On Playing by the Opponent's Rules
It is a fundamental rule of gamesmanship: If you let your opponent
write the rules, you will lose the game.
Defenders of wilderness have too readily yielded the rule-making
to their opponents. It is past time that they paused to reflect upon
a few of those rules and then to amend or abolish them. Two rules in
the public policy contest have been particularly damaging to the
cause of wilderness preservation. They are anthropocentrism,
and economic cost-benefit analysis.
"Anthropocentrism" is clearly articulated by William Baxter: "I
reject the proposition that we ought to respect 'the balance of
nature' or to 'preserve the environment' unless the reason for doing
so ... is the benefit of man." Manifest benefit to homo
sapiens is to be the be-all and end-all of environmental
Preservationists carelessly accept this rule when, for example,
they use "the undiscovered cure" argument. We've all heard it: "we
should save the rain forest and its species, because one of these
undiscovered species may contain the cure for cancer." We should,
that is to say, save it for the yet-unknown economic and personal
benefits that it might yield. This may, in fact, be a compelling
argument, and if so we should use it. But it should not be our only,
and certainly our best argument for preserving the natural estate.
For it is surely quite possible that our most effective medicines
will be found if we cut down the rainforests, and then invest part of
the proceeds to basic biomedical research and drug synthesis. If so,
what then remains of our case for preservation?
Another argument in behalf of the preservation of old growth
forests is that they are "the lungs of the planet" -- absorbing and
storing atmospheric oxygen, and thus mitigating the onset of global
warming. But intensive "tree farming" and other forms of industrial
agriculture might capture twice the atmospheric carbon than is
released by "harvesting" the ancient forests and devastating their
ecosystems. So once again, a good argument should not be our only
argument, or even one of our better arguments for preservation.
Perhaps we should simply abandon the assumption that the burden on
our argument must rest upon "what's in it for us" as a species.
A related argument, cost-benefit analysis (CBA), is
offered by many economically oriented policy makers. Like
anthropocentrism, cost-benefit-analysis is at first glance both
enticingly simple and intuitively attractive. It states, "if a policy
maximizes benefits minus costs (measured in terms of cash value),
then that policy should be adopted." (CBA should be distinguished
from the non-controversial concept of "cost-effective analysis,"
which hold that "once a policy has been adopted, it should be pursued
in a manner that maximizes benefits over cost. The difference is that
the latter deals with means, while the former dictates
Cost Benefit Analysis, a device refined six decades ago by New
Deal administrators, is enthusiastically endorsed and applied by
environmental policy-makers in our own time. Just last summer (1995),
the new Congress proposed the "Regulatory Reform Act," which requires
that environmental regulations meet CBA standards before they are
enforced. By thus measuring environmental legislation according to
economic criteria, federal agencies must treat the natural
environment, in the words of one economist, as "a scarce resource
which contributes to human welfare." Accordingly, environmental
policy is regarded as "a small part of the overall economic problem:
how to manage our activities so as to meet our material needs and
wants in the face of scarcity." (William Freeman).
CBA is a rule guaranteed to cede the policy game to the opponents
of preservation. Not only does it move the developers' goalpost
closer, it also recruits the referees to the developer's team. Why is
Environmental policy analyses involve the vexing problem of
assessing a variety of values that defy comparison: such values as
aesthetics, utility, morality, efficiency, and cash. The CBA solution
is accomplished by redefining these values under the common
quantitative value of cash. Thus "costs" and "benefits" are
to be assessed in such terms as "willingness and ability to pay," as
these are determined by actual and "hypothetical" markets. Policy
decision-making is thus reduced to accounting: determining the
The problems with this approach are legion, and the subject of
much academic debate. And, to be sure, economists are generally well
aware of such theoretical limitations of economic analysis as
distributive inequity, commons problems, externalities, and
other so-called "market failures." However, such subtleties and
qualifications are routinely disregarded by ideologues and
legislators who insist upon determining policy "by the numbers." (For
much more about this, see "The Libertarian Panacea" at this web
Additional to these limitations of economic theory are several
moral difficulties of CBA. Most prominently:
"Moral value" (i.e., the virtues) is factored out in the process
of "commensuration" of values into cash. The virtues and vices (and
indeed the very individuality) of those who enter the market is
irrelevant to CBA.
The market approach (i.e. in terms of "willingness to pay")
excludes from policy considerations, those who are unable to pay:
notably, the poor, the very young, species, ecosystems, and future
Future generations are further disadvantaged by the fact that cash
depreciates through time. Thus CBA "discounts" the interests of
The fundamental theoretical agent in economic cost-benefit
analysis is a strange abstraction called "economic man" -- a purely
personal "utility maximizer." Thus CBA regards each member of the
polity as a consumer "looking out for Number One," and not
as a citizen who cherishes shared community values.
Finally, the cost-benefit policy analyst evades fundamental moral
issues by claiming "scientific neutrality." He professes to be simply
"reporting" society's values, as they are reflected in "the market."
"What is the value of wilderness?" The economist replies, "tell me
what society is willing to pay to preserve it, and I'll tell you its
value!" But this reverses and thus evades the essential question that
should be faced by the thoughtful citizen and legislator, who
replies: "What should society be willing to pay to preserve
wilderness? We can only answer once we have determined (on
non-economic terms) its value!"
Accordingly, the implications of CBA for wilderness policy is
straightforward: the rules of the public policy game will mandate,
even before the game is played, that nature is to be regarded as a
"resource," and that the spiritual, aesthetic and natural values
cherished by the preservationist are not to count -- unless, that is,
they are somehow "translated" into cash. Clearly, this is a game that
the preservationist cannot win.
If the wilderness is to have a fighting chance, its defenders must
insist that some of their principles be added to the public policy
rule book, and that some of the prevailing policy rules be
Foremost among these preservationist principles is Aldo Leopold's
rule: We must change our role "from conqueror of the
land-community to plain member and citizen of it." We must
therefore expose and reject the fundamental operating principle of
CBA: the "commodification of nature" -- an accounting of nature
solely as a storehouse of cash-assessed "resources."
Next, we must separate "values" from "personal utility
maximization. Then we will appreciate that the most valuable
places on this planet might, at the same time, be quite "useless" --
as the economist and technologist defines "useless."
How is this to be done? We begin with an acknowledgment of "the
paradox of morality."
Philosophers and sages throughout history have recognized and
taught that those who are motivated solely by self-interest are least
likely to achieve their self-interest. "He who loses his soul shall
find it" is a maxim spoken in the languages of all great religions.
The basis of this "moral paradox" is no mystery: because we are, by
fundamental nature, social creatures and adaptive
creatures, our personal fulfillment is realized when our attention is
focused outward to other persons , places, institutions and
principles. Accordingly, the personal "utility maximization" of
micro-economic theory is a fundamental distortion of our humanity.
"Economic man" is a moral monstrosity (which, fortunately, exists
only in theory). Similarly, we are fundamentally natural beings, and
thus the commodification of nature, and the resulting
"de-naturalization" of ourselves, alienates us from our source and
It follows that we should be alert to the likely psychological and
cultural consequences of unconstrained anthropocentrism. For our own
moral good, and even for our own personal and communal advantages, we
constantly need to be reminded that we of this generation are not
nature's favorites, not the end-product of evolution, not history's
culmination. Nature, evolution and history have not all converged,
through trackless time, simply to benefit us at this moment. On the
contrary, we are but a step in the long road behind and beyond us.
While thinking otherwise might thrill us with some brief, ill-gotten
moments of false pride, such a species-centered, "now-centered"
perspective is as futile as it is false, and thus barren as a source
of secure, long-standing, broad-based satisfaction. Arrogance is a
character trait that cannot be well-contained. Arrogance toward
nature and toward history spills over into arrogance toward our
contemporary human neighbors. Arrogance does not lend itself to
prudent provision for the future or to safe and congenial
communities. Is it possible that this generation can at one time be
exploiters and destroyers of the natural community and at the same
time good neighbors in the social community? Can amoral or even worse
immoral policies toward nature and toward the future securely
co-exist with a sound, secure and operative social morality?
Callousness and solicitude are deeply incompatible moral stances,
even if the callousness characterizes an attitude toward non-human
nature, and the solicitude is an admired attitude toward human
A fundamental rule that we must bring to the policy game is the
realization that we "need" viable, independent, flourishing natural
ecosystems whether or not they are "useful" to us. To be sure, we
need them as scientific resources, to expand our understanding of
what we are biotically and what made us what we are. And granted, we
need wild ecosystems as economic and technical resources, to provide
rare biochemical substances for our future use. But beyond these
anthropocentric considerations, we need nature as an aesthetic
resource, to enrich our sense of delight and wonder. We need natural
landscapes, lakes, rivers and seascapes as psychological resources,
so that we can put ourselves at ease by returning home again to the
environment that made us and sustains us as the natural organisms
that we are. And we need nature as a moral resource -- as a source of
wonder, amazement, admiration, humility, perspective and solicitude
-- as a reminder that we are actors in a drama and participants in an
adventure too complex for us ever to comprehend. Nature, the stage of
that drama and the wellspring of that adventure, may be the ground of
ultimate value to us -- if we have the good sense to remove ourselves
from the center of our moral universe.
For reasons quite apart from self-interest and prudence, a world
unsafe for "useless" wilderness is a world less safe for human beings
and for human moral ideals.
Copyright, 1997, by Ernest Partridge