University of California, Riverside
International Society for Ecological Economics, Russian Chapter
Saratov, Russia – July 6, 1999
When I arrived in
Saratov, Russia, the afternoon before I was to address a
plenary session of the conference, the organizer urged me to
give a paper that would be "general" and would be accessible to
"a non-technical audience." This was not the paper that
I had prepared, nor the topic that was announced in the program
-- "disequilibrium ecology." What to do? That evening I
searched my laptop computer for an unpublished work that I
might adapt for occasion. I found what I was looking for in my
address, two years earlier, to the St. Petersburg Society of
Naturalists. The following, while a recognizable "descendant"
to the St. Petersburg address with the same title, appears to
be an improvement and thus will replace the earlier
version. The final section, "Holism and the Challenge of
Disequilibrium Ecology, was excluded from the Saratov presentation, due to
time constraints. .
I will speak to you this morning from the perspective of my discipline –
that of a moral philosopher and environmental ethicist with an acute
interest, but without an extensive training, in economics. As an
environmental philosopher, I am interested both in the useful contributions
and the limits of economics in environmental policy.
Because I have been given the honor to address a plenary session early in
this conference, I will depart somewhat from my announced topic,
“disequilibrium ecology,” and focus upon a more fundamental issue common to
philosophers, economists, policy-makers, and yes, of ordinary citizens. This
is, quite simply, the issue of moral responsibility to nature – a
responsibility, I will contend, that is greater now than at any time in
No one is against "progress," it would seem. Of course not! The very word
"progress" connotes "improvement" — a positive value gain.
It is all too easy, however, to forget that the "gain" of progress is
usually a net gain: "gained," that is, at a price. Moreover, if we fail to
pay that price, the gains may well be forfeited. Franklin Roosevelt put it
well, when he quoted the Biblical text: "To whom much is given, much is
expected." And he spoke for our generation too, when he added, "This
generation ... has a rendezvous with destiny!"
We are, without question, in the midst of unprecedented progress, as the
scope of knowledge and the power of technology expand at an
ever-accelerating pace. This is too obvious to us all to require
justification or elaboration. What is not so obvious, albeit possibly more
significant, is the fact that the burden of moral responsibility inexorably
grows with the expansion of science and technology. And few will assert that
our moral progress has kept pace with our knowledge and capacities.
Moreover, there is an influential body of theory and practice, growing out
of policy studies, economics, and the social sciences, that is attempting to
evade the burden of responsibility. Instead, such efforts threaten to
objectify — and thus, in effect, to dehumanize — humanity and its projects.
The expansion of science and technology has paradoxically, both put the
life-support system of our planet in peril, and has offered us intimations
of how we might avoid the emergencies brought about by our own cleverness.
The recently emerging realization that our very biotic sustenance may be
vulnerable to the careless applications of our knowledge and craft has given
rise to the new field of Environmental Ethics, and this in turn bears
radical implications for environmental education and policies.
ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
My preferred definition of "Environmental Ethics" comes to this: “humanity’s
responsibility to nature and the future."
Interestingly, while ethics is old (arguably older than Philosophy itself),
environmental ethics is very new. (I would guess that over ninety-five
percent of all English-language scholarly works in the field have been
published within the past fifteen years, and almost none before the first
Earth Day in 1970). Why is this so? Because only within the past quarter
century has the professional and general public come to appreciate that
nature itself is vulnerable to human technology and numbers. A mere fifty
years ago, the very idea that the common oceans and atmosphere could be
seriously affected by human impacts, would have seemed preposterous — they
were simply too vast to be affected by us. Now we know better, as such terms
as "ozone depletion," "global warming," and "biodiversity" enter into our
common vocabulary. And so, along with our capacity to affect the common
biosphere, and with our growing knowledge of these consequences, has
necessarily emerged moral responsibility.
This is ironic, for this enormous moral burden upon our generation has come
about through the success of the sciences, described by their practitioners
as "value free," and by the capacities of technology, regarded by working
engineers as supremely "practical" and "results oriented." Neither are they
prepared, by training and too often by inclination, to deal with moral
implications of their "successes." As the popular American satirist, Tom
Lehrer, puts it so well: "Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come
down? That's not my department..."
So the "benefits" of our progress exacts costs? Very well, what benefits
(and to whom) are worth what costs (to whom)? How are we to weigh costs and
benefits in the present, to benefits and costs in the remote future? As we
attempt to preserve, and perchance even restore, the natural environment, in
whose behalf should we be working? Ourselves? Our nation? Mankind at large?
Sentient animals? All life? Gaia — the planetary ecosystem itself? What
moral concepts apply to environmental issues? Rights and Duties? Justice?
Moral Agency? The are the questions raised by Philosophers.
FOUR CRITERIA OF MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
I have suggested somewhat informally that the growth of science and
technology have increased the burden of moral responsibility upon our
generation. It is time now to offer a more detailed argument.
Over the years, I have developed a conceptual analysis of "moral
responsibility" which, I believe, reflects the essence of its application in
law and ethics. It is as follows: To say that a person is "responsible" for
an act entails:
(a) That person has knowledge of the consequences of the act.
(b) That person has the capacity to do the act.
(c) The person has the choice not to do it — i.e., to do otherwise.
(c) The act has value significance — i.e., it affects the rights and welfare
Some elaborations: (a) includes a "second-order knowledge condition" — i.e.,
even if one doesn't know the consequences of an act, one might "know how to
find out." This qualification is added to exclude "plausible deniability"
excuses, so attractive to politicians.
If, as I believe, these four conditions are together both necessary and
sufficient for moral responsibility, then I submit that the progress of
science (the knowledge condition) and technology (the capacity/choice
conditions) have together made nature vulnerable to us in ways that affect
the rights and welfare of others. It thus follows that the growth of science
and technology have together increased the burden of moral responsibility to
nature and the future.
This burden of responsibility rests upon us, whether or not we acknowledge
it, just as the saint and the criminal are equally responsible to respect
others' lives and property, notwithstanding the fact that the former does
so, and the latter does not. We cannot "opt out" of our moral
responsibilities: "no decision is a decision."
This is no new insight. We have, in a sense, renewed the biblical myth of
Eden: We have nourished ourselves from the Tree of Knowledge, and by so
doing have "learned of good and evil," and have become responsible for our
disposition of that knowledge. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "We cannot
escape history; we ... will be remembered in spite of ourselves."
THREE PRINCIPLES OF ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
There are, I believe, at least two and possibly three fundamental principles
which all environmental philosophers must hold, if they are to attract
serious attention from their peers. They are:
— THE PRINCIPLE OF NATURALISM. Homo Sapiens is a natural species, evolving
from and sustained by a complex and functioning ecosystem.
— THE PRINCIPLE OF AGENCY: Homo Sapiens has the ability (not always
realized) to use language, acquire knowledge, imagine alternative futures,
use abstract reasoning, act according to rules, recognize the personhood of
others, and to realize other capacities. All these, together and in
integration, constitute moral agency and responsibility.
It follows from these two principles, that a successful environmental ethic
must combine the insights of both the sciences and the humanities: the
sciences to teach us about "human nature" and the "non-human nature" with
which we must deal, and the humanities to instruct us as to the nature and
implications of our moral agency and responsibility.
— THE PRINCIPLE OF HOLISM. The ecosystem is a systemic whole, of which human
beings are a part. Accordingly, "the whole informs the parts:" the
ecosystem, and mankind's place and responsibility within, is best understood
"contextually," from the perspective of the whole. Mikhail Gorbechev made
the point precisely, when he said: “?????????? ???????? ?????? ????????, ?
... ????????? ??? ?????? ?????.” (Mankind is part of the biosphere, and the
biosphere is a unified whole).
This is the insight of Aldo Leopold, the esteemed American naturalist who
wrote that: "A land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of
the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for
his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."
Given the secure status of the scientific enterprise in commerce and higher
education, one might suppose that the Principle of Naturalism should not
require extraordinary defense. And in fact, the environmental educator and
ethicist might well take care that this principle not overwhelm the other
two principles: Agency and Holism.
Even so, there are voices among the neo-classical economists and
technologists that are quite unimpressed by scientific qualms and warnings
about “the limits to growth” and “natural constraints” such as the laws of
thermodynamics. According to these hardy optimists, human ingenuity,
motivated by economic forces, will solve all imaginable problems. There are,
they say, no limits to human growth and resource consumption.
Time constraints forbid further examination of the promises of such
“cornucopians” as Herman Kahn and Julian Simon – an exercise that I have
conducted at length elsewhere.
THE PRINCIPLE OF AGENCY
When it comes to "moral agency," the sciences face considerable (I would
suggest, insurmountable) difficulties. "Moral agency" is our capacity to
make autonomous and free decisions in accordance with normative principles
and rules of reasoning, and thus to be held responsible for these decisions.
It is a precondition of morality itself, for in a world without moral
agents, however sentient the beings therein, there is no justice, no rights,
no duties, no responsibilities, no virtues or vices. And yet, the logic of
science dictates that the body of science be restricted to description
organized into a non-evaluative structure of concepts, laws and theories.
Moral agency is nothing less than the essence of our humanity. It is that
which gives our lives and projects their intrinsic value — in a word, that
which makes our lives most interesting and worthwhile. And yet, according to
the fundamental rules of science, "values" are excluded from the content
(though not from the activity) of science. This exclusion, I daresay, is
justifiable, once we understand the foundations of science. What is not
justifiable, is the further suggestion that values and moral conduct are
without rational foundation, (a suggestion, I regret to say, which is
defended by many prominent philosophers of this Century). Quite the
contrary, we should hesitate to commit an act or to embark upon a project,
unless we are prepared to offer a reasonable justification for our choice.
The standing of "the Agency Principle" in environmental ethics and policy is
in constant peril, as our humanity is assaulted by commerce, the media, and
by over-reaching practitioners of such "soft sciences" as classical (formal)
economics, sociology, and behavioral psychology. I turn next to an account
of how such "over-reaching" can threaten to exclude humane values in the
formulation of public policy.
PUBLIC POLICY AND THE FLIGHT FROM EVALUATION
"Public policy-making" is the deliberate attempt by governments and civic
organizations, to choose among alternative courses of action which will
variably affect the rights and welfare of persons, now and into the future.
All relevant knowledge and technology bears upon policy decisions-making.
Accordingly, policy-making is by definition, involved in evaluation — which
is to say, ethics. And policy-makers are likewise unavoidably burdened with
moral responsibility. (Recall the criteria of responsibility: knowledge,
capacity, choice and value significance).
And yet, strange to say, much the public policy-making of the past
generation has been characterized by a flight from evaluation. When I was an
undergraduate, Daniel Bell, a Harvard sociologist, published his very
influential book, The End of Ideology. That title tells the gist of it: with
the coming maturation of the sciences of behavior and society, notably his
own field of sociology and of economics, public policy making was to become
an enterprise of "social engineering" — objective, quantitative,
descriptive, and above all, "value free," just like the physical sciences
which "policy science" was to emulate.
"Value-free policy science" suffered a cruel fate: Success. It was allowed a
few decades of unfettered trial, which vividly displayed its errors. Thus we
saw how the economic component "objectively" reduces all values to the
common denominator of money. The next step is obvious: public policy is thus
determined on the basis of "Cost-Benefit analysis, which means that the only
values deemed relevant for policy considerations are the values of the
individual consumer. Systematically excluded are the values of the citizen,
the patriot, the artist, the scholar, the lover, and the parent — except, of
course, to the degree that these can be "cashed in." Also excluded from
policy considerations are all interested parties incapable of participating
in markets: namely, the very poor, children, other species, future
generations, and the natural environment in and for itself.
Moral virtue and vice, individual dignity, distributive justice: all these
are set aside as our humanity is first objectified and then ignored. As
Philosopher Mark Sagoff so astutely puts it: "the cost-benefit approach
treats people as of equal worth because it treats them as of no worth, but
only as places or channels at which willingness to pay is found."
But "willingness to pay" at best reports a value, it does not validate it.
Says the classical economist, "How much is a wilderness worth? I'll tell
you, once I find out what the public is willing to pay to preserve it.!" To
which the moral philosopher replies, "you have the issue exactly reversed!
What we need to know is what the public should be willing to pay. And before
the thoughtful citizen answers your question of what he is willing to pay,
he must first ask himself 'What is this wilderness worth? Once I decide
that, then I can tell you what I am willing to pay.' And that prior
question, 'What is this wilderness worth?' is an ethical, not an economic,
My quarrel here, I hope you will notice, is with so-called “neo-classical”
economists who, sadly, have come to dominate the discipline in the United
States, and who have a dominating influence upon governmental
decision-making. In that same profession of economics, my heros are the
dissenting “ecological economisst” – such as Robert Costanza, Herman Daly,
Kenneth Boulding and Nicolas Georgescu-Rogen.
The neo-classical economic-descriptive, cost-benefit assessment of society
culminates in that grand statistic, "the Gross National Product" (now called
the "Gross Domestic Product"). To the humane observer, the GNP also
testifies to the moral absurdity of the economic-descriptive approach to
policy. In the inaugural speech of his ill-fated presidential campaign of
1968, Robert Kennedy gave us this eloquent indictment of "value-free policy
The Gross National Product ... counts air pollution and cigarette
advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts
special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It
counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonders
in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars
for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts [the killer's]
rifle and [the rapist's] knife and the television programs which glorify
violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National
Product does not [include] the health of our children, the quality of their
education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our
poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public
debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit
nor our courage, our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our
devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which
makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America, except
why we are proud that we are Americans.
In sum, so-called "value-free policy science" is a self-contradiction —
incoherent at its core. Because "policy" involves informed choices among
graded options, affecting the welfare and rights of others, it is
inalienably evaluative — an exercise in applied ethics. The
humanistic-evaluative element in policy-making is not only desirable, as it
surely is, it is also unavoidable. If we must evaluate in our public policy,
then let us do it well. And if we are to be true to our democratic
traditions, then we must involve an informed and educated public.
Environmental policy cannot be turned over completely to the scientists, the
technologists, and their journalistic and political promoters. For if we do,
then humane and moral values will be factored out — "subjective,
relativistic, unquantifiable," and thus irrelevant. But neither will
uninformed moral enthusiasm suffice. Environmental responsibility, let us
recall, implies knowledge and capacity. Accordingly, if we are to be truly
responsible for our collective decisions, we must be scientifically and
technologically informed. Environmental policy must stand on the two legs of
science and the humanities. Otherwise, it will fall. To paraphrase Immanuel
Kant, "The humanities without the sciences is empty; the sciences without
the humanities is blind."
HOLISM AND THE CHALLENGE OF DISEQUILIBRIUM ECOLOGY
We come finally to “the holism premise” – the principle that the ecosystem
is a systemic whole, of which human beings are a part.
Of the three, the "Holism Premise" (which is essential to my own ethic) has
recently become quite controversial, as an influential if minority faction
of ecologists has come to regard the basis of such notions as "systemic
equilibrium" and "the balance of nature" as more ideology than science.
The challenge of “disequilibrium ecology” comes from an influential group of
ecologists. For example, Michael Soule writes,
“... the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth..Living
nature is not [in equilibrium] — at least not on a scale that is relevant to
the persistence of species. Current ecological thinking argues that nature
at the level of local biotic assemblages has never been [in a steady-state].
The principle of balance has been replaced with the principle of gradation —
a continuum of degrees of disturbance.”
And the forest botanist Daniel Botkin writes, “Wherever we seek to find
constancy, we discover change... [We find] that nature undisturbed is not
constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of
time and space.”
This is also a principle of acute interest to ecological economists. In a
recent yet now-famous report, Robert Costanza and his associates estimate
that as much as ____ [$50 trillion ???] of economic assets are supplied for
the global human population, “for free,” by “nature’s services” – by the
normal and ongoing processes of natural ecosystems upon our common
atmosphere, oceans, energy flows, nutrient cycles, and hydrological cycles.
This is the amount, they assert, that we would have to pay to “replace”
those services artificially, “in theory.” In fact, of course, these “natural
services” are both essential for human life itself and practically speaking,
are irreplaceable, which means, of course, that their “economic value” is
“Disequilibrium ecology”disputes much of this claim by these ecological
economists. For, they suggest, if one ecosystem is replaced by another
(which, they claim, is in fact always going on), then it is pointless to
argue that any existing ecosystem is “more valuable” than another. The very
claim that there are economic advantages to the conservation of ecological
systems is put in doubt by the “new” disequilibrium ecologists.
In a paper soon to be published, I have identified nine essential claims of
the disequilibrium ecologists, each of which I answered in that paper. My
tentative conclusion is that enough of the traditional ecology withstands
the challenges of disequilibrium to leave the claims of Costanza and his
associates essentially intact. This is because, I believe, there is much
less to the disequilibrium challenge than meets the eye.
In the brief remaining time, I will attempt to refute the challenge of one
of the disequilibrum ecologists, Daniel Botkin. “Wherever we seek to find
constancy,” writes “we discover change.” Perfect equilibrium and balance are
nowhere to be found in nature. “Nature is in constant flux.”
But of course nature is in constant flux. What self-respecting biologist
would deny this! It’s called “evolution.” But this does not preclude us from
recognizing significant differences in the scale of change. After all,
species change through evolution. But this does not forbid biologists from
utilizing the concept of species, nor to develop a taxonomy of species. In
fact, without that taxonomy, the theory of evolution might never have been
The issue deserves closer scrutiny. And so we return to Botkin — in
particular, his account of the biotic history of the history of the
“Boundary Waters” region of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario:
... every thousand years a substantial change occurred in the vegetation of
the forest, reflecting in part changes in the climate and in part the
arrival of species that had been driven south during the ice age and were
slowly returning. Which of these forests represent the natural state.* If
one’s goal were to return the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to its natural
condition, which of these forests would one choose? Each appears equally
natural in the sense that each dominated the landscape for approximately
1,000 years, and each occupied the area at a time when the influence of
human beings was non-existent or slight.”
Botkin asks, rhetorically, “which of these forests represents the natural
state,” as if to suggest that, due to the multiplicity of states thus
described, there is no so-called “natural state.” But this very passage
suggests a non-rhetorical rebuttal: “the natural state” is that which is
brought about by the climatic (and other) conditions that prevail at the
time. That “state” is established by (relatively) undisturbed nature, and
then is succeeded when natural circumstances change.
Put bluntly, I suggest that a critical examination of this passage will
yield us less here than meets the eye, and less than Botkin intended. For
what is Botkin asserting that any informed “equilibrium model ecologist”
such as Odum or Leopold, would deny? All these ecologists are well aware
that North America undergoes periodic recurrences of ice ages and other
climatic changes, measured in tens of thousands of years. But “balance,”
“equilibrium” and “resilience” are conditions posited within stable abiotic
(e.g., climatic) conditions — or as the popular phrase has it, “all else
being equal.” Granted, “all else” is never completely “equal,” and so
classical ecologists write of “tendencies” toward balance, equilibrium and
resilience. Still, these ecosystemic concepts are quite enough to supply us
with explanations of the past and predictions for the future.
To illustrate this point, let us shift our attention from the Boundary
Waters to the Pacific Northwest.
About eight years ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, I looked out
the window upon an unforgettable scene of utter devastation. It was, of
course, the area immediately north of Mount St. Helens. On that vast mantle
of tan pumice and fallen logs, there was no apparent sign of life. And yet,
a layman might surmise, and a professional historical-ecologist would
confirm, that in another five hundred years (absent climate change or
massive human intervention), the area would look very much as it did on that
early morning of May 18, 1980, moments before the north face of the mountain
exploded. Through known stages of ecological succession, it will once again
become what it was before: a northern conifer rain forest — not a tundra, or
a tropical rain forest, or a prairie, or a Sonoran desert.
How would we know this? We know by studying neighboring areas up and down
the Cascade Range, where other volcanoes, at determined dates in the
geologically recent past, caused similar devastation. There we find, at this
moment, the various stages of succession and recovery. And in those regions
untouched by a recent eruption or fire or logging, we encounter an
identifiable “type” of integrated life community — an ecosystem — very much
as one would have encountered two-, three-, or four-hundred years ago. This
is what ecologists correctly call a “climax stage.”
. . . . . There is a significant difference between the “imbalance and
disequlibrium” of the Pacific Northwest forests of, say, four hundred years
ago, and that of the same forest today as it is assaulted by industrial
chain saws. The former is measured on a time scale of millennia, while the
latter is measured in years.
To ignore such contrast in scale would be comparable to dismissing the
concept of “disease” in medicine, with such an argument as this: “you say
that so-called ‘disease’ causes changes in the organism? Well, so too does
aging? So what’s the difference?” Similarly, “the biodiversity crisis” is
casually dismissed with the remark, “why worry about extinction? After all,
extinction is a natural process.” In all these cases the difference is
degree and scale — and it is a difference that is ignored at the peril of
both the patient and a civilization.
I remain convinced that the foundations of ecological economics remain
secure and robust: life forms survive and flourish, as they must, as
participants in organized, integrated and dynamically interactive systems —
ecosystems. As components of these “systems,” the life forms accomplish in
concert what they could not accomplish separately. All this, I submit, has
been made abundantly and irrefutably clear by innumerable scientific studies
of energy flows, nutrient recycling, information interchange, and symbiosis.
Whether or not biological science has come up with a robust explanation of
the putative “self-organizing” structure of ecosystems, I will leave to the
ecologists to judge. However, the fact that ecosystems often contain
web-like interactions is evident by numerous well-known case histories: the
extinction of indigenous Hawaiian birds following the introduction of avian
malaria from European ships; the devastation of the Australian outback
resulting from the release of rabbits; the collapse of the Kaibab forest
ecosystem following the extirpation of the top predators; and, of course,
the reproductive failure of hawks and eagles due to the bio-multiplication
of DDT and its decay products. And the fact of the systemic nature of life
communities has been rendered beyond dispute by the aforementioned studies
of energy and nutrient flow, information exchange and symbiosis.
The fact that we might lack clear and full explanations of the functioning
and properties ecological systems does not constitute a refutation of
ecological concepts and theories. Rather, it presents an urgent and daunting
challenge to ecological scientists, now at work and still to come.
In the meantime, we remain well-advised to tread carefully upon the Earth,
upon which we are recent newcomers.