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Some Like It Hot

Earth First! ethics also self-righteously ignore the complexity of environmental and economic problems and solutions. Wes Jackson, who works at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, which tries to find ways to reconcile ecology and agriculture, writes in Ecology, Economics, Ethics that monomaniacal advocates of wilderness say little to protest “the spread of lethal farm chemicals over more than half a million square miles of the best agricultural land in the world, and soil erosion may be no concern of theirs.”

I do not object to either saints or wilderness, but to keep the holy isolated from the rest, to treat our wilderness as a saint and to treat Kansas or East Saint Louis otherwise, is a form of schizophrenia. Either all the earth is holy, or it is not. Either every square foot deserves our respect, or none of it does…. The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved by lots of people. In other words, Harlem and East Saint Louis and Iowa and Kansas and the rest of the world where wilderness has been destroyed will have to be loved by enough of us, or wilderness is doomed.

Surely it is ethically questionable for righteous environmentalists to demand that the poorer countries limit new development—by, for example, forgoing the use of fossil fuels—so as to reduce further pollution of the global atmosphere, a public good whose benefits would be shared by the industrial north and paid for disproportionately by the less developed south. Economic development has its own imperative ethical claims. A recent United Nations survey reported that in the industrialized north some 200 million people live in poverty, while in the third world about 1.1 billion people are poor, half of them “extremely poor.”7 Even when poverty does not grind people down, lack of development extracts its costs. Norberg-Hodge, who is admirably concerned to avoid giving a rosy tint to her account of Ladakh, writes:

There was a lack of what we would consider basic comforts, like heating in the freezing winter temperatures. Communication with the outside world was limited. Illiteracy rates were high; infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower than in the West.

In a preface to Norberg-Hodge’s book, His Holiness The Dalai Lama reminds us, “No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development. However,…development and learning should not take place in one direction only.” The problem is how to foster economic development that does not ruin the environment, and that maintains what Wes Jackson nicely specifies as “a harmony between the human economy and nature’s economy that will preserve both.”


Accomplishing such a task will not be easy, but it may be assisted by collections of expert essays like Bormann and Kellert’s Ecology, Economics, Ethics and Mathews’s Preserving the Global Environment. The two books resemble each other in recognizing, as Bormann and Kellert state, that the several issues posed by the new dangers cannot be treated in isolation. The essays collected by Bormann and Kellert, which discuss biodiversity, agriculture, pollution, ethics, and markets, among other subjects, try to explain how scientists and ecologists think about such issues. Those in Mathews’s book—for example, on population growth, energy and climate change, and managing the transition to new institutions—suggest the kinds of policies one might pursue to deal with them.

Holmes Rolston writes that environmental ethics “alone asks whether there can be nonhuman objects of duty.” In Rolston’s view, such objects can be identified through an approach that substitutes for humanism

a wilder ethic that is more logical because it is more biological, a radical ethic that goes down to the roots of life, that really is conservative because it understands biological conservation at depths.

What is conserved in nature is not individuals, which come and go, but species, which ordinarily survive over many individual lifetimes. Species not only flourish in their ecological niches; they also contribute to their vitality. They thus have “intrinsic value”—which, in Rolston’s reasoning, qualifies their preservation as an object of human duty.

Such an analysis is fraught with the pitfalls of the naturalistic fallacy: it proceeds from the statement that “a species is” to the statement that therefore “a species ought to be.” Rolston himself recognizes the difficulty, noting that “it takes ethical courage…to move past a hedonistic, humanistic logic to a bio-logic.” By that standard of courage, we might do well to be cowardly. To establish maximum bio-diversity as an absolute goal would be as indiscriminate as to concede equal rights to people and, say, bugs. And it could be dangerous for human economies and health, since it would grant the right to survive to well-adapted species of, for example, predatory and virulent organisms, including the AIDS virus.

Yet one need not go from is to ought to recognize that human-centered value systems must also take account of how the natural world works and the diverse ways in which it is important to us. Out of self-interest, we might arrive at the same conclusion as Rolston when he says “that it is right for humans to let them [species] be, to let them evolve.” We could find it right because, short of some miraculous leap forward in genetic engineering, “a lost species is never reproducible,” as Rolston says, and because we have good reasons not to want to lose too many. The earth’s species are a rich source of economically and medically useful materials—foods, pharmaceuticals, and biochemical products among them; they form a kind of drawing account to be held in reserve for purposes as yet unanticipated, quite apart from the aesthetic and emotional satisfactions many of us take in the diversity of nature. Mass extinction of species in the biosphere will impoverish not only living members of our own species but also future generations, to whom, it can be argued, we are naturally obligated. What bio-logic reveals is that, yes, we have a duty to nature, not primarily for its sake but for ours.

The rate at which we are consuming the biosphere—species, resources, clean air and water—means, in the apt observation of the chemist Paul H. Connett, one of Bormann and Kellert’s contributors, that “a few generations are using up resources that should be spread thin across centuries, if not millennia.” To Connett, “it is almost as if we are colonizing the future.” It is hard to fault critics of this trend for insisting that reducing the population growth rate is essential to any policy that claims to defend against the new dangers. At the end of World War II, the industrialized countries accounted for 40 percent of the world’s population. In the future, they will likely account for less than 15 percent, since more than 90 percent of future population growth is expected to take place in the third world.

However, while the new dangers to the environment are exacerbated by population growth, demographic pressures are not entirely responsible for them. Some of the greatest threats to the global environment come from the industrial countries, which together account for 25 percent of the world’s population but which are responsible for some 65 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, and from China and Russia, where the population explosion has largely been checked but where the temptation to burn abundant fossil fuels is enormous. Population control is a necessary weapon against the new endangerment, but it is by no means sufficient.

Essential to any defense against the new dangers, as many economists now insist, is that policies for the management of development and consumption must factor in environmental costs. This is not news to most of the contributors in either the Mathews or the Bormann and Kellert volumes, several of whom explicitly argue that the accounting system of the human economy—most commonly, calculations of GNP—needs to incorporate the workings of the natural economy. In a lucid essay in Preserving the Global Environment, Tom H. Tietenberg, a prominent environmental economist, notes that as ordinary capital goods—say, a factory—wear out, they are depreciated and counted as a debit against income. When natural capital goods, say, trees, are harvested, they should be similarly debited as reductions in the value of natural capital—but they are not. On the contrary, they are entered as income.

Tietenberg writes that standard financial practice does not allow an educational institution to use the principal of its capital,

that is, to draw down the endowment and to treat this increase in financial resources as income. Yet that is precisely what the national accounts allow us to do in terms of natural resources. We can deplete our soils, cut down our forests, and spill oil over ocean coves, and the resulting economic activity is treated as income, not as a decline in the endowment of natural capital.

When losses in natural capital are factored into the national accounts, GNP growth rates in the third world become substantially smaller.8 A number of industrial countries have adopted or are considering an alternative system of national accounts, one that either redefines the standard GNP or establishes a complementary natural-resources account.

If the new environmental dangers are to be dealt with, not only must their impact on material resources be recognized but also the ways in which they diminish the world’s ecological assets—for example, species diversity, water quality, and atmospheric stability. Injuries to all these, now generally left out of economic accounting, need to be acknowledged in calculating the cost of development, and, more particularly, the cost of doing business. To be sure, this is easier said than done. It is difficult to measure the precise costs of greenhouse warming or ozone-hole skin cancers, or reduced biodiversity.

It is far more difficult—most economists would say it is impossible—to assign quantitative values to some of the costs that Norberg-Hodge believes are incurred by the standard forms of economic development, particularly the reduction in “psychological, social, and spiritual wealth” that she laments among the Ladakhis. To Norberg-Hodge, quoting the king of Bhutan, the measure of a society’s well-being should not be gross national product but “gross national happiness.”

In the 1970s, Norberg-Hodge started a project to redefine progress in Ladakh so as to maintain the traditional human community and natural ecology. Urging such policies upon the Indian authorities, she organized small successful pilot projects to use solar energy (the sun shines on Ladakh three hundred days a year) for heating, cooking, and greenhouse growing of vegetables in the winter. Since then, the Ladakh Project and an affiliated group have experimented with other solar energy devices and alternative technologies such as water pumps that are made from standard plumbing parts and draw their energy from gravity rather than from petroleum.

The Ladakh program—“counter-development,” as Norberg-Hodge calls it—has stimulated wide interest and is one of countless local initiatives throughout the world to substitute ecologically and humanly conservative modes of economic activity for rampant industrial development. In Brazil, Chico Mendes led an effective movement for a dozen years to preserve the Amazonian rain forests and the way of life of the Indians inhabiting them, who sustained themselves with an economy based on tapping the rubber trees. (In 1988, Mendes was killed by the son of a cattle rancher who wanted to turn more of the rain forest into pasture.) Cities from Los Angeles to Singapore have imposed increasingly severe restrictions on the emission of pollutants from automobiles, while in the US hundreds of environmental action groups have been organized, including Kids Against Pollution, which has raised money to buy 300 acres of rain forest in Belize.9

  1. 7

    Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1991, p. 3.

  2. 8

    Tietenberg reports: According to a study by Robert Repetto, of the World Resources Institute, the unadjusted GNP of Indonesia grew between 1971 and 1984 by an average of 7.1 percent per year, but only by 4 percent per year when adjusted for natural-capital losses.

  3. 9

    Priscilla Painton, “Greening from the Roots Up,” Time, April 23, 1990, pp. 76–86.

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