Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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On Playing by the Opponent's Rules

Ernest Partridge


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 policy.

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 ends).

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 this so?

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 "bottom line."

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 site).

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 generations.

Future generations are further disadvantaged by the fact that cash depreciates through time. Thus CBA "discounts" the interests of posterity.

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 scrupulously re-examined.

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 sustenance.

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 beings.

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

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .