“The Enemy Is Us”

Day 22 Blog Post

The debate over whether or not environmentalism and economics can play nicely together is by now a memory of how bipartisan we need to be as a nation. There’s no need for contempt between the two because they can in fact be brought together as one – and it is this merging of environmentalism and economics that will be our salvation out of this trap we have dug ourselves into. The bottom line is we need to be more sustainable. There’s really no way to skirt around it. Sustainable development and the creation of a green economy is a necessity. So how do we do this?

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” The emphasis is on our responsibility to not only ourselves in the here and now, but to the future generations. We’re so accustomed to the connotation of “growth” and “development” as good and necessary for a financially sound and prosperous market, and therefore lifestyle. We measure how well we’re doing as a nation – our prosperity – in GNP, or gross national product. Traditional policy revolves around the assumption that all nations should increase or maximize national economic growth or wealth – the Maximizing Assumption, which ignores ecological limits, treats certain goods as free (the commons, like clean air and water). However, the concept of GNP wasn’t originally introduced for this reason. It’s clear that people think in the terms of a good economic well-being = good national well-being… you’re nobody unless you’re buying and selling. But what’s pretty ironic is that studies have shown that we’ve surpassed the point where increased wealth leads to increased happiness. Making more money doesn’t make us happy anymore.

Free-market libertarian environmentalists would fight this. It’s people like Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobile, and Julian Simon who think that environmental problems are merely “engineering problems” and that we can simply find a solution and make tons more money off fixing it “engineer our way out.” An example of this is iron fertilization, the recent privately funded expedition to dump tons of iron sulphate into the ocean to produce the extra growth of algae which absorb the carbon dioxide and then drag it to the sea floor in their bodies once they die. It need not to be mentioned that dumping tons of chemicals in the oceans is contrary to any environmental endeavor, and that ideas like this are merely bandaids on a compound fracture. Anyway, economic optimists – people like Tillerson and Simon – who think that traditional economic solutions can fix these unprecedented and more grand-scale problems – believe in unlimited substitutionability. They think that the means to our needs, once depleted, can be effectively compensated by something else – “substitutionability.” They think that when one resource runs out, we can just find another to replace it. Obviously, if this is how the world worked, we’d run into the problem of vital resources always running out and then having to find something else to replace it. This is happening with oil now. The amount of physics laws this ideology breaks is embarrassing. Plus, to quote John Muir, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds that it is attached to everything else in the world.” Geoengineering is no longer a sound crutch. To those familiar with the ever-inspiring Harry Potter series, saying that we can rely on unlimited substitutionability is like drinking unicorn blood.

However, substitutionability is a mental step in the right direction because it entails technological optimism. The trick, though, is to develop the right kinds of technologies (like solar, wind, the known list of renewable energy sources), and break free from the carbon based technologies and the idea of “unlimited” anything (nothing that comes from the earth is unlimited) that got us into this mess. And now, the added moral dilemma of leaving behind this mess, if not a bigger mess, for our future generations calls into question the moral standing of future people who do not yet exist.

There is a Native American concept called the “Seven Generations” principle. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve learned from being an Environmental Policy major as I’ve encountered its use as a blatant solution in many classes, I cannot stress how important it is that we adopt this simple rule into our own society.

“Every deliberation we make must be in consideration of the impact on the seventh generation from now.”

A number of western ethical theories have their own views on how we go about this issue. Libertarian economic optimists see that as long as human ingenuity mixes with a profitable motive, sustainable resources for an abundant life will be found. This sounds nice, especially in politics, but the laws of thermodynamics just won’t allow it to work. In fact Libertarians should read up on Barry Commoner’s 4 Laws of Ecology. Utilitarianism would ask whose utility do we account for and for how far ahead into the future? This brings up thoughts on overpopulation and how many people we should bring into this world. Communitarianism says that we’re morally bound to future generations by extension of their being members of the moral, and human, community. Kantian deontology would ask “should one will that everyone act in a way that treats the future of humanity with less than what we have now,” ensuring minimal happiness and ability for life and resources in the future? Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” would ask every person to imagine him or herself as a future person who will be worse off than we are now because of his or her ancestors’ depletion of natural capital. This (and some communitarianism) is probably the most convincing case, as it calls into question the preservation of the gains of culture and civilization. Surely no one can argue against that.

Because of our individualistic culture, we have a motivational problem with implementing policies that demand sacrifice for future generations. Ernest Patridge believes that “concern for the remote future is the result of normal processes of maturation and socialization.” The “self-transcending” concern for persons, communities, locations causes, artifacts, institutions, and ideals arises from the social origins of the concept of the self, the “objectification of values,” and the universal awareness of one’s mortality. In other words, we naturally worry about our future and progeny, but the traditional economic culture we’ve been living in has been slowly, in a way, undoing this part of our humanity.

What can we start to do to minimize our impact on future generations? Sustainable business, or “green business,” is “an enterprise that has no negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy; and it strives to meet the triple bottom line, of which there are four criteria. 1) Incorporate principles of sustainability into each of its business decisions, 2) supplies environmentally friendly products or services that replace demand for non-green products or services, 3) it must be greener than traditional competition, and 4) it must make the enduring commitment to environmental principles in its business practices. A good example of current strides in sustainability is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standard. There are six essential characteristics to the authentically sustainable business: 1) triple top-line value production, 2)nature-based knowledge and technology, 3) products of service to products of consumption, 4) solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy, 5) local-based organizations and economies, 6) continuous improvement process. In short, a green business doesn’t just provide green things, it’s entire functionality must be green.

Basically, none of this is news. We’ve known about our impacts on the environment since the 70’s, and we’re only finding out more information on how destructive current practices are. This is a video of an amazing 12 year old girl, Severn Suzuki, speaking to the UN Earth Summit in 1992, imploring for a change in our ways a decade ago. We have most of the technologies we need to start the economic shift this very moment, what’s holding us back is our investment in them; as if it were some “bold” move to invest in solar energy. It’s actually even good business because these renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal are r e n e w a b l e. If you have an hour, this PBS documentary shows who’s really behind the misinformation campaign aimed at causing our society’s doubt in the truth of climate change…interestingly aired no shorter than a week before Hurricane Sandy hit. This video explains how a plentitude economy is our hope at a better future. There is literally no excuse for inaction.

I offer this analogy. If you drop a rock in a river, it makes ripples. There’s no way to not make ripples once you’ve dropped that rock – there’s no way to not cause harm by continuing the carbon-based economy. The ripples are indisputable, and recently, observable fact. The only excuse was their delay in being seen by the majority of people who have the agency to do something about it, but that’s not the case anymore. We need to stop dropping the rocks. Think of how much less a leaf impacts the water than a rock. Maybe the idea of thinking about future generations as people who don’t exist yet is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. Think of what you want for future you, because you exist; and people like you who will only exist because of you are in danger. How does that make you feel? As an organism on planet Earth, you are biologically concerned about your offspring – an extension of yourself. So all this convoluted and dry thought of ‘what do we do about the future,’ further bound by political talk, is morally the wrong way to view the issue of protecting our future. In the end, it was always us who were our own problem. Do you really want to be known as those ancestors who ruined everything?

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First World Problems

Day 19 Blog Post

In order to completely understand the crisis of environment degradation and what exactly we are doing to ourselves we need to first step outside of ourselves and take a look at who we are as a nation, as a polity, and as a community of individuals whose values and interests are unfortunately bleak.

When perceived clearly, even the most ardently iconic American businessman cannot deny that the line between citizen and consumer is pretty much nonexistent. It’s almost impossible to say otherwise. But what’s scary is whether or not we care about our new title. In a hypothetical open question to all of America, how do we feel about our citizenship and national duties being boiled down to being good consumers? Can I safely say that I’m really only a good citizen if I keep my wardrobe updated seasonally and replace my goods at the first blemish of outdatedness?

Now layer this concept over the idea that our most direct relationship to anything is to the environment (we walk through it, breath it, eat it, live in it, perceive the world through it)… What happens when efficiency replaces infinity as the central conception of value? What do we really value? Mark Sagoff’s essay “At the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, or Why All Political Questions Are Not Economic” concerns with the economic decisions we make about the environment. He points out that the cult of Our Lady of Fátima has only a few devotees, but the cult of Pareto optimality (us) has many devotees. Where some people see only environmental devastation, the devotees of Pareto optimality see efficiency, utility, and maximization of wealth. One man’s trash is another man’s…what exactly?

Not all of us think of ourselves as simply consumers, but see our citizenship as separate from our roles in the market economy; acting as consumers to obtain what we want for ourselves and as citizens to achieve what we think is right for the community. However, the traditional approach to environmental policy that assumes there’s only a problem when some resource isn’t allocated in equitable and efficient ways essentially means that our only values appear to be those that a market can price. Do you value a condo on the beach more than the air you breathe? What about a full tank of gas over the water you drink? If our consumership has taken over our citizenship, that would mean that the things we value most in society are the most costly. Sagoff rhetorically questions “how much did you spend last year to preserve open space?” then, “how much for pizza and gas?” So, are what we want for ourselves consistent with the goals we would set for ourselves collectively as citizens? Are our preferences as a consumer consistent with our judgements as a citizen when you speed on the highway and then vote for laws to lower the speed limit? Or are we all suffering from a theoretical identity crisis, doomed to a life of bipolar values?

In 1977 the Secretary of Labor reduced the amount of benzene – a carcinogen for which no safe threshold is known – allowed to be exposed to workers from 10 to 1 ppm. In 1981 Reagan published Executive Order 12, requiring all administrative agencies and departments to support every new major regulation with a cost benefit analysis, establishing that the benefits of the regulation should outweigh the costs. The American Petroleum Institute challenged the new benzene standard, complaining the benefits to the workers don’t outweigh the costs to the industry. The conflict between environmental and worker safety being treated as a commodity or as a value in its owns sake is a moral one that needs to be debated morally, not economically under cost-benefit analysis. Such a contradiction over moral principles cannot be settled by the arbitrary judge of economics.

Furthermore, making the consumer the priority is to treat the individual as a bundle of preferences and not as an advocate of ideas to help one another. So, to protect only consumer interests is to sacrifice the ideas of the citizen to the psychology of the consumer. In his essay De la Liberté des Anciens Comparee a Celle des Modernes, Benjamin Constant claims that the individual in society is “lost in the dark… [and] rarely perceives the influence that he exercises,” and therefore must be content with “the peaceful enjoyment of private independence.” This unfortunately rings too many bells to the modern audience. The individual asks only to be protected by laws common to all in his pursuit of his own self-interests. But does this not mark a turn in society that shows how we’ve gotten selfish and inadvertently ignorant to the collective needs of the community? Perhaps the mental undercurrents of the anti-environmental politician’s motives are that society has gotten too diverse too fast for any one person to hold the interests of everyone; but to say so would be social blasphemy and, frankly, unacceptable.

The real problem is that we’re so engrossed in our own narrow consumerist worlds, privately feeding our wants, being spoon-fed false necessities by the “infotainment” media, and not realizing our real needs. We’re ultimately fooling ourselves when we put our greed and materialism before our basic values. I have been very much affected by Frankenstorm Sandy, being left without the crutch of electricity, tv, internet, easy travel, and found myself calmly reclaiming what I as a human being truly hold valuable – heat, nutrition, friends and family. We cannot replace the moral function of public law with economic analysis. The antinomianism of cost-benefit analysis is not enough. Real power lies in acting as a nation, together, after realizing what we all really need and what we don’t, and we must be able to act on public philosophy.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Day 18 Blog Post

In the stricter economic circles, recommendations for policy concerning pollution and other environmental problems are known to be unfortunately taken with a good deal of skepticism and perhaps even distrust. This is because, to the economist, the environment is a scarce resource that contributes to human welfare; and the allocation of such scarce resources to essentially unlimited human needs and wants is given top priority. The problem here is that economic policy caters to the preferences of individuals, and has two properties: substitutionability and an absence of limits/wants. The market system will reach economic efficiency if given certain conditions: a) all goods must be capable of being bought and sold in markets, and b) all markets are perfectly competitive. When one connects the dots, it is apparent that these basic economic principles do not fit well to an environmentally healthy outlook. The use of the environment in economics involves trade-offs, and therein lies the ethics of decision-making.

But because there is no market for environmental services, the decentralized decision-making of individuals will result in the misallocation of environmental resources. Such traditional use of environmental services causes unowned or commonly held resources to be overused, some goods (like fossil fuels and clean water) to be used up too quickly or in the wrong ways, and imposes burdens on the people who didn’t consent to pollution in their backyard. And this leads to market failure in the form of, mostly, externalities. An unfortunately popular example of this is when the typical chemical manufacturing plant produces waste that seeps into the groundwater of a nearby town; the people of which clearly didn’t ask for dirty drinking water. This is an example of market failure, and in order to correct it economists can then either establish property rights or use various forms of government regulations, taxes, and subsidies to replicate the incentives and outcomes that a perfectly functioning market would produce. The idea is to bring these externalities back into the playing field of the economy so that they may be properly accounted for.

There are a few ways that economic policy can correct for market failure: environmental quality standards and charging for pollution (cap-and-trade falls within this strategy). Environmental quality standards are legally established minimum levels of cleanliness or maximum levels of pollution that can be the basis for enforcement actions against a polluter whose discharges cause the standard to be violated. However, the environmental quality standard will almost never call for a complete elimination of pollution. In charging for pollution, the government taxes the firm according to how much damage its pollution costs to others. The firm then basically pays taxes equal to the damages caused by their remaining pollutive discharges and the government uses these tax revenues to compensate those who are damaged by the pollution. This method insinuates an economic value of life, which is actually thought to be able to be calculated from information on a person’s trade-off between money and risk. It has even been proposed to discount future generations for our soiling of their world, and this debate is ethically charged as well. In my opinion, this is all reminiscent of the Monsignor’s tossing of a couple of gold coins to the father whose son he had run over with his carriage in A Tale of Two Cities.

Now, if anything is to be done about the treatment of the environment, perhaps an economic approach would be a more effective step in realizing large-scale change. But the stemming problem with the economic machine is that our satisfaction wants are not equal to our welfare. When was the last time you got McDonald’s for its nutritional value?

In Robert Repetto’s essay Earth in the Balance Sheet, he uncovers the frightful disconnect between a country’s account of its wealth and its natural resources. The aim of national income accounting is to provide an informational framework suitable for analyzing the performance of a country’s system. The current “System of National Accounts” (SNA), promoted by the United Nations and in use since the 1930’s Keynesian era – a “historical artifact” as Repetto calls it – focuses on economic concerns that were most relevant back when it was created, such as the business cycle and persistent unemployment. It pays little attention to national resource scarcity.

The SNA gives inconsistent treatment to the consumption of capital goods and natural resources. In other words, it values the existence of buildings and other man-made resources that directly contribute to the economy over natural entities like rivers and forests. The scary part is that the SNA records deforestation, soil erosion, and overfishing as all contributors to income and investment; however, the loss of such natural capital is not recorded in national income and investment. But we know the truth is that no nation can stand without a healthy ecological foundation. This then creates the illusion of income development when, in fact, national wealth is being destroyed. In such a method, economic AND ecological disaster masquerade as progress.

Repetto gives a good case study in the example of the Costa Rican economy and how it serves as a microcosm of all these complex economic factors coalescing in a dangerous downward spiral. Like in many other developing countries, natural resources were the most important economic asset for Costa Rica. The country’s natural resource deterioration is indisputable, but the loss wasn’t reflected in national accounts. Instead, net revenues from overexploiting its forests, soil, fisheries, and water resources were treated by national accounts as factor income. More than 60% of Costa Rica’s territory is only suitable for forests, yet only 40% of the land remains as forests. Even worse is that only 8% of its land is suitable for cattle pasture, but they’ve spread over 35% of the land. Repetto says that had the Costa Rican government constructed balance sheets that included this loss of natural resources they would have been properly accounted for. However, never did the annual accounts of national income, expenditure, savings, and capital information reflect ongoing loss, but rather they showed only continuing growth in national income and a high rate of capital formation… until the economy crashed in the 1980’s. The national accounts gave no warning that the basis for continuing growth was being destroyed because of this disconnect between natural resource depletion and national income.

Repetto recommends that this outdated SNA be revamped with corrective environmental and economic policies that can reverse this disconnect. Policy-makers have this false sense of a dichotomy between having to choose between the economy or the environment (and frequently pushing the latter under the bus to save the former). That needs to be stopped. So, in resource-dependent countries, national accounting systems must be changed so that economic policy-makers don’t make misguided decisions. He proposes closer dialogue between scientists and policy-makers.

I agree with Repetto’s recommendations. Capitalist consumer nations (though mainly ours) weave a self-destructive culture that relies on forgetting about where all our stuff comes from. Until something disastrous occurs, something out of a sci-fi movie that raises important questions (EDIT: HURRICANE SANDY?!), the free market cannot play nicely with the environment, and in today’s world that’s a problem we literally and figuratively cannot afford. Also, rather than try to place a price on the cost of replacing organisms, the cost of replacing biological functions like photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, “we should acknowledge that certain ecological effects are not commensurable with economic effects measured in dollars.” To me, the answer to our country’s recession problem lies in creating jobs that tend to the environment. With all this talk about creating new jobs, why not create jobs that work toward mending our relationship to the land, finding new energy alternatives, and find ways that allow our capitalistic tendencies to help maintain a healthier environment for everyone?

Something’s Gotta Give

Day 17 Blog Post

This post takes a look at the fault with the free-market approach in its idea of endless growth in GDP and consumption, as well as the problem with endless population growth upon the earth.

Today there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and estimates say that by 2020 there will be 8 billion; and by 2050, ten billion. This steady increase in global population means that the rate that people are being born is more than the rate that people are dying. In a perfect world, these rates would be equal (and obviously less in number than what they are operating at now). Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population explains that when left unchecked, population increases in a geometric (exponential) ratio, whereas subsistence (food) increases in only an arithmetic ratio. This means that the population growth rate would look like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516; and the subsistence growth rate can only increase by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. According to this disconnect in growth rate between us what we need for survival, he said that an increase in the rate of the human species population can be kept proportional to the increase in their food supply  “only by strong law of necessity acting as a check.” This means that if we are to continue this rate of population growth, we must be rational in distribution – if we want all people to have somewhat fair shares of the thinly stretched food supply. What’s even simpler? No food, no humans; which implies a limit to this growth. If we were able to keep increasing the rate of food production and human population, then eventually each and every human being would get less and less rations of food. But Malthus’ real bottom line is telling us that tragedy and pre-mature death await us in the form of famine; “the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery of vice.”

Technically this would be occurring today, but the current societal structures in place allow for a skewed distribution of food. In real life, this equates to the richer nations getting more food and poorer nations getting less. One needs only to look at history to see that populations increase only where there is a means of subsistence.We in the first world have been “oblivious to these oscillations” because the “histories of mankind are recorded by the higher classes;” and for a more correct view we need to take into account the experiences of those who live closer to fear of not having enough. We also don’t pay attention to the real cost of the labor that produces our goods for consumption, which is what perhaps contributes the most to conceal this truth from our view. Our society’s dependence on a “limitless” growth in GDP does not jive well with the sobering reality of the consequences of our constant consumption. As a matter of fact, “neo-Malthusians” are criticized from the political left because they’re claimed to support “genocidal programs” to deal with overpopulation, or for supporting the “infringement of a right to procreate;” as well as they are criticized from the political right because they’re claimed to be technological pessimists and to underestimate the capacity of the planet to support large population growth.” At the end of the day, however, Malthus’ calculations are right, which means that unless the problem of overpopulation is corrected by human means, like war, plague, or epidemic, then a famine of monstrous proportions is inevitable. Something’s gotta give.

Garrett Hardin, author of Tragedy of the Commons, gives a good metaphor for a way of thinking about the overpopulation problem in the his “lifeboat ethics.” Imagine you’re in a lifeboat with 50 people. The capacity is 60, and 100 people are out wading for survival in the water, begging to get in. How do you choose who comes into the boat? Would you chose the “best” people? The neediest? Would you make it first-come-first-serve? Now imagine a larger scale in which the population inside the boat doubles every 87 years and the population outside doubles every 35 years, and don’t forget the earth’s resources dwindle to support the said unending growth. Add on the way societies are set up, and you see a increasingly drastic difference in prosperity between rich and poor countries. An egalitarian approach would be to pool all our resources together with these other countries. The result would be that American would have to share resources with more than 8 other people. And thus the familiar tragedy of the commons plays out when everyone has access to use something shared by everyone, which in reality is what we’re doing, but it’s hidden behind the true cost of labor and externalities. Doesn’t this also mean that we have a responsibility to protect our commons? Should not one of the major tasks of education today be an awareness of the dangers of misuse of the commons? Such as illuminating not just the biological and ecological effects, but also the social and thus economic effects of, for example, overfishing?

It appears that only a replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the air, and, water, and oceanic fisheries. Recently there has been a push to create an “international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs,” or a World Food Bank. It is thought that the developing world is the more environmentally taxing populous with its 2.5% population increase per year (versus the richer countries’ 0.8% population increase per year), however the first world makes up for its fewer numbers with qualitatively more environmentally destructive economic practices like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The World Food Bank idea appeals powerfully to humanitarian impulses, but is this great food reserves concept nothing more than a human-made common? The creation and implementation of a system of growing more food (pushing more commodities through the economic machine, which ultimately means more business for agronomies) and storing it for the purpose of staving off famine, hunger, and death without repercussion only exasperate the initial problem? Human ecology tells us that this well-intended humanitarian effort is “like helping the spread of a cancer on the body of the earth.”

Garrett Hardin would say any form of voluntary restraint from plundering this new common would prove ineffective in a world run by imperfect humans, so another – proverbial – philosophy is proposed. The Chinese saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life” is the approach taken by the Ford and Rockefellar foundations. In the “Green Revolution” these programs have led to the development of “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat,” new strains that offer bigger harvests and resistance to crop damage to help feed the 15 million new Indians born each year and foreign-aid could mean 1.2 billion Indians within 28 years, each of which puts an additional burden on the environment. But here we’re just giving the growing populations the tools to sustain their growth, tools that ironically mean economic furtherance to us and environmental exhaustion on the planet. It appears that there’s now no eloquent way to say it: there needs to be less people on the planet, not just a leveling off of what we have now.

It’s a distressing reality that we have no choice but to address if we have any intention of creating a more just earth for everyone. However, some like Julian Simon wish to undermine the necessary concern and claim that natural resources are not finite. Simon sees “scarcity” as just another way of saying “increase in cost,” and says that is something is replaceable, then it’s not finite. Unfortunately, it is anthropocentric, economic-based solutions like this that actually do more harm than good. Simon’s lack of any geological, or any scientific evidence does not do his argument any good. And he must be joking about going to the moon for resources. I think the one sentence where he speaks truth is when he says that solar energy is infinite (by human standards), however he quickly ruins his sole logical thought in saying that this then means that the energy within fossil fuels (derived from plants that harnessed the sun’s energy) is thereby infinite as well. It just doesn’t work like that.

So what do we do? I believe that an anthropocentric approach, like free-market environmentalism, cannot be the answer (let alone an acceptable school of environmental thought at that). It focuses too much on one species rather than looking at the big picture in the way that all of the life on earth functions in unison with each other. I agree with Malthus in that if something isn’t done soon, then the famine will come later. Without trying to be a fear-monger, it seems that without a proactive approach to solving the population crisis we’re just delaying whatever stabilizing force nature has in store anyway. It appears that overpopulation is more than half the problem of environmental crisis. Education, especially among women, brings population sizes down. Contraception is obviously necessary. Vertical farming needs to be pursued far more than just as a concept. It is a nasty and unfortunate “mixture of poverty, entrenched patriarchal attitudes, ignorance, passivity, prejudice, shame, and institutionalized barriers, sometimes expressive of cultural and religious ideologies, that is at the root of population excess in many poor nations,” so undoing that will mean a more “natural” form of depopulating.

Everything Comes with a Price

Day 16 Blog Post

We have seen what a non-anthropocentric approach to environmental policy looks like with Leopold’s land ethic. His polar opposite comes in the form of William Baxter’s “anthropocentric libertarian free-market environmentalism,” which is a long way of saying that we humans should do what we want as long as we’re fulfilling what we want. If protecting the planet is what we desire, then we should pursue it, but only because it is what we, as members of the species of homo sapiens, want. He starkly claims that his “criteria are oriented to people, not penguins,” and that, “Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant.” At least he’s honest.

Baxter is very blunt about his argument. He says that nature cannot communicate its wants and needs to us, it is “ammoral,” and it has no moral consciousness; thus the principles of his libertarian free-market approach is basically the whim of the selfish needs of the human race, and maximizing our consumer demands as efficiently as possible. In this view, moral standing can only be given to conscious, rational humans; whom are also the only inhabiters of the moral community in his view. An environmental policy based solely on economic grounds requires well-defined property rights that allow decisions to be made about the use of property as well as evaluation of trade-offs with competing ends. Other than his placement of selfishness on a pedestal, Baxter’s lunacy also takes form in his belief that “ought” questions are meaningless when applied to nature because of its said lack of moral standing. Seeing as how all life is intertwined, this poses a problem.

Economic reasoning is extremely influential on policy making due to its practical, realistic, and precise formal approach. But the main defense of the market mechanism as a major player in policy making is its appeal to efficiency. Before the first thoughts of regulation, this typically anthropocentric view has lead people and governments to wreak havoc on the natural environment. If an industrial waste killed off an entire species in a forest, is it a pollutant? Traditional anthropocentric policy would have said no, as no humans would be in concern. Many economists often insist that they’re impotent to say whether the rules are “good” or “right,” and that to put a value judgement on the chips as they fall is a purely emotional response. However, the whole implicit commitment to the value of aggregate human happiness and want satisfaction suggests that evaluative assumptions are integral to economics. So what do we do when economic machines churn out negative externalities like water and air pollution? We can either persuade the people, corporations, and nations to voluntarily stop polluting, coerce them by attaching criminal penalties and/or public standards to polluting, or use a different form of coercion by placing taxes or charges to units of pollution, or require the possession of legal rights to pollute in a cap-and-trade system. The first is usually denied to have much or any effectivity in our society dominated by, ironically, Baxterian selfish corporate forces. The second and third propose a coercion to get people to do the right thing, and imply the cooperative efforts of realizing property rights. However, the talk of property rights is something that needs to be clearly laid out.

What is a property right? The concept of having property in something may be understood to mean having some combination of rights with respect to the thing owned. For example, to have a property right on something can mean having the right to use it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to transfer the property to someone else (including the right to own it as property), the right to be compensated for its use by others, and even the right to destroy it. Now to claim that something has moral standing is to suggest that it is not subject to be owned in any full-blown sense. What does this imply when we think about how we as a species are depleting the natural resources that we technically share? Garrett Hardin’s famous essay Tragedy of the Commons challenges our treatment of the commons along these lines.

The Tragedy of the Commons claims that valuable natural resources are held in common, and that unrestrained access to the commons often leads to overuse and exploitation, proving destructive to all of us as a people. Privatization is discouraged because it allows for the use, consumption, and ultimate destruction of the natural resources that happen to be arbitrarily located within a company or nation’s political borders. John Locke saw property as something that you acquire through mixing your labor with the object, allowing it to become yours. But doesn’t the infringement on property rights caused by misuse of the commons deserve rectification? For example, acid rain is a violation of many property rights (private owners do not directly consent to having their foliage poisoned), and has caused a loss of $5 billion a year to Germany’s timber industry.

Hardin even explains why Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest amount” cannot be realized. Mathematically it’s impossible to maximize for two variables at once, and in maximizing population you must minimize the work calories required to sustain that population. This actually becomes his thesis: the “‘population problem,’ as conventionally conceived, is a member of the class of problems that have no technical solution.” “Population naturally tends to grow exponentially,” and in a finite world this means “the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease.” It’s pretty simple. A finite world can support only a finite population, so population growth must eventually even off at zero to accommodate for all the energy that goes into supporting the optimum population size. Ecologically this is understood as the carrying capacity, and right now our global population is way above the carrying capacity. When this happens to non-human species, it becomes a game of survival of the fittest in competition for food; however, our society is constructed in a way that would never allow for such hunger games (at least in ours).

Without getting too esoteric, we are nothing more than energy materialized in matter. Unfortunately we don’t produce our own energy like plants, so we need to eat. We derive our energy from other means in the form of work calories obtained from the metabolism of food. This is the amount of energy essential for doing anything above just sustaining life. Currently not all people have access to work calories (enough food to get up and move), which means they get by at the bare minimum. But this isn’t just the case with feeding people. The umbrella problem is the acquisition of energy in general. Our pursuit of coal is not only pollutive, but finite as well. Since the dawn of industrial acquisition of goods from the common, the oceans of the world have suffered under the credence that its “inexhaustible” resources will be there to supply us, and this is simply not true. We’re “fouling our own nest” with sewage, chemicals, and radioactive wastes in our grounds and waters, and noxious and dangerous fumes in the air. We’re adding to the problem without limit, as we’re taking away the common resources needed by everyone. We’re burning the candle of the earth at both ends.

As stated above, Hardin’s central concern is that the freedom to breed is intolerable. In calling attention to the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment, he says that “to couple the concept of the freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the common is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.” Tragic, he means, in the sense that we are unintentionally causing the problems that will lead to our destruction. Hardin proposed a “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” as no perfect system of policy will be tolerable by all. This goes along with our recognition of the necessity of reform. He points out that restrictions on disposal of domestic sewage have widely been accepted in western civilization, but we’re still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide, fertilizers, etc. Perhaps because these other pollution methods don’t directly appear as a burden to us as sewage management does (think of which you’d give priority to), and only until the pollution becomes so bad will we make as strong infrastructural commitments to their maintenance.

The way I see it, isn’t the fact that we have gotten to a point in civilization where we need to divide shares of the commons mean that we’re running the planet too fast? We’ve actually gotten to the point where as a species that has evolved with the earth we can now count and predict that we’re in danger of collapse. It would seem so unfathomable, but the reality is that our culture of consumption of resources is being adopted by other people. It would appear that a real golden age of modern humanity can only happen when the growth rate drops to zero – the perfect balance of constant birth and constant death. We need to start thinking with the common good in mind. We biologically cannot afford to deal with any company or nation’s selfishness as Baxter would have. We’ve enjoyed living beyond our means, but now that the rest of the world wants in on our lifestyle, plus the same for their kids, something’s gotta give. The cruise was fun, but now we’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, and there aren’t enough snacks for everyone. The truth here goes beyond one of inconvenience, it’s just scary.

This Radical Old Thing Called the Land Ethic

Day 15 Blog Post

Aldo Leopold was an early 20th century American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and probably one of the most well-known environmentalists. Leopold was influential in the development of the modern environmental ethics, for having developed his own “land ethic,” and in the movement of wilderness conservation. He held what was for his time a radical view that emphasized biodiversity and ecological health. His journey as one of the leading environmentalists of our time started when he was assigned to hunt predators like wolves and bears because of their cost to agriculture in New Mexico. He noticed that this was wrong to kill certain species within the food chain because of human dependance upon their agronomically motivated destruction, and that our attitude toward the land is in dire need of change.

Aldo Leopold viewed ethics ecologically as a “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” and philosophically as a “differentiation of social from antisocial conduct.” In realizing that our relationship to land in this country is strictly economic –  entailing privileges and not obligations to it – we can see where man’s pursuit of a fatter wallet will take him if he continues on this road of ecological destruction. The conservation movement was taking root during Leopold’s time, and as the first semblances of some kind of state of harmony between western man and land, he regarded it “as the embryo of the affirmation that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.”

Aldo saw ethics as such: “All ethics rest upon the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, or animals – collectively, the land.” He points out the misconception that although as Americans we have this idea that we love our land, value it, and cherish it as the sustenance we obtain from it for our livelihood in a country built upon the “American dream,” we are obliviously incorrect. Just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communicates without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.”

He proposes that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence…in a natural state.” And he warned that at this time of America’s booming growth, the people’s assurance that the land would “drip milk and honey” into the mouths of whomever used its endless bounty was inverse to the degree of the people’s education about the land. The problem is with our socialization. Back then, people were brought up under the notion of this “milk and honey” idea that proved to be only a short lived fantasy. Farmers were taught to do only what saves his soil, because his soil makes him money. Leopold criticized that man was too timid and too anxious for quick success to realize the true magnitude of his artificial obligations to the dollar.

Further, what’s funny about our “appreciation” for this bounty of endless land (up until the Pacific Ocean) is that we couldn’t acknowledge the role the land played in probably most human successes. Throughout our continued human struggle and preoccupied with human affairs, Leopold asks us to recognize that not all of our triumphs, in the multitude of wars that have been waged and structural and economic endeavors that we remember as beacons of human ingenuity, we all made possible or (in our great failures) impossible by our correct relationship with the land. The horrible 1930’s dustbowl is one relevant case.

The land ethic relies on the guidance of the land pyramid as a model for ecosystems. It shows the distribution of quantities of different species in the various trophic levels all balanced in a system that has evolved to be highly organized. In a most basic description, it’s broken down into the two groups: the autotrophic organisms are the plants at the bottom, sustaining themselves from the sun’s energy, and the heterotrophic organisms that derive their energy from eating other living things.

Energy moves up through the pyramid, from the sun to the autotrophic flora, from them to the heterotrophic herbivores, and from them to the carnivores and omnivores in a delicate cyclical system.

As Leopold saw it, land is not merely soil but a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” The world-wide disorganization in land use would be similar to a disease, a human plague, upon the sore earth; and depending on the flexibility of the ecosystem affected, it will recover, but will will yield reduced levels of complexity (biodiversity) and carrying capacities of life in its wake. Leopold suggested that if the “private land owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a land that adds biodiversity and beauty to his farm.” And since Leopold thought it impossible for government to handle all land management, he saw the only visible remedy to be ethical obligation on the part of the private land owner. What more can be done to foster this sense of belonging and obligation to the land? Leopold said we can only be ethical to something we see, feel, love, understand, or otherwise have faith in. The most practical and hopeful is education. Teaching kids from an early age to respect the land and to garner appreciation for everything outside has been effective, at least for me I like to think, in forming a generation of ecologically minded people.

All ethical theories have a principle at their base from which they make their case. The primary principle for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic was respect for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as “conqueror” and more as “citizen and member” of the land community. He believes the conservation movement was “paved with good intentions,” but would prove futile because it is devoid of a critical understanding of the land. He makes a good case in claiming that “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, not toward, an intense consciousness of the land.” We must stop looking at the land as just “the space between cities on which crops grow,” for this is something that has been within our environmental psychology since the creepings of urban and suburban sprawl. The land ethic’s criterion of moral standing as being a member of the land community leaves virtually nothing as a resource to be pillaged for arbitrary economic needs. Some may find this as a little too restrictive, or even “eco-fascist.” But it’s this level of necessity that we must acknowledge in order to start making the right choices.

An application of Leopold’s land ethic in its entirety may not be the complete answer, but its the exact direction we need to start looking toward to get anything important accomplished.

Money or Leaves, Which is Greener?

Day 13 Blog Post

In today’s day and age the need for sustainable environmental policy is invaluable. The problem is we need to agree on a political, and thus value, method that encompasses the widest range of interests, while also being reasonable to the ecological conditions that we face. What this means is that some toes will get stepped on.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.The MA planed to use valuation as a tool that enhances the ability of decison-makers to evaluate trade-offs between alternative ecosystem management regimes and courses of social actions that alter the use of ecosystems and the services they provide. This usually requires assessing the change in the mix of services provided by an ecosystem resulting from a given change in its management.

The importance or “value” of ecosystems is viewed and expressed differently by different disciplines, cultural conceptions, philosophical views, and schools of thought. There are four major frameworks for evaluating ecosystem goods and services.

One is ecological value, which is based on what the natural sciences tell us and takes an anthropocentrically neutral stance. Ecosystems have value because they maintain life on earth and the services needed to satisfy human material and nonmaterial needs. A source of value has been articulated by natural scientists in reference to casual relationships between parts of a system, for example “the value of a particular tree species to control erosion or the value of one species to the survival of another species or of an entire ecosystem.” Globally, different ecosystems and their species play different roles in the maintenance of essential life support processes, such as energy conversion (photosynthesis in plants to give us oxygen), biogeochemical cycling (nitrogen fixation for planting and agriculture), and evolution (we’re here because of it). Indicators of ecological value are species diversity, rarity, ecosystem integrity (health), and resilience. This makes ecological valuation probably the easiest form of valuation because all these things can be empirically studied, measured, and proven.

The economic utility-based value is a form of economic anthropocentrism that looks to quantify nature, and thinks that knowing how to treat nature will be easier if we put a price on it. It is entirely utilitarian in theory and is based on the fact that human beings derive utility from ecosystem services either directly or indirectly. Two aspects are stressed. One, such a utilitarian approach bases its notion of value on attempts to measure the specific usefulness that individual members of society derive from a given service, and then aggregates across all individuals, usually weighing them all equally. The other is that utility cannot be measured directly, and therefore looks to measure all services in conveniently well recognized monetary terms. Motivations for our use of the economic valuation of ecosystems is to assess the overall contribution of ecosystems to social and economic well-being, to understand how and why economic actors use ecosystems the way they do,  and to assess the relative impact of alternative actions so as to help guide decision-making.

The problem is that many ecosystem services, like enjoying forests, boating on the seas, and climbing mountains, are not traded, and hence their values are not captured in the conventional system of national accounts as part of total income. These tend to be underpriced or not priced at all, leading to the inefficient and often unsustainable use of resources. This is why the utilitarian says valuation can help establish ecosystem values that allow correction of a country’s national accounts, also known as “greening;” and thus help reveal policy and institutional failures and benefits, as well as creating markets or improving incentives. But the Millennium Assessment plans to use valuation primarily for the rationale of assessing the impacts (gains and losses) of alternative ecosystem management regimes. The concept of total economic value (TEV) is used here to refer to the value of ecosystem goods and services that are used by humans for consumption or production. The TEV is separated into use and non-use values. The use value we derive economically is composed of direct use values (consumptive uses like harvesting food products, timber for fuel or construction and nonconsumptive uses like recreational and cultural amenities like watersports) and indirect use values, which would be inputs for production of final goods and services, like water, soil nutrients, and pollination, and other services like water purifications. There are also option values, which posit that many ecosystems services when not being used still hold value for preserving the option to use such services in the future, and so provisioning and regulation ensue. Then there are the non-use values, also known as existence value or conservation value. Although the utilitarian paradigm has no notion of intrinsic value, humans do ascribe value to knowing that a resource exists, even if they never use that resource, and many people do believe that ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is where there is partial overlap between the valuations. However, quantifying the biophysical relationships of the ecosystem is never simple and requires quantifying a chain of causality, which then requires collaboration between experts of various fields.

There is the sociocultural value of nature, which makes up a large gray area that mixes culturally anthropocentric values with non-anthropocentric values. It is important to realize that ecosystems are valued outside of their contribution to human well-being. It’s also important to keep in mind that some ecosystems are closely associated with historical, national, ethical, religious, and spiritual values. Think of the ethical importance of the rain forests of South America, the misty mountains of China, the bald-headed eagle of America. These things provide cultural services in their collective welfare of their societies. Even though the mentioned examples all serve anthropocentric ends (people are the ones who care about these things), it can be said that these ecosystems, landforms, and animals are also important in themselves – and that’s where the gray area between utilitarian and intrinsic value exists. It is proposed that the valuation of ecological goods and services should therefore result from a process of open public deliberation, and not from the aggregation of separately measured individual preferences, creating a deliberative or “group” contingent valuation process and uses hypothetical models and payment vehicles. However, I personally think that education on the importance of the ecosystems would be necessary before such heavy decision-making is put in the public’s hands. Regardless of whom the ecosystems in question are important to, these principles demonstrate how anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values toward the environment are both important and mandate its protection.

And then there’s the intrinsic value of nature, which is non-anthropocentric and uses moral extentionism to see non-human beings and entities as valuable in their own right. The notion of nature’s intrinsic value is familiar to many of humanity’s oldest religions and cultures, but not so familiar to our modern rational choice society, which is based largely on economic valuation. It can be seen in the indigenous North and South American, African, and Australian cultural world views as well as in major religions of older European peoples, Middle East, and Asia. In some Native American worldviews, humans are on equal footing with animals and plants, born from the Mother Earth and Father Sky – we are related to these other aspects of nature and thus we all have intrinsic value. The presence of the Brahman – the essential oneness of all being that exists at the core of all natural things – is an example of the intrinsic value of nature in Hinduism. The moral imperative of ahimsa or “non-injury” that the Buddhist tradition extends to all living things is another example of intrinsic value expressed in these cultures.

It is important for decision-makers to assess empirically the actual ecosystem-oriented values – intrinsic, sociocultural, and ecological, as well as utilitarian – of those affected by ecosystem-oriented policy and decision. It’s interesting to note the two main traditions of modern secular ethics in western culture are counter opposites of each other. Utilitarianism, whose principle is the aggregate “happiness” or greater balance of pleasure over pain, and Kantianism, whose principle is to further the ends of humanity, but to also keep in mind that anything that is beyond a price has dignity. Being that human rights are principled on dignity and intrinsic value, many non-anthropocentric ethical theorists have adopted the intrinsic value paradigm. The principles of the differing worldviews, traditions, and religions are the cruxes of where they oppose each other. Aldo Leopold, creator of the land ethic, thought that everything deserving of human “love and respect” has intrinsic value, especially “biotic communities.” In Judeo-Christian thinking, people have intrinsic value on the principle that they were created in god’s image, and this perception of the difference between us (humans) and them (wilderness) is what has caused all of our cultural conceptions to date, as well as attributing the highest amount of intrinsic value to human life.

In modern democratic societies, we ascribe value through the parliament or legislature. It is only relatively recently that we started to ascribe intrinsic value to nature. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave absolute legal protection to listed endangered species, thereby giving them dignity comparable to the dignity that is accorded human life. Another bit of progress in undoing our tradition of selfish speciesism is the safe minimum standard (SMS), which is the economic equivalent of socially recognizing intrinsic value and subsequent protection. The SMS approach starts with a presumption that “the maintenance of the healthy functioning of any ecosystem is a positive good.” The rule is to maintain the ecosystem unless the opportunity costs of doing so are “intolerably high,” requiring burden of proof. The quantitative threshold to which the opportunity cost must rise to warrant violating the SMS is left as an open empirical question, allowing for the ever-beneficial furthering of scientific exploration and knowledge about the environments in which we inhabit so that we may intelligently protect everything in them.

Thoughts? The Millennium Assessment focuses heavily on the economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, and probably because we inhabit a world where that’s the paradigm we’re in. It claims the purpose of economic valuation is to make the disparate services provided by ecosystems comparable to each other, using a common metric. But this is very difficult both conceptually and empirically. In the end, it’s great that considerable thought is going into the protection of ecosystem goods and services, for whatever justification, and if we can bring about a better looking planet from all of this thought and regulation, then perhaps we’ll realize what justification reigns supreme.