Society has reason to help with certain kinds of preferences -those for basic goods (according to a theory of justice), security (according to any political theory), and merit goods (if it wishes). There is no nontautological argument that shows, however, that society has anything to gain by seeking to maximize the satisfaction of preference per se, measured by WTP, and taken as it comes. In the context of valuation, WTP measures nothing but itself.

While I deny that maximum or aggregate WTP has any normative significance, I recognize the importance of competitive market prices - the minimums people must pay for what they want to buy. By leading consumers to bargains and entrepreneurs to profits, price signals guide economic actors as by an "Invisible Hand" to make the kinds of decisions that promote general prosperity and social peace. In this chapter, I defend the classical concepts of the "Economic Man" and the "Invisible Hand" as they were developed by Adam Smith to understand how markets can lead people spontaneously to organize themselves for their mutual advantage. At the same time, I deplore two contemporary or neoclassical theoretical constructs - "WTP Man" and "Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency" - which have no relation, as I shall argue, with anything of normative significance either to the individual or to society in general.

In Chapter 5 I criticize attempts to attribute high market valuations ("shadow" prices) to ecological services. This chapter maintains, first, that large-scale biospheric supporting systems, such as those that regulate the planetary climate, are what economists call "lumpy" goods; they cannot be "priced" or traded in marginal units. Regulatory markets for pollution allowances do not represent voluntary exchanges between willing market players. The problem of creating a regulatory market is like the challenge the mice in Aesop's fable confronted when they decided to bell the cat. A political authority has to do the heavy lifting by limiting total emissions and then by setting and distributing initial allowances to be traded under that limit.

Second, many of the products or goods associated with nature - arable land, fish, trees, drinking water, and the like - do trade in markets and thus receive competitive prices. The productive services of nature, such as the ability of fertile soil to grow crops, receive low market prices not because markets fail or because a resource such as fertile soil is a "public good" but because the resource, in this example good cropland, is quite abundant relative to effective demand. This is the case generally. The chapter argues that environmental or ecological services are either too lumpy to price "at the margin," already priced competitively, or too cheap to meter. The chapter ends by considering objections.

Chapter 6 argues that, in general, price signals work well with respect to the production and consumption of economic goods. I take a fairly optimistic view - one so far borne out by experience - of the power of technology to substitute plentiful for scarce resources, to do more with less, and under pressure from market competition to improve standards of living. The chapter argues that the problem of famine is not one of production but distribution - famine is always a local disaster brought about by oppression and civil war, and never a global problem brought about by a worldwide shortage of productive capacity. This chapter touches on the emerging competition between comestibles (food) and combustibles (fuel) for arable land. It also contends that the problem of population is becoming less one of numbers than of ages; the problem is no longer Malthus but Methuselah. Have environmentalists an exit strategy - an idea of how long people should live, not just how few should be born? Chapter 6 concludes by introducing the theme that occupies the rest of the book, namely, the aesthetic, moral, cultural, and historical reasons to protect the natural world. It urges readers to think of nature not just as a resource for economic activity but also as a refuge from it.

Chapter 7 takes up the question of whether an environmental ethic based on a conception of intrinsic value - the view this book preaches -is even possible in view of the findings of biological science. According to neo-Darwinian biology, no plant or animal has a purpose - all were created simply by accident or as a result of sheer contingency in the form of random mutation and natural selection. If value entails purpose, it follows that natural objects (e.g., endangered species) lack value and thus cannot be worth protecting except for a purpose they may serve -either the end for which God created the world (according to natural theology) or some use to which human beings may put them (according to a consequentialist or utilitarian ethic). If value requires purpose, the refutation of natural theology after Darwin implies that humanity has no obligation to respect or preserve the natural world except as doing so serves our economic goals - which, as I argue in this book, is rarely the case.

Drawing on the distinction between explanation and communication found in Calvinist theology, I argue that value does not entail purpose.

The expressive, aesthetic, or communicative aspects of nature may be valuable or endow natural objects with value apart from any use or purpose these objects may serve. The crucial distinction between explanation and communication - one scientific, the other aesthetic - offers a rationale for an obligation to protect the natural world that may appeal to members of faith communities and to biologists and other scientists. This approach also helps resolve the "lurking inconsistency" some scholars see in the relationship between a "value-neutral" biological science and a conservationist ethic.

Chapter 8 takes up the ethical (including spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic) reasons to preserve nature, which, as earlier chapters will have suggested, have to do with the historical and expressive aspects of places. It attempts to explain the concept of place in terms of the memories that fill particular environments. I work through a series of examples to illustrate what I think of as the appropriate conception of "sus-tainability," which has to do with the functioning of institutions - the maintenance or development of fair, open, free, and secure economic and political processes. From an environmental as distinct from an economic point of view, what has to be sustained is shared memory rooted in places people know and love.

Chapter 9 seeks to explain the cultural memories that define an environmental ethic in the United States. This chapter tells the story-which has been told a thousand times before - of the migration of peoples of many cultures and ethnicities to and across a continent. I give a mainstream account of America's covenant with the natural world -an account full of references to the likes of Governor John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Chapter 9 rounds up all the usual suspects - it is not intended to break new ground -to present in a short homily the ethos of nature in the United States. Students of American history and literature will find nothing new here; those less familiar with this history will find a short and I hope useful introduction to it.

The final chapter presents a blistering critique of the current state of the environmental movement - a critique along the same lines as the essay by Shellenberger and Nordhaus mentioned earlier. I argue that in the 1970s, environmentalism drew on religious affections and on populist resentments. Religious groups actively cared for Creation. Hunters, hikers, and fishermen fought to preserve places they knew and visited. Today, environmentalists appear embarrassed by the theological, aesthetic, ethical, and cultural commitments that inspired their movement decades ago. They play "science says"; they think they are representative as long as they are interdisciplinary. They couch their arguments in terms that sound technical, such as "ecological communities," "ecosystem services," "biodiversity," "invasive species," "existence values," "sustainability," and "ecological health." These terms are in fact thoroughly normative; they are ideologically driven and conceptually amorphous. Arguments about the definitions of these theoretical constructs - which scientize ethical and political disputes - have transformed environmentalism from a moral and political cause into an academic research program. Environmentalists can regroup, however, around spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic ideals that have always motivated them, as long as they advocate these values openly rather than hide them behind a smokescreen of scientism.

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