Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Environmental Responsibility:

The Price of Progress.

Ernest Partridge
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 That evening I searched my laptop computer for an unpublished work that I might adapt for occasion.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 history.

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.


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.


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 of others.

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."


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.


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-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, question."

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 assessment:"

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."


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 infinite.

“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 developed.

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.




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 .