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Toward Unity Among Environmentalists.

In this valuable addition to the literature of environmental ethics, Bryan Norton points out that environmentalists do not share a worldview in common. They have evolved, nevertheless, "toward a broad consensus regarding policy options in such important areas as forest policy, energy policy, and population growth" (pp. 113-14). Norton argues that "a pattern of emerging policies ... unite environmentalists in opposition to the policies usually favored by production-oriented developers" (p.189). It is these "shared policy goals and objectives" rather than a common ground of values that "characterize the unity of environmentalists" (p.12).

Plainly, anyone who failed to espouse the goals that distinguish "environmentalists" from "developers" would not qualify as an environmentalist, just as anyone who failed to own a dog would not qualify as a dog-owner. Thus, the logical unity environmentalists display by converging upon policy goals, like the unity dog-owners display by owning dogs, does not want explanation. What might be explained is the worldview, common ground, or moral reasoning that leads environmentalists to accept the policies by which they are identified. But that is just the point: Norton concedes at the outset that environmentalists come to a policy consensus via opposing principles rather than by sharing a single worldview.

Using the wonderful image of a child gathering sand dollars for sale, Norton dramatizes the division within the environmental movement between "Moralists" and "Aggregationists"--that is, between preservationists in the tradition of Muir, who teach respect for nature, and conservationists in the tradition of Pinchot, who seek to manage resources scientifically to maximize the "material well-being of all the people" (p.78). The child justifies strip mining sand dollars from the beach in terms of self-interest: she sells them to the craft shop. Norton wants to upbraid the child but realizes, insightfully, that neither the Moralist (who insists on leaving all sand dollars alone) or the Aggregationist (who requires sustainable yield) gives him the arguments--the values--on which to base his criticism.

Part one of this book explores the strengths and weaknesses of Muir, Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold in constructing theories to explain why, when, and how we should either preserve or exploit the natural environment. They succeeded, Norton persuasively argues, only in providing principles--the preservationist respect for nature, the utilitarian quest for maximum human well-being--by which environmentalists frequently justify policy objectives. The problem--the "environmentalists' dilemma"--arises to "the extent that utilitarian and more preservationist approaches are seen as exclusive choices--as opposed rather than complementary values" (p. 6).

Norton suggests that because "there is greater agreement about what to do than there is about which principles justify it, we will have to be (at least initially) tolerant of appeals to a variety of principles" (p. 91). Environmentalists must accept this state of affairs, though they may condone it as "overlapping consensus" or moral pluralism rather than condemn it as sheer philosophical opportunism. Nevertheless, we should still "want to know how and why individuals with importantly different values are gravitating toward similar policy positions" (p. 86). Part two of the book deals with this question.

The hypothesis Norton defends here, I believe, is that the policy consensus "is based more on scientific principles than on shared metaphysical and moral values" (p. 92). In the chapters dealing with energy policy, pollution control, and biodiversity, Norton shows that the environmentalists' dilemma emerges within the environmental sciences, for example, with respect to the ecological value of diversity and the possibility of assigning "shadow" prices to moral or cultural "benefits." After an insightful discussion, Norton recognizes that he is still dissatisfied with the choice between, say, economists like Alan Randall, who are willing to price "existence" values, and biologists like David Ehrenfeld, who see nature as a seamless web in which all species have a legitimate place. The dilemma becomes only more baffling when it wears a scientific and technical face.

Part three, the most philosophical, deals with morality between generations and between species. Here, Norton stresses the importance of scientific naturalism--a "broadly Darwinian view of life's processes" and "an associated emphasis on dynamism and contextualism" (p. 198). A "shared commitment to scientific naturalism" explains how and why "environmentalists of differing value commitments gravitate toward similar policies" (p. 239). In that sense, environmentalists are united by a worldview, the basic concept of which is ecosystem "health" (p. 239).

Norton concludes: Conservation biology must now move rapidly to propose a positive criterion of ecological health for natural systems, a criterion that places value neither on simply exploiting the atomistic elements of nature nor on isolating nature and separating human activities from it" (p. 255). Thus, the environmentalists' dilemma emerges once again in attempts to define ecosystem health--because one can use human well-being or the integrity of nature as the criterion for what counts as a "healthy" ecosystem.

This is a useful book because of its able description of familiar territory--the conflict between Muir and Pinchot, the Moralist and the Aggregator--and the appearance of science to settle, but ultimately only to recapitulate, this conflict. It is an exciting book, moreover, because it shows us so precisely where we are. Biotechnologists, environmental engineers, and resource economists may have all the science they need to exploit the atomistic elements of nature and allocate the products efficiently. Ecologists, in contrast, are developing a science that tells us what nature would be like in our absence. Neither seems to be what we need to capture our ethical intuitions about our place and role in nature, but these are the intellectual resources on which we currently must rely.

The lesson to draw from this book is that overlapping consensus or moral pluralism will not do, even though environmentalists have had to live with it. Norton is correct in calling for a conservation biology that avoids the environmentalists' dilemma. The internal conflicts in the environmentalists' worldview may be so great that without a resolution, the policy consensus--insofar as there is one--may not hold.
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Author:Sagoff, Mark
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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