Evolutionary Ecology

A new environmental vision

The 25th anniversary of Earth Day came and went last year, with little fanfare and no public demand for more environmental laws. The new Republican Congress tried, and mostly failed, to enact reforms designed to lessen the burden of environmental regulation. Behind the scenes and in public forums, various schools of environmental reform debated and discussed. They talked cost-benefit analysis and "takings" compensation, emissions trading and "win-win" environmentalism. They disagreed about many things, including basic principles. But there was general consensus about two ideas: that environmental goals are important, and that the current structure of regulation isn't that great.

Environmental policy is finally growing up. But to make genuine improvements, rather than merely tinker around the edges, we first need to understand where the demand for environmental regulation comes from, and where it went wrong. And we need a vision of how environmental policy might be set right--of the general principles and concepts that might guide a new environmentalism.

Environmentalism is not, as its critics sometimes portray it, simply a New Age ideology foisted upon an unwilling public. The environmental movement has important ideological components, but the demand for cleaner air and water or for wilderness and species preservation is not that different from the demand for any other good. As living standards rise, people want to buy more environmental "goods." Pollution is as old as human activity, but only recently have we been rich enough to worry about it.

Looking across countries, University of Chicago economist Don Coursey finds a clear correlation between increased wealth, measured by per capita GDP, and increased allegiance to environmental protection. As incomes rise, per capita expenditures on pollution control increase--a phenomenon Coursey observes in most advanced industrialized nations. The amount of land set aside for protection also rises with GDP. Green groups may decry economic growth, but it is growth itself that makes environmental protection possible and popular.

Coursey's work also points up a fact often forgotten in public discussions: "The environment" is not an all-or-nothing good, but a bundle of different goods. In surveys, he asks people to indicate how much they'd be willing to spend to preserve different species. The results are wildly varied. Animals like the bald eagle and grizzly bear consistently rank high, while spiders, beetles, snakes, and snails are barely valued. The varied costs of real-world regulations reflect this distinction: Coursey calculates the amount spent to preserve a single Florida panther at $4.8 million, compared to a mere $1.17 to preserve a single Painted Snake Coil Forest Snail.

Political maneuvering may produce such disparate results, but the law does not actually recognize such distinctions, or the implicit tradeoffs they express. It declares species protection, like many other environmental goods, an absolute. Early environmentalist thinking--influential to this day--did not recognize environmental values as some goods among many but rather proclaimed them preeminent: Earth First! A California regulator describes his state's water policy this way: "If Mother Nature didn't put it in, you had to take it out--everything--that was the goal. This drove us to rigid, grossly exuberant attempts at clean up."

This absolutism suggests one way that environmental policy went wrong. It did not recognize that quality of life resides in pursuit of multiple values. People seek shelter, nourishment, health, security, learning, fairness, companionship, freedom, and personal comfort together with environmental protection. They even seek many, sometimes competing, environmental goals. They don't agree on how to marshal their resources (and time) in pursuit of these many goals. And it is often difficult for outsiders--or even individuals themselves--to know in advance how they would prefer to trade off among different values.

Competing values are not unique to the environmental arena. In fact, people make such tradeoffs every day. They also deal with another conundrum of environmental policy: the "knowledge problem."

On the one hand, environmental problems involve matters of "general" knowledge, scientific knowledge of facts that are constant across time and space. In some cases, the general knowledge is a matter of settled understanding: the boiling point of water, for instance, or the bonding patterns of chemicals. In others, it is a matter of ongoing research and scientific contention. General knowledge includes such still-controversial issues as the health hazards of various substances or the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer. Much environmental debate takes place over issues of general knowledge, and these questions are important. But they aren't the whole story.

Environmental problems and problem solving also often involve "specific" knowledge--the knowledge of time, place, and experience described by Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek in "The Use of Knowledge in Society." This information varies by circumstance and location and may change over time. Specific knowledge is decentralized--it resides on the factory floor, at a particular Superfund site, or on a specific farm.

The impacts of a landfill in a desert will differ from those near the Florida Everglades. Emitting effluent into a fast-moving stream is different from emitting waste into a pond. Using two coats of paint will have different effects than using just one coat. Resource use and emissions associated with cloth and disposable diapers will depend on how many are used each day, what kinds of disposal systems are available, and where those systems are located. Nor are environmental effects the only important specific knowledge relevant to environmental issues--tradeoffs between environmental goods and other goods may vary from situation to situation. These kinds of details do not reside in the minds of bureaucrats in Washington. Yet it is this kind of knowledge that is often most relevant to understanding environmental problems and possible remedies.

Again, there is nothing unique to environmental issues about the knowledge problem. It is a fundamental aspect of human life, something people cope with all the time.

If, for instance, an environment-loving outdoorsman wishes to equip himself for mountain climbing, he may need to buy a special jacket (among much other gear). Deciding what to buy requires tradeoffs: First, he's devoting his financial resources to a jacket, rather than to something else, and his free time to mountain climbing. Then he must decide what characteristics he wants: how much insulation, how much durability, what sort of pockets or hood, and so on--all keeping in mind the continuing tradeoff between money he spends on the jacket and money he could spend on something else. He looks at brand names and reputations. He finds out what sort of return policies and customer service the jacket maker has.

The outdoorsman has specific knowledge. He knows what mountains he wishes to climb, and at what time of year. He knows whether he's an occasional climber, or a devotee. He knows whether he wants a lot of help from a sales clerk, or simply the best price. He knows his size and his favorite color. The jacket maker, too, has specific knowledge: of supplies, of tradeoffs between design features and costs, of distribution channels, of changing patterns of demand. No one centrally decides a single jacket policy for all U.S. mountain climbers.

But behind all these considerations lie a host of social and business institutions, from the Uniform Commercial Code and product liability law to standard sizes, specialty magazines, and outdoor-equipment shops. Overcoming the knowledge and values problems is not easy or cost-free, even in well-developed markets. Companies spend millions of dollars on marketing in an attempt to better understand and address consumer values. They draw on general knowledge--on, for instance, scientific research on physiology or the properties of jacket materials. They wear-test products and adjust to ever-changing information about suppliers. They respond to the unexpected: a cold snap that sends jacket demand up, a supplier's zipper redesign, a sudden change of fashion. Throughout all these processes, they receive constant feedback, direct and indirect, from customers and suppliers.

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