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Ecosystem Health: New Goals for Environmental Management.

Environmental ethics is sometimes characterized as moral intuitions in search of a theory; the feeling that nature is "ethically considerable," as current jargon puts it, is widespread but hard to justify. Ecosystem Health brings together fifteen essays by extremely prominent environmentalists who take an interesting slant on this problem. While the contributors harbor some rather deep differences about such matters as whether nature has a "good of its own," they strongly tend to share the conviction that the concepts of health and illness can be applied to insensitive and even nonliving and vaguely bounded things such as estuaries and grasslands, and that those concepts can help put our relationship with the environment on a better footing, both ethically and pragmatically.

Medical metaphors are popular in environmental policy, and it isn't hard to understand the attraction. |Health' is a mongrel concept, straddling the boundary between the descriptive and the prescriptive. As such, it promises to ecological science quantitative application, to environmental policy practical guidance, and to ethics a means to justify action-all without the need for agreement on a single "deep theory" of why nature matters.

Alas, collecting on this promise will require considerable work. It is scarcely professionally reputable to see nature as a single immense organism, and even the notion that ecosystems naturally tend toward a stable, "healthy" climax state is no longer uncrifically assumed. Simply identifying what counts as an individual ecosystem is far from a straightforward matter. If, therefore, health is only metaphorically applicable to ecosystems, does it retain the normative force it has in its "home" context? Or is there as much need as ever-and no improved prospects - for a clear and persuasive theory to tell us whether nature is morally valuable in itself, or only as a means to our ends?

Questions of this sort are much discussed in the book's opening section, which is devoted to philosophy and ethics. Bryan Norton's essay traverses most of the relevant ground; he roots environmental concern in our duties to future generations of humans, and goes on to argue persuasively that issues of ecosystem scale and boundary cannot be resolved scientifically, but only by a scientifically informed, ethically sophisticated public policy. This inclines one to wonder what moral ideas might bring policy to the point where it can set appropriate boundaries and allow health assessments to be made. Mark Sagoff offers a distinctly different perspective on die question of the fundamental normative basis of ecosystem health assessments; he maintains that ecosystem health will not necessarily jog companionably along with even long-range and enlightened views of human needs. His alternative focuses on our love of nature as the source of the intrinsic good that is necessary for health language to make sense.

But it is the concluding section on science and policy that grapples more closely with the question of whether nature is the sort of thing that can be healthy or ill, and equally interesting disputes emerge. For example, David Ehrenfeld's chapter responds to worries about the relationship between health language and "organicist" or other grand conceptions of the environment, arguing that there can be an environmentally useful conception of health independent of fashions in ecological theory - although the use he has in mind seems better tailored to rhetoric than science. Other contributors are bolder about placing the notion of ecosystem health within a "grand scheme." Despite the loss of confidence in the notion that ecosystems tend toward a stable state, Robert Ulanowicz, for example, hypothesizes a natural tendency for ecosystems to develop and grow, and provides methods for quantifying at least some dimensions of this "healthy" tendency.

The volume's other contributors also offer engaging chapters; indeed, one of the things that recommends this book is that virtually all its essays are readable and will repay die attention of the entire interdisciplinary range of its readership.

Something there is that doesn't love the further spread of medical notions. But die work assembled here provides reason for resisting this disinclination. Whether a cautious medicalization of environmental discourse and ecological practice will help us get the measure of the crises we now face in having on Earth remains open, but this collection has made a brave stab at settling the question.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Nelson, James Lindemann
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:701
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