Pricing an ecosystem.
David Simpson does an excellent job of articulating some of the limitations to using economic valuations as the basis for decisions about preserving and protecting ecosystems. Clearly, there are some situations in which quantitative benefit-cost assessment is an appropriate way to frame and consider how to manage natural systems. At the same time, recent decades have witnessed a growing application of quantitative anthropocentric framings to ever wider aspects of environmental decision making. This philosophical perspective is certainly not new.
The King James Version of the Bible instructs humans to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." In what some observers argue is a more accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, the New International Version reads "Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Over the centuries, many have interpreted this Judeo-Christian mandate to "subdue" and "rule" as basically saying that nature exists solely for the benefit of humans. That is very much the framing adopted when the preservation of nature is valued solely in terms of people's willingness to pay or in terms of quantitative measures of "ecosystem services."
The past 150 years have witnessed growing numbers of dissenting voices. Writing in 1875, John Muir challenged "the enormous conceit" of the doctrine that "the world was made especially for the uses of men." Ninety years later, Rachel Carson argued: "The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man." And in 2015, Pope Francis argued that Christians have misinterpreted scripture and "must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures."
Today, most people in the United States, including all but the most doctrinaire economists, share the view that there are limits to a strictly anthropocentric framing. The challenge now is to better articulate a philosophical framework for judging where those limits should lie; work to create a broadly shared social consensus about those limits; and develop norms that give decision makers more space to adopt decision rules that, when appropriate, go beyond quantitative anthropocentric benefit-cost analysis.
M. Granger Morgan
Hamerschlag University Professor
Department of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University
In this article, R. David Simpson asks "What is driving the interest in ecosystem services?" Why has the language of ecosystem services become "standard jargon for environmental policy makers?"
As Simpson correctly observes, the ecosystem services bandwagon is not riding on the old Malthusian rails. Overpopulation, resource depletion, and mass starvation are so fin de siecle. Ecosystem collapse has also come and gone. As Simpson points out, the ecosystem services gestalt does not give people Malthusian fantods. But it also affronts the "conservation-for-conservation's-sake ethic," as Simpson says. So it is not driven by left-wing environmental ideology; indeed, it resists both Malthusianism and deep ecology.
It is not driven by right-wing free market ideology, either. The idea of using scientistic calculations to shore up regulations would not bowl over anyone at the Chamber of Commerce.
The idea of pricing ecosystem services is also infra dig in many academic circles. An effort to "value" anything outside markets is not consistent with received economic theory, and Simpson explains why.
So what is driving the interest in ecosystem services, given that it lacks both ideological bandwidth and disciplinary cred?
A Community on Ecosystem Services holds a biennial conference that (according to its program) extends over five days and includes "15 pre-conference workshops, six plenary sessions, 14 town halls, as well as hundreds of oral presentations and posters." These posters and presentations bear out what Simpson observes: They do not ventilate on how ecosystem services "are essential to our very existence or that we have a fundamental moral obligation to preserve the habitats that provide them," nor do they edify (not as much as you would expect, anyway) on the abstract theoretical foundations of the methodology. On the contrary, attention is paid to "the practical, and often local, value of ecosystems--on services such as pollination, pollution treatment, flood protection, and groundwater recharge."
In this context, ecosystem services jargon provides a lingua franca--perhaps no more than a/flfow de parler--in which conservationists and industrialists can talk to each other without being limited by ideological or scientistic constraints. Both the left and the right--both environmentalists and industrialists--are equally able to manipulate this language; this draws them into playing the same language game. Because the pricing of ecosystems services is so open to manipulation, the extreme left (the Malthusians and the deep ecologists) and the extreme right (those who oppose any regulation outside of common law) are tempted to develop relevant language skills. This means they can be caught other than dead at the same conference.
So again, what is driving the interest in ecosystem services? The language of ecosystem services allows both environmentalists and industrialists--the left and the right--to coopt or, failing that, to tamp down their ideological fringes so that they can make sense to each other. The interest in ecosystem services is driven by centrism, incrementalism, rationalism, statism, moderation, and willingness to compromise. It may succeed, however absurdly.
Professor of Philosophy
Senior Fellow, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy
George Mason University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Morgan, M. Granger; Sagoff, Mark|
|Publication:||Issues in Science and Technology|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2016|
|Previous Article:||Medical crises.|
|Next Article:||Energy efficiency.|