Can There Be a Universal Earth Ethic?
A Reflection on Values for the Proposed Earth Charter
Bryan G. Norton
School of Public Policy
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332 USA
January 8, 1996
Part 1: Value Theories and Biological Diversity
Recent international discussions of biodiversity policy have established two points:
(1) there is a strong and growing international consensus in favor of sustaining/protecting biodiversity, and (2) there is little agreement regarding why this should be done. Thus, while a significant international consensus regarding policy has apparently emerged, this consensus is not grounded in a consensually accepted value theory to explain why biodiversity protection, however strongly supported, should be a top priority of environmental policy. Lack of agreement on (2) has led to disagreements at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, for example, where delegates disagreed whether to emphasize nature's economic, "utilitarian" value or its "intrinsic" value, defined as value that exists independently of human values and motives.
The ambivalence between saving nature for future use and saving nature for its own sake, is written into the proposed principles for the new "Earth Charter," which is being urged as a next step in developing a legal and political framework to guide local, regional, national, and international efforts to protect nature.# Steven C. Rockefeller, an advocate of the Charter, writes: "In order to address the many interrelated social, economic, and ecological problems that face the world today, humanity must undergo a radical change in its attitudes, values, and behavior...The purpose of the Earth Charter Project is to create a 'soft law' document that sets forth the fundamental principles of this emerging new ethics, principles that include respect for human rights, peace, economic equity, environmental protection, and sustainable living." He goes on to hope that the Earth Charter "will become a universal code of conduct" that expresses "the shared values of people of all races, cultures, and religions." I laud these goals; and I think the idea of an Earth Charter is a wonderful one. But can we share Rockefeller's optimism about the early
arrival, and consensual acceptance, of "this emerging new ethics"?
First, we must ask: Is there an over-arching ethic that represents the values of all peoples? How might one articulate such an over-arching ethic, given the existing tensions surrounding evaluations of nature? In this paper I will explore these questions by surveying the usually cited value theories--utilitarian/economic, and nonanthropocentric--and by arguing that neither of these approaches is likely to provide a unifying ethic such as might support a universal Earth Charter. My goal is to point the direction toward a new approach to environmental evaluation, one that is more likely to lead to an inclusivist ethic.
Interestingly, the tension between utilitarian approaches and deep ecological approaches is openly expressed within the "Summary of Principles" now under discussion. One Principle of the new Earth Charter, listed under the "Worldview" section, states "Every Life form is unique and possesses intrinsic value independent of its worth to humanity. Nature as a whole and the community of life warrant respect." Meanwhile, the Charter's first Principle on "Sustainable Development", states: "The purpose of development is to meet the basic needs of humanity, improve the quality of life for all, and ensure a secure future."# Are these Principles consistent? Ultimately, I'm not sure; it depends, obviously, on how the terms are defined.# Whether or not these principles are directly contrary to each other, however, they certainly express a tension between two broad ways to value nature. The Worldview Principle emphasizes valuing nature in separation from humans and their activities, whereas the Sustainable Development Principle emphasizes the evaluation of nature insofar as it fulfills human needs.
It has also been noticed that the tension between these two value theories tends to polarize discussions of international efforts to protect biodiversity. Environmentalists from the United States (and other developed countries) espouse intrinsic values in nature, even though the US government--because of economic concerns--has failed to ratify the Convention on Biodiversity. It is common for spokespersons for the developing World to complain, in international policy forums: "First-World countries have already exploited and converted their forests; now they ask us to forgo forest-based development and attendant increases to human welfare." Even as governments of developing countries are attempting to maximize economic development based on exploitation of natural resources, there have emerged minority groups, including minorities from indigenous cultures opposed to capitalistic exploitation, that have attempted to retain or resurrect their animist religions as a counter-balance against economic exploitationism. The tension regarding why and how to value nature therefore has practical effects, making it more difficult to forge North/South, and other, coalitions.
The lack of a consensus regarding foundational values especially affects hopes for an Earth Charter because that effort, by its nature, must be inclusive. So we must also ask: Is it possible to embody both the use-and-development ethic and the utilitarian value concepts that usually come with it, and the save-nature-for-its-own-sake ethic in one Charter? Perhaps it is possible. Given the tension between the two sides in the Great Ethics debate, however, development of a more inclusivist ethic will require both sides to move toward a middle ground. Little of that has happened so far.
I believe that one reason this debate has been so frustrating and polarizing is that we have been asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, given the task at hand, and that neither of these theories is a good candidate for providing an inclusivist ethic to guide actions affecting nature, especially including wild life forms. First I must establish that there is an alternative to those usually cited and discusssed. That there is such an alternative can best be explained by showing how the two, polar positons regarding values actually share important, and highly controversial assumptions; these assumptions will be examined in the remainder of Part 1. The subject of Part 2 is more practical; there I discuss the problem of choosing the most important targets of environmental protectionist policies and priorities, and the role of values in deciding on conservation policies. I conclude that the assumptions informing the traditional theories render us unable to see the most promising solutions to these practical problems. The remainder of the paper, Parts 3 and 4, provides a sketch of one alternative approach, an approach that has some promise to provide inclusivist theory of environmental values.
So far, most discussions of how to evaluate nature have been based on one or the other of two theories of the value of nature--for brevity, I will call them "Economism" and "Deep Ecology".# Although both theories come in multiple variants, for our purposes, we can examine the two theories in their most general forms. First, there is the theory of mainstream Economists that environmental values are economic values. According to this view, elements of nature have instrumental value only, and should be valued like other commodities. Economists, of course, recognize that there are no natural markets for many environmental goods and services, so methods other than measuring market behavior must be used if we are to correctly describe human preferences regarding the environment. Deep Ecologists and other nonanthropocentrists directly oppose this viewpoint. They argue, contrary to the instrumentalist, preference-based theories of Economists, that some elements of nature have "inherent" value, and that these elements are therefore deserving of preservation for their own sake. According to this view, human individuals and some other elements of nature, either individuals, species, or ecosystems, "have" their own values, values that are not dependent upon the preferences of individual human valuers.
But it is important to recognize that these opposed theories rest on a cluster of highly vulnerable assumptions. Both Economists and Deep Ecologists accept a sharp dichotomy between values that are "inherent" and those that are instrumental; further, both groups proceed to use this sharp dichotomy to separate nature into beings/objects that have, and those that lack, "moral considerability". In a particularly strong version of Economism, for example, Gifford Pinchot (first Head of the US Forest Service), said, "There are just two things on this material earth--people and natural resources."# Pinchot was thus enforcing a sharp dichotomy between persons and other things, living or nonliving--the well-being of the former, but not the latter, should be taken into account in our calculations regarding what is acceptable behavior. Interestingly, the position of Pinchot and his Economist allies coincides on a more basic level with that of Immanuel Kant, who is typically cited as opposed to the consequentialist emphasis of utilitarians. For Kant, only rational beings could be "ends-in-themselves". Both Pinchot's utilitarianism and Kant's rights theory are thus based on a sharp distinction among entities--those who are to be regarded as being "ends in themselves" and those objects that can be used, without restriction, in service of those ends.
Economists and Deep Ecologists, then, agree that there must be some special status for those beings who have noninstrumental value--they simply disagree regarding which objects in nature actually have this special status. For Economists like Pinchot, the special status is co-extensive with humanhood; for the Deep Ecologists, moral considerability is co-extensive with a much larger subset of nature's components. Either way the sharp distinction between "instrumental" and "inherent" values ensures that questions of environmental value are posed in all-or-nothing terms. For the Economist, "Should we protect this river?" becomes "Does this river have net positive economic value (for humans) or not?" For the Deep Ecologist, it becomes, "Does this river have inherent value?" These questions are usually formulated in incommensurable theoretical frameworks; what they share is their tendency to elicit yes-or-no determinations of the value of objects.
Another related consequence of the bipolar formulation of environmental valuations is the apparent bias of both sides in favor of evaluating objects or entities rather than evaluating dynamic processes and changes in processes. Protection is assumed to be protection of items in an inventory: should we try hardest to save genes? Individuals? Populations? Species? Ecosystems? This object-bias is of course endemic to all of western culture at least from the classical period; it represents the triumph of Plato's concern for constancy of forms constituting reality over the ideas of Heraclitus who, around 500 B.C. declared that "All is in flux".# This ideological triumph has further been embodied in modern scientific reductionism, which seeks explanation in the motion of elementary particles.
The "atomistic" idea which emphasizes elements is so deeply engrained in Western thinking that alternative conceptualizations of nature have only been considered relatively recently. Since the publication of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, however, the importance of systemic change and irreversible developments--of complex, dynamic processes--has asserted itself.# This revolution has extended to physics, and physicists are now leaders in an interdisciplinary effort to develop a more dynamic worldview, as is evidenced by ever-increasing emphasis placed on nonequilibrium dynamics. The full implications of a dynamic worldview are just now being felt. It may be decades before these concepts are well understood, but creative work in nonequilibrium system dynamics is already leading to new insights in ecology, and this direction holds promise for applications to environmental policy.# This much we know for sure: full absorption of evolving systems thinking into environmental management will have far-reaching impacts on the policies we advocate, and will almost certainly require more attention to interspecific relationships and system-level characteristics.
Another similarity between Deep Ecologists and Economists is that they are both looking for a universal, "monistic" approach to values. Monism, as defined by Christopher Stone, conceives the ethical enterprise "as aiming to produce, and to defend against all rivals, a single coherent and complete set of principles capable of governing all moral quandaries."# Commitment to monism, ultimately, explains the all-or-nothing character of the two competing theories. Both Economists and Deep Ecologists think there is only one kind of ultimate value; they differ only in how widely they find that value. It seems unlikely to me that either of these all-or-nothing,
monolithic theories of value will prove rich enough to guide difficult, real-world choices regarding what should be saved, where conservationists should concentrate efforts, and how they should set
priorities? But should that not be precisely the role for a theory of environmental value in the conservation policy process?
Part 2: Re-Thinking the Problem of Conservation Priorities/Targets
Interestingly, the same entity-oriented concepts that have divided environmentalists regarding value theory have also affected thinking in practical, policy situations. For example, suppose I ask: What should be the highest priority in protecting biological resources? Typical answers to this question, given the Western tendency toward entity-orientation, might cite, "all species," or "all species and all ecosystems". Other answers might identify particular types of species, for example, "producers" as the most important. Note how easily we fall into a characterization of the problem as one of providing a list of entities--of providing an "inventory" of things that should be saved. The problem of conservation priorities is thus expressed as a "ranking" of various categories according to their importance.#
Biologists, like Economists and Deep Ecologists, tend to talk about conserving inventories of objects, and setting priorities among these. But whereas discussions of value theory emphasize philosophical considerations of what has ultimate value, in a management context these pure, philosophical considerations are inevitably mixed with questions of methods and means, and even with recognitions of political constraint. For example, a conservation biologist might believe that species are highest priority, and at the same time advocate policies to save ecosystems and habitats
because the systems approach is the most efficient means to achieve the goal. Conversely, a policy analyst might argue that we should save ecosystems for the future, but that the best way to save ecosystems is by legislating protection of species (because they are fairly easily counted, etc.). The policy analyst and the conservation biologist, working in the field, differ from the moral theorist in having to take account of empirical realities imposed by the intricacies of systems, by our lack of knowledge, and by political constraints. These differences are very important, and are not denied here--the point is that, despite these differences in the categories of entities and how to sort them, both the philosophical, values debate and the practical, policy debate are framed as questions that can be anwered by presenting lists of entities. Setting priorities, given theis entity-and-category orientation, is a matter of excluding some kinds of objects from a "preferred" list.
To understand how this entity-orientation has affected policy discussions, it will be useful to briefly explore the history of policy debate in the United States regarding biological resources. Attempts to protect biological resources in the U.S. can be divided--somewhat arbitrarily, but usefully--into three phases. As early as the Seventeenth Century, local shortages of valued food and game species such as deer led to bag limits and other restrictions on takings of those species.# As human populations increased, more and more species suffered population declines and more and more restrictions were contemplated and imposed. These restrictions were sometimes successful and sometimes not, but for our purposes we are interested in the formulation of the policy issue.# In this first phase of protection of biological resources, which we can call the "single-species" phase, the object of protection was always a species or the populations of a species. This first approach continued well into this century, as the populations of more and more species underwent declines in response to human exploitation and habitat conversion, and culminated in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This Act, which was unquestionably a remarkable advance in policies to protect nature, nevertheless exemplified the original conceptualization of the problem as a problem that should and could be addressed at the level of species.# Accordingly, success in protection efforts was envisioned as protecting an inventory of existing objects.
By the early 1980s, a number of scientists and policy analysts began to question explicitly whether the species-by-species approach is sufficiently comprehensive to protect all biological resources; the term "biological diversity" came into vogue in the early 1980s, and this term was shortened to "biodiversity" in conjunction with an influential Symposium on Biodiversity, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences.# This Symposium ushered in the "biodiversity phase" of policy debate regarding biological resources. The new term "biodiversity", as used at the Symposium, and subsequently, was defined as: "the sum total of distinct species, genetic variation within species, and the variety of habitats and ecological communities."# While this new concept no doubt represents a significant advance in the search for more comprehensive policies to protect biological resources, it is nevertheless problematic. Notice that the definition still treats protection of biological resources as a question of protecting objects--an inventory of items. In this sense the biodiversity phase seems simply an extension of the single-species phase; it simply expands the list of items of concern.
But despite this formal consonance with older approaches, the definition of biodiversity introduces a more dynamic conception of resources in its content. The third element of the definition--"the variety of habitats and ecological communities" in which species exist and adapt--while listed as elements in an inventory, refer in actuality to a whole range of ecological processes. This change in content, which recognizes that species actually trace multiple and changing trajectories through time, has the subversive effect of undermining the comfortable assumption that protection of biological resources involves protecting a static list of entities. Thus, while the term biodiversity is at present a useful one, it embodies the entity-orientation so typical of modernist philosophy, science, and policy.
This inadequacy of the biodiversity conception leads me to expect a third phase in the formulation of the goals of biological protection. Indeed, such a third phase is now emerging, but it may be too early to discern its details clearly at this time, and considerable controversy exists. One thing seems certain: in the new phase, processes will be more important, and entities less important. So I suggest we call the emerging phase the "ecosystem processes" phase. Since it is not clear how processes will be described in the future, it remains unclear how environmental evaluation will be expressed in a more process-oriented mode. Some of us have suggested that medical analogies are helpful in re-directing our thinking more toward evaluating processes, and have used terms such as "ecological health" or "ecological integrity".# Others have argued that these analogically derived terms have no clear scientific meaning, and illegitimately mix description and evaluation.# I hope to avoid the purely linguistic issues here by arguing for more linguistically neutral conclusions: in the future, our descriptions of nature will become more dynamic and process-oriented; and our evaluation of biological aspects of these processes will have to change to accommodate these changes in description.# In the remainder of this section, I
explore what consequences we can draw from these more neutral conclusions regarding the emerging policy phase.
One manifestation of the trend away from static and toward more dynamic models of environmental problems and goals is a corresponding trend toward more "wholistic" and more systems-oriented managerial models. In the United States, increasing emphasis has been placed on "ecosystem management plans", often involving also "adaptive management". These represent planning and management processes--often involving multiple agencies of government, all levels of government from local to national, and the public--that are applied to systems bounded by natural features of the ecophysical landscape.#
In the United Kingdom, a similar trend toward holism is evidenced by planners and
political theorists such as Michael Jacobs, who argue that making economics "ecological" will not be sufficient, and that it is necessary to adopt an even broader analysis of environmental problems,
which can be called "socio-ecological economics".# Environmental policy experts and advocates
in Europe have, using several technical vernaculars, similarly advocated more wholistic and integrated environmental management. One group, building on the ideas and practices of Impact Analysis, have advocated "Strategic Environmental (Impact) Assessment.# Proponents of this approach expand traditional impact analysis techniques to larger systems, and they advocate applying their tools not just at the project level, but also to impacts of policies and even proposed
legislative acts. This approach, still in its infancy, would involve impact assessments at project, local, regional, and perhaps even national and international levels; this embedding of many smaller, simultaneous impact studies in a multi-layered, integrated assessment represents one approach to more wholistic environmental management.
Another promising approach has been championed by Dutch theorists, modelers, and
practitioners some of whom are developing a model called the TARGET model, which includes both social and ecophysical features. The idea behind this work is that social controversies about new technologies provide informal methods of "technology assessment", and that such informal processes may be integrated into larger, multi-scalar models of humans and nature. #
These various trends all point toward a more wholistic approach to environmental management, and at least implicitly toward a greater respect for dynamic processes. I am a strong supporter of these general directions. In the remainder of this chapter, I will examine in more detail the prospects of constructing a process-oriented theory of values, and a practical,
process-oriented method of evaluation as elements of a larger theory of adaptive ecosystem management.
Part 3: Adaptive Management: A Process-Oriented Approach
Considerable progress has been made in understanding environmental problems as problems of adaptation within complex, multiscalar, dynamic systems, and this approach may emerge as the management approach of the 21st century. Writers and practitioners of this tradition have successfully developed an adequate characterization of how environmental problems emerge as problems of adaptation at the individual and cultural levels. This multiscalar system allows conceptualization of an "individual" scale of action, and also a larger, community level on which populations interact with their environments. One important consequence of this multiscalar and multivariate formulation is that neither means nor goals of sustainability can be set concretely in the beginning, and the quest for sustainable human communities must involve many individual processes of experimentation, revision of scientific understanding, and of reformulation of community goals. This adaptive, experimental approach requires the careful design and nurturing of institutions capable of fostering social learning. Holling and his colleagues have argued that large, landscape-scaled ecological systems tend to become "brittle" under continuous exploitation and that these large systems can disintegrate and then gradually re-equilibrate at different levels of functioning or with quite different structural organization.# On the basis of this hypothesis, and with some success in modelling resource management in the field (including work on spruce budworm outbreaks and fisheries management), Holling and his colleagues have become the champions of dynamic, non-equilibrium modelling in resource management. They argue that environmental management cannot be modelled in single-equilibrium systems, and that impacts on natural systems can approach thresholds which, if exceeded, can cause discontinuous and rapid change into an alternative steady state.# It is often noted that such large-scale changes result in systems that are less productive of human services, or less attractive to human users. Adaptive
management, according to this argument, would choose exploitational patterns that mimick natural processes in order to minimize the likelihood of accelerating system-level change and loss of human use. Speaking theoretically, this insight was embodied by arguing that good management must care for both the productivity and the resilience of the ecophysical system. "Resilience" is introduced as a measure of the magitude of disturbances that can be absorbed before a system centered on one locally stable equilibrium flips to another.
This hypothesis has, also, been elaborated by the explicit employment of concepts from "hierarchy theory," an application of general systems theory to ecological modelling. Hierarchy theory models ecological systems according to two assumptions: (1) that all observations and measurements must be taken from some perspective within a hierarchically organized dynamic system, and (2) that the systems, as modelled, exhibit nestedness, with smaller subsystems changing more rapidly than do the larger systems which form their environment. Given this multiscalar framework, it is possible to model environmental problems in a multiscalar system.# At the individual level, organisms (including human persons) survive by responding creatively to a set of opportunities and constraints that are presented to them by the environment they inhabit. So the range of options open to the present is a function of the structure, and consequent functioning,
of the habitat. Successful choices of individuals are encoded into the system as information about what "works" given current system organization--adaptation is acting successfully on information flowing from the environment to individual actors. Information, however, flows upward in the system also because the collective choices of many individuals, in a nested system, gradually alters the context in which the next generation faces the game of adaptation. The nested subparts also constitute the larger systems, and exhibit cumulative impacts in slower-scaled changes in the structure and function of the systems that support human choice. If generation 1 clear-cuts all of the available forest, opportunities are lost; attention shifts to constraints experienced in generation 2--how to survive against the constraint of an inadequate wood supply?
The work in adaptive management has, in the past few years, virtually merged with the work of "ecological economists", who have broken with mainstream welfare economics on several important grounds.# Ecological economists--to simplify a complex argument--have rejected the
idea of "weak sustainability", popular among mainstream economists, that a generation acts responsibly toward the future if it adds to, rather than diminishes, the total stock of human capital. If we accumulate wealth--assets in any form--then the future will have an adequate investment base and equal opportunity with the present; so they will be as well off as we are, according to
mainstream econmists and weak sustainability theorists. But ecological economists go beyond this generalized obligation, arguing that there are specific features of the environment--called "natural capital" that should be preserved for the future, in trust.# Adaptive managers and ecological economists have thus joined forces, arguing that the resilience of ecological systems is surely one important example of an element of natural capital. These combined forces argue that system resilience is a more useful index of environmental sustainability than alternative measures (such as economic growth measures or simple carrying capacity measures), because economic activities are sustainable only if the life-support ecosystems on which they depend are resilient .#
Adaptive management/ecological economics, then, has provided a theoretical model for understanding environmental problems as problems of what might be called "cross-scale spill-overs". If I, as an individual, cut down one tree, or even my whole woodlot, this will have little long-term impact, provided other individuals let trees grow. If all forest-owners in a watershed, however, clear-cut their forest within a few years, a standing resource--an option for use--will have been eliminated for decades; and there may be indirect effects of soil erosion and reduced stream-water quality that may last much longer. Environmnental problems can then be understood as multi-scalar, or cross-scale spill-over problems"--an idea to which we return in the next Part. The point I wish to state here is that adaptive managers have provided a model which illuminates the emergence of environmental problems at the systems level. Environmental problems emerge at the system level with increasing impacts resulting from increased human populations and increased technological power. Cumulative individual choices can accelerate change, sometimes crossing crucial thresholds, and cause systems to undergo rapid structural re-organization. But, if Holling and his colleagues are correct in asserting that "flips" into new states will result in habitats that are less productive of humanly valued goods, then these changes will be experienced by individuals in subsequent generations as a constriction in the options available to them to find means to survive. The mix of opportunities and constraints presented by the habitat will have shifted for the worse.
It is now possible, following Holling and the Adaptive Managers, to think of values as emerging within a dialectic between culture and nature, with each generation facing a mix of opportunities and constraints, and with the cumulative choices of each generation affecting the landscape in ways that will affect the mixture of opportunities and constraints that will be faced by coming generations. Long-term survival as a community/culture requires, in the short term, adequate economic opportunities and a reasonable pace of economic development. On longer scales, what we worry about is whether future generations will have a roughly equal or superior mix of opportunities to constraints. So, if measures of economic activity, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are to be used as comparisons of welfare over time in the short run, then what is also needed is an "Opportunities-Constraints Index" (OCI) to measure changes in opportunities available in the future. The OCI would compare rising or falling of options and opportunities that the environment presents to actors across inter-generational frames of time. We can therefore rate development paths, thought of as packages of policies and choices, according to their impact on the range of free choice--opportunities to adapt--that will be open to posterity. So, a good policy or program would be one that, when added to the current economic and ecophysical dynamic, can be expected to (a) increase economic welfare (on the scale of years) and (b) to maintain a nondeclining stock of resource-based options for individuals of future generations. It must, that is, perform well on more than one temporal scale. Adaptive management therefore provides a useful, and quite general, representation of many environmental problems as cross-scale spill-overs/impacts of cumulative human activities, and because this representation is expressed in a multi-scalar, dynamic system, it also sets the stage for a more dynamic approach to evaluating changes and processes of change.
Adaptive management has been given a political component by Kai Lee, who accepts the characterization of environmental management as an experimental, community-based search for ways to exploit natural systems without undermining their healthy functioning.# Adaptive management, he says, should represent a negotiation within a politically organized ecosystem management process. Scientists, working within a political process in which stakeholder groups express and defend their interests, attempt to develop trust sufficient to undertake "experiments" in management. These experiments are to be designed to produce both an "epistemological
community" devoted to experimentation and "social learning" and a reduction in uncertainty in the present and related situations. Through this process, the community guides scientists to study aspects of the system that are of importance to the community, and scientists respond with studies that will help to reduce negative impacts of valued human activities.
I endorse this general model, but I believe current formulations are lacking in one important respect in that the multi-generational models are put forward as "descriptive" models only. Values, if they are mentioned at all, are treated exogenously.# Current versions of Adaptive Management theory therefore assume, with Economism and Deep Ecology, that environmental values have a
source and are fully determined outside the policy process. The problem is that, while treated exogenously, valuations by individuals are important system drivers, because individual behaviors express the individual preferences that result in the cumulative impacts that threaten resilience. As
long as values are thus maintained as exogenous, and hence, independent variables, the system of management can offer no remedy--no informational feedback loop--if individuals in the community are expressing preferences that promote more and more negative cross-scale impacts.
This problem can be perceived if one simply observes the just-mentioned, virtual merger of adaptive management with Ecological Economics. Ecological economists set out to define "natural capital" as those features of an environment that are essential to protect future welfare. Coming from the ecological side, ecologists suggest that changes in ecological organization--"flips" into new states--are socially disvalued. But "resilience" is defined as a descriptive characteristic of ecological systems, so we can ask, "Why should we protect the resilience of systems"? We cannot answer, with the welfare economists, that individuals, taken in aggregate, "prefer" to do so, if it is the current pattern of preferences which drives economic development and threatens resilience.
What adaptive managers and ecological economists want to say is that people really "should" prefer a higher, or over-riding value--our obligation to protect resilient ecosystems for the future. But this latter alternative cannot be expressed, even within an enriched vocabulary including the concepts of ecology (which describes changes, and thresholds, in the ecological system), and of economics (which describes preferences as they are expressed by present consumers). What is lacking, I would argue, is a theory of value that (a) establishes the possibility of articulating values that can compete with currently felt preferences, such as an obligation to sustain opportunities for the future, and (b) some way to link those long-range values to physical features such as "resilience". Lacking such a value theory, adaptive management can simply describe a system going haywire--it can offer no analysis of how the system might right itself by affecting the driving, independent variable--current preferences. Preferences, and the "evolution" of preferences, must be a part of the adaptational process; adaptive management must test and revise our values as well as our empirical hypotheses. Individual preferences and social values--as well as the institutions that shape them, must be considered, and modelled, as endogenous to the social process of environmental management.
Part 4: Alternatives to Monistic Assumptions and the Entity Orientation
I have argued above that the philosophical debate regarding inherent value in nature and the policy debate about how to set conservation priorities have both presupposed an entity-evaluation, in keeping with a fundamental form of Western thought. I have also argued, however, that an entity-based evaluative scheme, even if one were available in operational form, would soon be obsolete because of recent developments in environmental management. Management thinking is moving away from single-species management, and I believe it will eventually move away from the inventory-of-objects approach altogether, because environmental problems, as we have just seen, are best understood as problems of adaptation across multiple scales of time. In this Part I examine the prospects for a process-oriented system of environmental evluation, and explore some of the general features of such a system by discussing the consequences of denying the crucial, shared assumptions of the Economists and the Deep Ecologists. Once freed from the the shared assumptions that bind both Economists and Deep Ecologists in polar opposition over classifying objects of value, it is possible to look with fresh eyes at questions of value and policy; I will discuss the effects of rejecting the some of the central assumptions shared by these opposed groups.
1. We have seen above that Economists and Deep Ecologists share a complex web of beliefs about the nature of environmental value; the core of that complex web is the belief that a sharp distinction must be drawn between two kinds of value, intrinsic and instrumental. If we reject this sharp dichotomy between instrumental and intrinsic values, a pluralist and integrative position emerges as a possibility: there are many ways in which humans value nature. These ways range along a continuum from entirely self-directed and consumptive uses, and includes also human spiritual values and aesthetic values, and other forms of noninstrumental valuations. If one forgoes a sharp, definitional distinction between these two opposed types of valuing, the moral task of sorting entities into those that have, and those that lack this special feature of "noninstrumental" value becomes a nonproblem. The sorting question, that is, has interest only after one enters the bipolarized conceptualization of environmental values that comes with the web of assumptions shared by Economists and Deep Ecologists.
2. Rejecting the Entity Orientation. Suppose that we, following this more pluralistic approach, stop thinking of environmental evaluation as an exercise in categorizing objects at all. Rather, the goal is to choose indicators of the adaptability of various technologies and policies. Attention would then turn to impacts of existing and proposed technologies and policies on ecophysical and social processes; the task is to develop an indicator, or suite of indicators, that would allow the ranking of "development paths". A development path would then be thought of as a scenario that can be projected to unfold under a given policy or set of policies. The task of evaluation will then be one of ranking various development processes that might unfold from the present into the future. We hope, in the end, to be able to say, "Development Path A is more (less) likely to fulfill social values, V1, V2, V3,...... Than Development Path B. So the process approach advocated here simply ignores the problems and possibilities of entification and sets out to evaluate processes of development and change as they play out on a landscape.
Rejection of the entity bias has an even more profound implication for the theory of environmental value. If we reject the assumption that environmental evaluation is basically a matter of sorting entities, and focus instead on evaluating processes and paths of change, it is possible to recognize a deeper source of value in nature, what might be called "nature's creativity." Ilya Prigogine and his co-author Isabelle Stengers have argued persuasively that Western thought has for too long emphasized "Being" at the expense of "Becoming", and entities at the expense of processes.# Prigogine and other leaders of the emerging science of chaos and complexity have set out to repair this imbalance, arguing that change, process, and becoming are more basic than being--that the world of objects we see is simply our stilted perception of a rich, multiscalar, evolving system.#
If we were to apply this kind of thinking to biodiversity policy, we would focus on the processes that have created and sustained the species/elements that currently exist and populate the world rather than on the species/elements themselves. Indeed, emphasis on the value of creative processes in nature may go a long way toward expressing the common denominator in most people's valuing of nature. When the native animist worships or respects trees or animals, it is their activity and presumed potency, their ability to affect processes that entwine with human life, that excite religious impulses. When the agriculturalist or the forester values nature, it is the ongoing processes of productivity, the ability to provide a flow of useful products, that is the
essence of the value perceived. Similarly, when the Deep Ecologist says that elements of nature
have intrinsic or inherent value, one might express this object-oriented statement in a more process-oriented vernacular as an insistence that there is majesty and meaning to be found in the evolving processes of life. The common element of these different object-oriented statements of value is a correspondence, in a more process-oriented vernacular, to an important aspect of nature's ability to create, and to an important human impulse to value that creativity. Similarly, it is reasonable to interpret the advocate of biodiversity protection as valuing natural processes for their capacity to maintain, support, and repair damage to its parts.
Perhaps the impulse to value nature's creativity--an impulse that, thankfully, has been expressed in a multitude of ways in different persons and cultures--comes closer than the theories of either the Deep Ecologists or of the Economists to capturing the deep and universal value that could unite all peoples behind an Earth Charter. Those theories, one might say, are directed at the specific content of people's values, rather than the real and shared source of those specific values in nature. Emphasis of one type of value at the expense of others can only lead to conflict and divisiveness, because humans--struggling to survive in many local situations with differing constraints and opportunities, and different natural and cultural histories--will have different needs. Some humans are hunters, some are birdwatchers, some are shamans, others are developers and capitalists. The common denominator of all of these types of value derived from nature--when expressed in a dynamic, process model-- is nature valued as a multi-scaled system of creative processes. This creativity is exhibited on many scales of nature. On the paleontological scale, it has resulted in diversity of all kinds; and on the shortest scale it gives hope of the next harvest to the faithful peasant who plants seeds. These creative processes, we can further say, are valued by humans because a creative and building nature provides options and opportunities to fulfill human values whatever those human values are. These values emerge from the human-nature dialectic of co-evolution; they do not exist in either the humans-only world of economists or in the independent realm of non-human values envisaged by the Deep Ecologists.
The point of an Earth Charter should not be to tell the many peoples and cultures of the world how they should value nature; it should rather express the underlying value placed on nature's creativity and the opportunities this creativity offers humans to choose, to adapt, and to "value". It is this underlying creative and sustaining force that allows species to reproduce and maintain themselves, and to create new adaptive responses to changing ecophysical processes that form their environment. This value, it can be argued, exists at a deeper level than do the values of Economists and Deep Ecologists. Creativity--nature as a source--is the sine qua non for all of these, and other, more specific values.
Following our excursion into foundational values, we have now circled back to the position of the adaptive managers and their concept of resilience. This concept can be thought of as a promising attempt to identify and operationalize a characteristic of natural systems that is essential to their continued creativity. What has been added by our expansion of adaptive management to include a corrective to destructive human preferences within the management model is a capacity to close the valuational loop. It is now possible to explain why individuals who value the future--those who are committed to living sustainably--should care about resilience. We value resilience because resilience allows a system to remain productive, to dissipate energy and maintain structure, and to heal wounds and repair stresses; these are the essential features of a system that maintains its creative force by maintaining its self-organizing structure.
Nature's creativity is valued both in the present and for the future because it is the very basis of human opportunity. At the same time, making value analysis endogenous to policy process allows us to explain why individuals, who value natural products for personal consumption, might also come to see how certain consumption patterns in the present--and the preferences that drive them--are inconsistent with maintaining opportunities and a range of free choices--opportunities to adapt--for future generations. Just as the smoker who realizes continued smoking is inconsistent with the longer-term value of good health, the driver might someday realize that excessive use of fossil fuels is inconsistent with maintaining opportunities for the future. It is granted that the latter case differs from the smoking case in involving also an element of altruism, but my point is that both individuals face the need to adjust their behaviors, and in doing so they will likely also alter their preferences, at least eventually. To carry the analogy one step further, science contributes to change in the individual smoker by providing physiological models showing that continued smoking threatens the future value of health later in life. Ecology and other adaptive managers do experiments and, likewise, can show an inconsistency between the consumptive behavior of a person or culture and the value of sustaining opportunities for their descendants. Science in both cases provides data and models that alert consumers to a conflict between their behavior in fulfilling one value and maintenance of another value. It should be possible for social scientists to model resulting changes in preference. So I expect that cognitive psychology and related disciplines will become increasingly important as aspects of community-based adaptive management.#
The creation of a stronger values component for adaptive management can emerge from the confluence of two initially separable, but ultimately unifying, forces. The first force comes from
the side of nature and must be understood by the natural sciences--it is the creative force that spun
out our communities as a part of a far more vast creation.# The second force is the striving of individual human beings to survive, to reproduce, and to perpetuate their kind. This striving gives
rise to many diverse goals in many different evolutionary contexts; it also gives rise to the ingenuity which is so valuable to humans. Nature's creativity is experienced by us as a set of opportunities. The range of individual choices--an important pre-requisite of human freedom--is thus affected by the range of nature's creativity. For example, the opportunities of a whittler or a wood sculptor are provided, but also limited, by the range of tree species at his or her disposal. Similarly, the opportunities--and range of choice--available to a housebuilder or developer is a reflection of the types and variety of landscapes and settings available.
The confluence of these intellectual forces, then, affirms a crucial and deep connection between human choice, freedom, and creativity on the one hand, and nature's creativity on the other. The human choice and freedom which expresses itself in different values and in different behaviors expressed by different persons and different cultures--from the use value of the hunter-gatherer to the inherent value attributed by Deep Ecologists--finds its ground in the creativity of nature. More practically, I am suggesting that, when we measure environmental values, we should measure the extent to which the creativity of a natural system serves, and is served by, human creativity. What we need, on this way of thinking, is a measure of how well a system is maintaining those forms of creativity that support a wide range of human opportunities, both in the present and in the future. As noted above, such a measure might be called an OCI.#
3: Avoiding Reductionism and Monism. One reason such sweeping consequences follow from rejecting the entity orientation is that, on this deeper level, monism becomes irrelevant. Since we no longer need to sort entities into those that are instrumentally and those that are inherently valued, who cares? Our evaluations are no longer constrained by the requirement that environmental values must be commensurable and measurable within a unified system of
evaluation, with a single moral or evaluative "currency". If we reject the monistic assumption, according to which all value must be explained according to a single principle, it is possible to start from the pluralistic viewpoint that all cultures value nature and natural processes in many ways. We should, as a first step, develop a vocabulary and operational measurements that are rich enough to express these multiple values. We thus embrace pluralism as a working hypothesis, setting out to characterize and operationalize as many values and types of values as possible. This leaves, for subsequent discussion, the question whether some of these types of values can be usefully "reduced" to other types, assuming some level of consolidation of multiple frameworks will eventually emerge.#
One reason that monism and reductionism has been popular in environmental ethics and moral philosophy is that a monistic system, which has only one principle to apply in each case, avoids any fear of relativism or subjectivism. Monists reason that, if there are multiple principles, theories, and rules in the moral arena, and some of these rules yield different conclusions in the same situation, moral evaluation will collapse into relativism.# While I agree that moral relativism must be avoided, there are a number of strategies available for avoiding relativism within pluralistic systems; it is not necessary to embrace monism in order to avoid relativism. For example, it is possible to develop a two-tiered system of analysis in which the "action" tier includes multiple rules for choosing acceptable behaviors and a second, "meta" tier contains rational principles for deciding which of the action rules is appropriate in various situations.#
4. Rejecting the Assumption of Placeless Evaluation. Evaluation models like Economism and Deep Ecology are constrained by their monism to express all value in a common currency, so their accounts of value tend to lose, in the process of aggregation, the place-relative knowledge and value that emerges within a specific dialectic between a human culture and its physical and ecological setting, or context.# One implication of the adaptational model for understanding environmental problems is to emphasize the importance of localism; as we know from evolution, all adaptation takes place at the local level, as individuals survive, or fail to, as they "experiment" with various adaptations to local conditions. As one relaxes the assumption that we need a single, universally aggregable accounting system for all environmental values, it becomes more possible to hear, and register, the very real concerns of local cultures trapped between the hard realities of international economic forces beyond their control, and the equally real limits and constraints that manifest themselves at the local and regional level. Localism, as a replacement for universalism, leads to an emphasis on local variation, on diversity from locale to locale and from region to region, and to many local "senses of place", each of which expresses a unique outcome, at each particular place of the infinitely variable dialectics between local cultures and their habitats. Development and various development paths, can therefore represent differing trajectories created
by the nature-culture dialectic in a specific culturally evolved place. This trajectory, given the above conceptualizations, can be measured at an economic scale and also--using an OCI that measures the extent to which the development trajectory maintains and increases ecophysically based opportunities--at the multi-generational scale required to judge the true sustainability of a culture.
The attempt to develop an Earth Charter, a document that expresses "the shared values of people of all races, cultures, and religions," may provide an occasion for re-examining current approaches to environmental valuation. In this paper it has been argued that neither the narrow, human-centered utilitarianism of Economism, nor the assertion by Deep Ecologists of human-independent values in nature are able to characterize a universal value that can unite humankind behind an effort to protect biological diversity. It was first shown that both of these widely espoused, opposed theories share a set of assumptions about the nature of environmental value--monism, a sharp separation of intrinsic and instrumental values, and an object-orientation. Further, it was shown that these assumptions are highly vulnerable when examined objectively. Then it was shown that discussions of environmental values in practical contexts such as discussions of conservaion priorities, no less than discussions of value theories, usually employs the entity-orientation, and formulates problems of conservation as problems of sorting objects and saving inventories. But it was also argued that the entity orientation seems increasingly obsloete as environmental management everywhere moves toward more wholistic and process-oriented management models.
Adopting an attitude of skepticism toward entity-oriented conceptes and the value theories of the Economists and the Deep ecologists, we then examined in particular the adaptive management model as a way of understanding human-nature interactions from the viewpoint of a community adapting to a larger, changing ecophysical system. This approach, it was found, provides a simple and plausible model of how environmental problems emerge at the interface of human, technological change and environmental change: collective individual choices, in response to the opportunities and constraints offered by the environment of individuals in Generation I, can change the environment so that individuals of Generation II face a differing mix of opportunities and constraints. Environmental problems, on this view, emerge as cross-generational spill-over effects, effects that reduce the range of choices that will be faced in the future. Conversely, successful restoration efforts can be interpreted as positive cross-scale impacts/spill-overs. Thus, while all peoples must derive economic sustenance from their environment, a concern for the future demands that one also monitor the impacts of current actions on the future mix of opportunities and constraints. Humans, as communities, that is, can accept responsibility to maintain a non-declining set of opportunities based on possible uses of the environment. This responsibility is based on a sense of community with the future and on a sense of fairness--the future ought not to face, as a result of our actions today, a seriously reduced range of options and choices, as they try to adapt to the environment that they face. Acceptance of this responsibility as an important aspect of an adaptive management model, however, would require that the adaptive management model allow the reconsideration of values and preferences, if evidence suggests that current values and behaviors are likely to reduce the amount of opportunities, and increase the magnitude of constraints, that will be faced in the future.
Building on this adaptational model, and trying to avoid reducing the many values humans derive from nature to a single type, it is possible to see that what is valued in common by persons with diverse relationships to nature is its creativity. The creativity of nature provides "options" which are the basis for human opportunity. Here, then, we have located a level of environmental value that may be universal. While the hunter, the developer, the shaman, and the birdwatcher all exercise very different individual values and options, some self-oriented, some not, what they all share is a powerful dependence on the creative aspect of nature. If, then, we can avoid the assumptions--of monism, of a sharp dichotomy between intrinsic and instrumental value, of the entity orientation--that bind Deep Ecologists and Economists in a polarized opposition, it may be possible to find, in a celebration of nature's ongoing creativity, a universal value capable of supporting a truly unifying Earth Charter.