New Environmentalism

Studies | Environment

No. 201
Wednesday, January 01, 1997
by Lynn Scarlett


Creating a New Paradigm: The Role of Values

Widely Shared Values. Environmental values are increasingly important to Americans and, at the abstract level, most are widely shared. For example, almost all of us would agree that:

  • Clean air is better than dirty air.
  • Pure water is better than polluted water.
  • An unspoiled beach is more attractive than one littered with trash.

Arriving at consensus in an abstract sense on these and other environmental issues is possible. In A Theory of Human Motivation, psychologist Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of human values. Basic needs come first - for example, a hungry person seeks food above all else. But when those needs are met, we desire other things, including the self-esteem and sense of fulfillment Maslow called self-actualization.16 Then there are still other desires - what public opinion expert Robert Worcester describes as the search for relations and meanings.17

Maslow's and Worcester's discussions of values help to explain why community consensus forms more readily around high-risk, health-related pollution problems than around amenity values like preserving old-growth redwoods. For many people, health-related values like those posed by some pollution problems are "basic" survival values, while amenity values are spiritual or aesthetic and perhaps less basic. These spiritual and aesthetic values take a variety of forms, and people rank them quite differently. For some, funding art projects may be especially important. For others, promoting music may be important. For still others, protecting wildlife may be most important.

The problem we face as a society is how to come to grips with all these diverse values. Americans are committed to environmental protection. It is now part of our national psyche. But we are not all equally committed to specific actions. Nor do we agree on a ranking by importance of the actions that turn environmental values into results. As the Deputy Minister of Industry for Canada, our northern neighbor, put it:

At a deep level, the questions [of environmental policy reform] are not just scientific but are strongly about values. [They are about] how these are formed, how societies find rough consensus around important values, and how these get translated into action.18

The Need for Balancing. Environmental values are not the only values that matter. Humans seek health, safety, nourishment, comfort, fairness and justice, liberty, aesthetics, occupation, learning, companionship and other goals as well.

Attaining nonenvironmental goals often has environmental costs. One reason why is that all production and consumption activities produce residuals. There is no such thing as zero emissions. An electric vehicle may have zero emissions at the tailpipe, but electricity generation at the power plant yields emissions. Solar cells have zero emissions at their point of usage, but their production generates emissions, and battery components generate emissions when recycled or discarded. Producing food changes landscapes; building homes uses resources; traveling to visit a friend consumes energy.

The attainment of one environmental goal often has other environmental or health costs. Take disposable fast food packaging. In the early 1980s, such packaging was disparaged as wasteful, since reusable food service ware was available. But reusables can expose users to higher bacterial contamination and thus to a greater variety of diseases. So while disposables may generate more solid waste per serving, but reusables may pose greater health hazards.19

Or take chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs have been accused of creating a "hole" in the stratospheric ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol, an agreement among nations, resulted in the phasing out of CFCs for many uses. Yet some CFC substitutes, especially those used as refrigerants, are acutely toxic and highly flammable.20

To reiterate: most people simultaneously value many things. But the ubiquity of constraints and trade-offs means that we must make individual and collective choices.

Integrating Environmental Values with Other Values. As noted above, the goal of environmental policy is to express environmental values within a larger set of values. But what does this mean in terms of resource allocation? Economists suggest that:

  • Resources should be used for purposes that people value most.
  • Goods and services should be produced at minimum cost.
  • Whatever is produced should be more valuable than the sacrifice (cost) required to produce it.

Each of these rules presents the same simple idea: avoid waste and maximize value. What is true of the economy in general is true with respect to environmental issues. Given limited time, energy and money, it makes sense to direct our efforts where they will do the most good.

On the surface, human values are quite diverse. Yet the underlying thought processes required to pursue them are similar.21 If we are to integrate our environmental values, we must balance them against other, sometimes competing values - including other environmental values. This usually is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Seldom is the relevant question whether to ignore environmental values while pursuing, say, greater economic growth or more medical care. Instead, the decisions we face generally are incremental: for example, how much more effort do we want to invest in preserving additional wetlands vs. reducing pests through agricultural research?

Principles of Successful Integration. When environmental values are successfully integrated with all other values, certain principles guide our actions. Specifically, any improvement in environmental quality should be worth more than the cost of obtaining it, in terms of other values forgone. Conversely, any increase in other goods and services at the expense of the environment is justified only if the goods and services are more valuable to us than the environmental quality forgone.

These principles hold true both for individuals and for society. However, they are easier to apply to individual decision making. Even though most people share many environmental values in the abstract, individuals always differ in how they balance competing goals. For example, a person who values old-growth forests above access to cheap lumber products might join with like-minded people to acquire and preserve forestland. Or a community might contract with private landowners to protect more habitat through ecomanagement. The individuals and the community gain new amenities in the form of denser and possibly older-growth forests and richer wildlife habitats. The landowners gain by selling an amenity - improved habitat - to the community.22

Sometimes, however, private or personal solutions are difficult because one person's choices affect the environmental quality enjoyed by others. In these circumstances, collective action may be required.

Role of the Individual. All values are individual and so are all actions, though individuals daily join together to solve problems. Yet with respect to many environmental issues, the role of the individual is very different than it is in most other aspects of life. This is because individuals sometimes cannot make separate personal trade-offs between environmental goods and other goods. Instead, they must accept the results of collective action. And even in voluntary associations and markets, some degree of accommodation often is required.23

Consider the example of air quality in an air basin. We cannot all simultaneously have the degree of "cleanliness" we prefer. And since no one owns the air basin, who decides how clean is clean enough? The collective nature of the decision about clean air - as well as clean water and other common resources - often leads to conflict. How can this conflict be resolved? Sometimes collective environmental decisions can be turned into private ones, avoiding conflict and accommodating diversity.

For example, it is often possible for individuals to simply make their own choices. Remember the brouhaha surrounding disposable vs. reusable cloth diapers? Some people anointed reusables as the environmentally sound option and viewed the disposable diaper as a quintessential emblem of waste. Defenders of disposables pointed out that the manufacture and cleaning of cloth diapers creates other environmental problems. But setting aside real ambiguities about the comparable environmental impacts of different diapers, the debate was a contest over different value hierarchies.

Champions of reusables may prefer to minimize trash. Champions of disposables may value more highly the time saved by using disposables or the lower incidence of diaper rash. From this simple example, it is clear that shoehorning everyone into a single choice would diminish the quality of life for all.24

The importance of having choices applies to environmental health risks as well. Some people are more risk averse than others. Some are highly averse to certain potential risks but accepting of others. "Acceptable risk" is a concept whose meaning depends on individual perceptions and values and may also be a function of time, place and circumstance. No amount of scientific inquiry can determine the "right amount" of tolerable risk. Science can help us understand the complex interrelationships among natural resources, chemical elements, human action and ecology. But science cannot decide what individuals value.


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