"Ecosystem Health" Common Ground

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

I'm still hoping, perhaps foolishly, that traditional environmentalists (by that I mean the typical Audubon or Sierra Club member) will find common ground with the classical liberals who call themselves free market environmentalists. As a student of philosophy, I see areas where the two groups ought to be close together. Whether this linkage will ever materialize, I don't know. But here's the argument.

For years, traditional environmentalists have recognized the ineffectiveness of many government policies. More recently, they have admitted a role for property rights and markets by such things as undertaking "debt for nature" swaps, bidding for timber contracts, and arguing for an end to subsidized resource use. In actions at least, there is some common ground with free market environmentalists.

It seems to me that both camps can agree that the government has a duty to prevent environmental changes that violate basic individual rights. For example, when people's actions, such as polluting a river, cause wrongful harms to downstream users, the law should intervene. Traditional environmentalists see this as fair, and classical liberals see this as protecting rights.

Beyond protection of rights lie morally right actions. Environmentalists consider actions toward the environment as either morally right or wrong because they either protect or harm the health of ecosystems. Arguably, environmentalists have a role to play in informing individuals of morally right actions.

Okay, say the classical liberals. But since such actions go above and beyond simple respect for individual rights, they must involve the exercise of moral judgment and choice. Surely actions performed or prevented at gunpoint or under threat of criminal sanction do not involve moral choice.

Many environmentalists propose coercive pressure or restraint because they fear that if we rely solely on moral persuasion or positive incentives to protect the environment, some people will continue to purposefully destroy it. But at this point we enter the realm of individual preferences and personal values. Environmentalists value ecosystems in minimally humanaltered conditions. But I would argue that their preferences are on the same footing as other preferences-say, the preference that the city of Cleveland continue to support a football team. Certainly, governments should give such preferences no special weight. The government should remain neutral between differing conceptions of the good when their pursuit does not involve wrongful rights violations.

This principle is especially important since there are key unanswered questions about the very nature of the good-ecosystemic health-to be protected. Even if one can objectively determine what constitutes an ecosystem (and many biologists will grant that this is exceedingly difficult), doing so does not help to define what makes an ecosystem healthy. Ecosystemic health, like "health" per se, is a normative concept; it is necessarily defined in relation to a goal or desired endstate. The continuance of ecosystemic health does not exist as an objective goal of nature.

Indeed, the health of our planet is always defined in relation to human values, and humans have played a large role in the internal functioning of many ecosystems. If ecosystems are to be maintained or restored, it will be because humans choose to promote particular sets of environmental conditions and humans will have a continuing role in attaining and/or maintaining those conditions.

It seems to me that classical liberals and traditional environmentalists can agree that a minimal level of ecosystemic functioning is necessary for human survival. For example, if science determines that human actions are, in fact, changing the global climate in catastrophic ways (e.g., if rising temperatures from human energy use cause a sea-level rise of three feet, wiping out entire island nations), then government restrictions on certain activities might be justified. Protecting some minimal level of ecosystemic functioning is within the legitimate purview of government.

But environmentalists also value ecosystems for their own sake, independently of their role in human survival. In their view, if ecosystems are to change they should only do so along paths created by their internal functioning. At this level, the desires and preferences of persons concerned with the preservation of ecosystems for their own sake must compete on an equal footing with the desires and preferences of others, rather than be promoted by coercive government action.

Fortunately, the protection of ecosystems goods under such conditions is not as difficult as it may seem. The large operating budgets of environmental organizations indicate that ecosystems can compete well for people's affections and dollars in a free society.

So, there are areas of common ground between traditional environmentalists and classical liberals. They can agree on protecting rights and on protecting ecosystems to the extent that ecosystems are essential to human survival. Beyond that, they should agree that the marketplace of values and ideas is the proper forum for decisions about additional environmental protection. Let the discussions begin.