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Deep ecology & environmental economics

I have been interesting myself in the “deep ecology” movement (a good introduction is the Wikipedia link here) having recently heard the Australian, John Seed, speak on the topic*. 

From the Wikipedia link:

 “Deep ecology is a contemporary ecological philosophy distinguished by its advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the existence of organisms is dependent on the existence of others within ecosystems. Human interference with or destruction of the natural world poses a threat therefore not only to humans but to all organisms constituting the natural order.

Deep ecology’s core principle is the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having certain legal rights to live and flourish. It describes itself as “deep” because it regards itself as looking more deeply into the actual reality of humanity’s relationship with the natural world arriving at philosophically more profound conclusions than that of the prevailing view of ecology as a branch of Darwinian biological science. The movement does not subscribe to anthropocentric environmentalism (which is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for human purposes) since Deep ecology is grounded in a quite different set of philosophical assumptions. Deep ecology takes a more holistic view of the world human beings live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that the separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole. This philosophy provides a foundation for the environmental, ecology and green movements and has fostered a new system of environmental ethics advocating wilderness preservation, human population control and simple living”.

I am sympathetic to the view that we face an environmental/ecological crisis and that is due to an overly exploitative attitude towards the environment.  I am unconvinced however that these concerns cannot be addressed using standard economics that reflects preferences for much greater standards of conservation, environmental restoration and environmental pristineness than we have used in the past.  Even if, for example, agents have pantheist views of the environment or derive intense intellectual or religious insight from nature this can be accommodated in conventional economics.  Even if the preferences reflect the desire to leave nature alone and to allow nature to flourish independent of human uses this can and should be incorporated into conventional economic thinking.  Provisionally I think it is unnecessary to introduce ideas of “intrinsic value” to nature and to treat nature as an “end” rather than a “means to an end” for desired patterns of living with nature to evolve.  The ideals of Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold can be realized with a sympathetic, conventional environmental economics ethic.

Nor are lifestyle choices that emphasize the role of local community and living at one with nature and the environment inconsistent with economics although it is true that economists need to focus more directly on human happiness than the foolish obsession of continued economic and population growth.

I’ll post more on these issues in the future. For the moment, note that I have added the online journal, The Trumpeter, to my blog-roll under the heading ecoscophy. I am presenting my first seminar on environmental ethics at the University of Melbourne tomorrow (12 pm, Old Arts, Level 4) and I will discuss some of these issues further then. The slides for this presentation are here (I hope this works, I am using Google Drive for the first time to store a Powerpoint presentation!)

* To be clear I emphatically reject John’s assessment of economics.  Economics is not a branch of theology as he claims. It is primarily trying to understand how markets and market economies work and not necessarily endorsing anything.  Economics has been at the forefront of efforts to better conserve the environment and has established a clear logical basis for conservationism in terms of quasi-option values.

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