The argument I have presented so far is not original. It is commonplace to observe that environmentalists - including many ecologists and conservation biologists - care about the preservation of nature and the control of pollution for ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual reasons. These environmentalists rightly profess that society has an obligation to preserve nature as an end in itself and for its own sake and to control pollution as a matter of protecting rights of person and property against harm and intrusion. It is also commonplace to observe that another group of environmentalists - including many welfare and environmental economists - believe that natural resources possess instrumental rather than intrinsic value. They rightly assert that natural resources should never be wasted but should be used or developed in ways that promote the prosperity of society. They argue that the growth of the economy is worth pursuing for the sake of the social well-being and prosperity it creates.
This book will argue in a more controversial vein that the theory of environmental policy fails because these two groups of environmentalists - let us say conservation biologists and ecological economists on the one side and environmental economists on the other - are unable to keep two opposed ideas in mind and still function. It fails because those ecologists and conservation biologists who should instruct society about the moral, aesthetic, and spiritual value of nature as an end-in-itself -who should help us understand the history and with it the meaning of particular places - represent their concerns as economic, for example, as resting on willingness to pay (WTP) for this species or that vista. Rather than confront society with aesthetic judgments and ethical obligations concerning nature, these environmentalists tout the economic benefits associated with abstractions of their own theory, such as "ecosystem services." As one commentator correctly observes:
Probably the most important trend in conservation science at the moment is "ecosystem services," typically seen as economic benefits provided by natural ecosystems. They form the basis of most market-oriented mechanisms for conservation. The underlying assumption is that if scientists can identify ecosystem services, quantify their economic value, and ultimately bring conservation more in synchrony with market ideologies, then the decisionmakers will recognize the folly of environmental destruction and work to safeguard nature.41
At the same time, environmental economists likewise act like cobblers who have abandoned their lasts. Economists should show society how to promote the performance of its economy. Instead, environmental economists for the past forty years have tried to estimate WTP for the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic qualities of nature. They have become preoccupied with WTP because they have defined economic "utility" or "benefit" in terms of it. Environmental economists have applied this criterion to measure the "value" of everything - including the control of pollution, the preservation of natural wonders, and every moral, spiritual, or aesthetic belief, commitment, or judgment.42 Environmental economics has become entangled in WTP as an intrinsic value - a sort of philosopher's stone that can measure the "benefit" of all things. In their zeal to measure WTP, environmental economists, it seems, have all but forgotten the economic goals they could help society to achieve, such as high employment, price stability, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
In the past decades, it seems, the entire discussion of environmental policy - at least in expert and academic circles - has been cast in terms of economic utility, in particular, in terms of methods for attaching welfare or WTP equivalents to environmental public goods. It is unclear whether this kind of effort, in which both ecological conservationists and mainstream environmental economists are joined, has anything to do with the two normative ideas we should keep in mind - the idea of preserving the natural world or the idea of improving the performance of the economy.
A few years ago, I watched a televised debate about the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Creationists espousing "Intelligent Design" opposed biologists who argued that evolution represents not "just" a theory but an established fact. What was remarkable about this program was that a group of scientists - at least they had academic appointments in various departments of biology - argued for "Intelligent Design" while a group of clergy in clerical dress defended the Darwinian point of view. Each side tried to co-opt the other by adopting its vocabulary, its appearance, its intellectual garb. The Creationists made their argument sound scientific; the Darwinists talked about faith. The result was funny.
The academic discussion of environmental policy today creates the same confusion or double take: conservation biologists and ecologists whom one might expect to defend the intrinsic value of natural history or of the beauty of the natural world instead argue for environmental protection on instrumental or on economic grounds. They contend that society must greatly reduce consumption and preserve nature as a matter of long-run economic efficiency or what they call "sustainability." You might expect that conservation biologists would try to convince society that a kind of butterfly is worth protecting because of its beauty, its behavior, its history, or its expressive significance. Instead, a prominent ecologist has advised, "The way our decisions are made today is based almost entirely on economic values. We have to completely rethink how we deal with the environment, and we should put a price on it."43
Economists and ecologists are all-too-eager to accommodate each other by assigning WTP or welfare measures to the spiritual and aesthetic commitments that once gave moral authority to the environmental movement. Economists feel the pain of environmentalists and seek funding to develop methodologies to "price" it. Conservationists appear all too willing to have economists co-opt them - to measure the intrinsic value of nature as the WTP of environmentalists - hoping to turn the straw of "prices" into the gold of persuasion.
Environmentalists have entered a Faustian bargain with economists. They have sold their political agency, ethical belief, and aesthetic judgment for numbers used to make decisions "based almost entirely on economic values." If environmentalism is dead, this is one reason. It was not murder but suicide.
The problem, as I shall describe it, is this. Conservation biologists and environmental economists seem unable to keep in mind two important but different and separate ideas - the intrinsic value of nature and the performance of the economy. Instead, conservation biologists, ecological economists, and other preservationists, who should tell us about the intrinsic value of nature, talk about its instrumental value instead. (In later chapters I question the economic arguments these environmentalists offer, for example, that "ecosystem services" are not appropriately "priced"). On the other hand, economists, who should tell us about the performance of the economy - jobs, inflation, and so on - talk instead about "existence," "non-use," and other "fragile" values or "soft" variables. The two sides engage each other in a useless and jejune debate about WTP and logically equivalent ideas, such as "consumer surplus" and "the area under the demand curve." As each side tries to outdo the other in estimating WTP for this species or that vista, the result is not funny. It is a normative and conceptual mess.
This book will offend conservation biologists, including ecological economists, and environmental economists alike. It will offend the "ecological" side by arguing that the economic reasons it offers to protect nature are plainly pretextual. The book will equally offend the "economic" side by arguing that WTP, by which it is transfixed, is not a measure of value. I shall show that WTP correlates with only WTP; any notion of "benefit" or "value" or "well-being" it pretends to measure it merely postulates. "The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil."44
The book contends that each cobbler should stick to his or her last. Conservation biologists and other preservationists should urge society to preserve the beauty, integrity, history, and diversity of nature, aspects of which are valuable in themselves or as objects of aesthetic judgment, moral obligation, and spiritual affection. Environmental economists should think in terms of macroeconomic goals, such as "gd jbs w hi pa"; they should interpret the role competitive markets, incentives, political interventions, and legal principles play in encouraging environmental protection and economic growth. These economists can help society achieve its spiritual, aesthetic, and ethical goals in cost-effective ways. Biologists should help society appreciate and respect the intrinsic value of nature and its history. Economists should assist society in maintaining or improving the performance of its economy. Society would then be offered the intelligence it needs to function while holding two distinct ideas in mind.
Was this article helpful?