Alan Kirker


May 31st, 2022 by

“The conservation movement, also known as nature conservation, is a political, environmental, and social movement that seeks to manage and protect natural resources, including animal, fungus, and plant species as well as their habitat for the future. Conservationists are concerned with leaving the environment in a better state than the condition they found it in” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2022).

Given current consumption, pollution, and global warming trajectories, how does “leaving the environment in a better state” mesh with popular notions of sustainable development, that economic growth can continue unabated? Author and professor Anders Hayden suggests deeper systemic change is needed:

“The watered-down mainstream interpretation of sustainable development suggests that environmental considerations can be integrated into economic decision-making without any fundamental change in social values and structures, and without questioning the vision of endless growth. Proponents of this perspective often speak of “sustainable growth” or, even more ominously, “sustained growth”. In other words, “We can eat our development cake and have the environment too” (1999, p. 17).

Philosopher Joseph Heath explores the notion of assigning value to the conservation of natural resources in his book, “The Machinery of Government” (2020). Instrumental value, anything that is “valuable only to the extent that they are means or instruments which serve human beings”, is often set against an intrinsic “existence value”, illustrated in a cost-benefit example of what would someone be willing to pay to preserve a ravine ecosystem facing urban development, whether they use it or not. Heath states that in order for people to claim its destruction affects their personal welfare, even if they never have an inkling to use it, “is an abusive concept” of social welfare, as it introduces a preference “no one would be willing to accept in other areas of decision-making”. Environmentalists have countered this view by referring to the existence value of a natural resource as an “option value”, which accounts for the “knowledge that it is there, and that they can make use of it if they wish” (p. 236, 238).

Heath states that modes of “human valuation” can fail to account for even more intrinsic values that are often ascribed to biodiversity, ecosystem services, and natural capital, and which may not provide any immediate or tangible benefit to people. The issue is further fraught by a subjectivity, wherein “even among environmental ethicists there is deep disagreement over whether individual animals have intrinsic value, or whether value lies in animal populations, or species, or, rather, entire ecosystems” (2020, p. 239).

The precautionary principle, employed in all manner of strategic thinking, is the notion that “if there is some possibility of harm from an action and yet some uncertainty as to whether this harm will materialize, the burden of proof should fall upon the proponents of the action to show that the harm will not materialize”. Heath states that some tiny probability of harm can thus wind up “gridlocking decision-making, or else arbitrarily privileging the status quo” (2020, p. 241).

From a broader perspective, what are the implications of valuations when, as author Tatiana Schlossberg points out, they can often fail to account for the complex and interconnected nature of environmental issues more generally? In the case of the global south, “The countries and communities that have contributed least to climate change and pollution will be the most affected” (2019, p. 236). Economist William Nordhaus proposes a path forward in that national policies to slow global warming need to be harmonized internationally, where every firm will set its marginal costs of abatement equal to an agreed-upon price of carbon emissions, and where enforcement mechanisms are linked to international trade, and take the form of tariffs (2013, p. 255).

What are the implications of growing tendencies towards nationalism in the context of international harmonization? In an essay titled “Moral Principles of a World Society” (1941), Catholic scholar Charles O’Donnell states that the false separation between public and private morality has been the source of innumerable misguided political doctrines. “For one thing it has misled some men into thinking that the moral character of an association of nations differs essentially from the morality of separate nations and of the individuals constituting the citizenship of these communities” (1941, p. 412).

Hayden, A. (1999) Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption, and Ecology. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines

Heath, J. (2020) The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Nordhaus, W. (2013) The Climate Casino. New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

O’Donnell, C. (1941), Moral Principles of a World Society, from The World Society. Washington, United States: Catholic Association for International Peace, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 412 – 415). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Schlossberg, T. (2019) Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. New York, United States: Grand Central Publishing – Hachette Book Group


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