Environmental Ethics Essay

Society is not capable of interest satisfactions; it enjoys no pleasure, suffers no pain. Unlike a person, society has no skin or self, no continuous biological or psychological identity; a society has a loose, diffuse, changing membership, with some cooperation and much conflict pulling and hauling between individuals and interest groups. Sociologist’s debate whether there is any social whole above the individual person parts who compose it. Society itself has no center of experience; only individuals do.

Society is not capable of interest satisfactions; it enjoys no pleasure, suffers no pain. Unlike a person, society has no skin or self, no continuous biological or psychological identity; a society has a loose, diffuse, changing membership, with some cooperation and much conflict pulling and hauling between individuals and interest groups. Society can err about what con¬tributes to its well being. Social choices too can be out of touch with reality. Further, given the prevailing pluralism in the United States, a negotiated consensus of values is likely not to be consistent.

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Separate individual values, itemized one by one, may be singly attractive but pernicious in combinations that no¬body much foresees. Even if only individuals have a well being (with society merely an aggregate Such considerations lead many to claim that values is some kind of fiction, a pragmatic operational concept (like a center of gravity) that is only apparent. By that account all social values would be instrumental, directly or indirectly, to intrinsic individ¬ual values.

Still, some social preferences seem to serve society at large, beyond the fact that or regardless of whether they satisfy individual interests. Social preferences, unless oppressive, seem to command more importance than particular individual prefer¬ences. Perhaps this is only because they are massively aggregated individual preferences. But perhaps society has an importance of related individuals), society at least functions and dysfunctions. The vague, beguiling slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number” can mean ” what most prefer on average”.

But usually means “what is on aver¬age functional in society”. Part of the worth of a practice is whether it keeps society functioning smoothly, regardless of whether this agrees with the corporate will. The Indian Peaks Wilderness “open space” serves as a pressure release valve for the Denver Boulder metropolitan area, and it might be most functional for Colorado society to maintain it so, even though the legislature had voiced a preference, reflecting polls, that federal managers log the area to provide jobs and firewood.

The Colorado Senate passed Bill 5 in 1985 changing state water law to give landowners the right to mine underground water for irrigation, industrial, and residential development. Shrug and graduate student Kurt House have instead proposed a permanent, large-scale solution, one especially suited to coastal areas like the eastern United States, where there are few suitable land-based geological basins. “Under high pressure and low temperature,” he says, “CO2 is denser than seawater. ” It sinks. Their innovative idea is to inject the CO2 into deep-water sediments that have accumulated on the ocean floor.

In these sediments—think of tiny shells and clay that have sunk to the bottom—water makes up more than half the total volume. “At the top, they are almost all water,” says Schrag, “and as you go down, the sediment gets more dense. ” The compressed CO2 would be shipped to offshore platforms, similar to those used to drill for oil, and then pumped to the bottom of the sea. A drilling rig could easily penetrate the loose collection of detritus that has accumulated over eons on the ocean floor, allowing the CO2 to be injected into the sediment.

At depths greater than 3,000 meters, the temperature is so low, and the pressure so great, that the CO2 would form an ice-like cap over a spreading liquid plume and eventually dissolve, diffusing slowly into the oceans over millions of years at a rate that would not affect marine ecology. Shrug’s lab continues to refine the idea, but says the CO2 will not require long-term monitoring the way most other sequestration schemes certainly will. There is enough deep-water capacity within the 200-mile economic zone of the U. S. coastline, they estimate, to hold thousands of years of current U. S. carbon emissions.

Shrug has thought of all this. He has even created an interactive video that allows visitors to an exhibit in the Harvard Museum of Natural History to vote whether they would be willing to spend hundreds of dollars per family each year to control domestic carbon emissions. The video then asks if they would be willing to spend even more to control emissions abroad, subsidizing the technology to enable clean-energy growth in rapidly developing countries such as China or India. (Readers can see the video and vote themselves on-line at Even if the answer to both questions is yes, the earth is clearly in trouble.

The last time it experienced what Schrag considers a safe level of atmospheric CO2—which he defines as 300 ppm—was around 1900. “Five hundred and fifty may be the best we can do,” he says, “but it is still a disaster. ” Yet he remains optimistic. Given time, he says, the ocean has a tremendous capacity to absorb CO2 directly from the atmosphere. If we can reduce our emissions substantially before most of the continental ice sheets melt, we might be able to prevent or at least postpone the most extreme climate impacts.

Inertia will be our worst enemy: the inertia that has built up in the climate system, on the one hand, and political inertia on the other. The only thing missing from a solution to the carbon problem, Schrag says, is the will to act. pressed them for a time, but they eventual¬ly acquired resistance to a whole spectrum of chemicals, and that basically released them from human control. When their populations bounced back, they encoun¬tered a landscape stocked with their favorite prey: people. And since these people were from an area where malaria infection had become rare, their immunity to the disease was low.

Malaria rapidly reasserted itself from 1987 to 1993, the number of cases in Honduras jumped from 20,000 to 90,000. 3 The situation was brought to light in 1993 by a group of researchers concerned about the public health implications of environmental decline. But their primary interest was not in what had already hap¬pened it was in what might happen next. Some very nasty surprises might be tangled up somewhere in this web of pressures. They argued, for example, that deforesta¬tion and changing patterns of disease had made the country “especially vulnerable to climatic change and climate instability. “‘ They were right.

In October 1998, Hur¬ricane Mitch slammed into the Gulf coast of Central America and stalled there for four days. Nightmarish mudslides obliterated entire villages; half the population of Hon¬duras was displaced and the country lost 95 percent of its agricultural production. Mitch was the fourth strongest hurricane to enter the Caribbean this century, but much of the damage was caused by deforestation: had forests been gripping the soil on those hills, fewer villages would have been buried in mudslides. And in the chaos and filth of Mitch’s wake there followed tens of thou¬sands of additional cases of malaria, cholera, and dengue fever. It is hard to shake the feeling that “nor¬mal change” even change for the worse should not happen this way. In the first place, too many trends in this scenario are spiking. Instead of gradual change, the pic¬ture is full of discontinuities very rapid shifts that are much harder to anticipate. There is a rapid warming in the south, then an abrupt expansion in deforestation in the north, as plantations are developed. Then malaria infections jump. Then those mud¬slides, in addition to killing thousands of people, cause a huge increase in the rate of topsoil loss.

There also seem to be too many overlap¬ping pressures too many synergisms. The mudslides were not the work of Mitch alone; they were caused by Mitch plus the social conditions that encouraged the farm¬ing of upland forests. The malaria emerged not just from the mosquitoes, but from the movement of a low immunity population into a mosquito infested area, and from heavy pesticide use. Such discontinuities and synergisms fre¬quently catch us by surprise. (See Tables 2 1 and 2 2. ) They tend to subvert our sense of the world because we so often assume that a trend can be understood in isolation.

It is tempting, for example, to believe that a smooth line on a graph can be used to see into the future: all you have to do is extend the line. But the future of a trend any trend depends on the behav¬ior of the entire system in which it is embedded. When we isolate a phenomenon in order to study it, we may actually be pre¬venting ourselves from knowing the most important things about it. This fragmented form of inquiry is becoming increasingly dangerous and not just because we might miss problems in small, poor countries like Honduras.

After all, there is nothing special about the pressures in the Honduran predicament. Deforestation, climate change, chemical con-tamination these and many other forms of environmental corrosion are at work on a global scale. Each has engendered its own minor research industry. But even as the publications pile up, we may actually be missing the biggest problem of all: what might the inevitable convergence of these forces do? “When one problem combines with another problem, the outcome may be not a double problem, but a super problem. That is the assessment of Norman Myers, an Oxford based ecologist who is one of the most active pioneers in the field of environmental surprise. We have hardly begun to identify those potential super problems, but in the planet’s increasingly stressed, the possibility of rapid, unexpected change in perverse and growing. pressed them for a time, but they eventual¬ly acquired resistance to a whole spectrum of chemicals, and that basically released them from human control. When their populations bounced back, they encoun¬tered a landscape stocked with their favorite prey: people.

And since these people were from an area where malaria infection had become rare, their immunity to the disease was low. Malaria rapidly reasserted itself from 1987 to 1993, the number of cases in Honduras jumped from 20,000 to 90,000. 3 Decisions ought to be democratic, since they are political and about public lands. But pitfalls in the democratic process are many. Those with political clout and savvy, those with concen¬trated high order interests a lot to gain or lose outshout or out¬manipulate the disorganized majority whose interests are diffuse and low level.

Organized small groups typically outact large la¬tent groups; legislators react to pressure groups and defend their own interests. Agencies grow bureaucratic and sluggish; citizen preferences are difficult to register and aggregate; voters never have the options they prefer presented at the ballot box, and so on. One way to minimize these pitfalls is to insist on a decision analysis that is more systematic, more scientific which often means more economic. So it is tempting to think that a cost benefit analysis will introduce some sense of order into an otherwise sprawling dispute over values.

Legislators and government pro¬fessionals are always sensitive to the charge of misusing public funds and resources, and if they can make economically based environmental decisions, this will be as nearly scientific and democratic as can be. One sure route into human caring is by pricing not in all cases, but routinely in matters of resource use. There will need to be, additionally, consideration of the just distri¬bution of such benefits and costs, but that can come later.

Initially, one needs an assessment of what environmental goods are worth in monetary terms. Against this view, the main point of the axiological model, coupled with the spectrum of value types, is to display a richer value series than we have reason to believe can be caught by eco-nomic valuation, and to claim that on the commons especially the common wildlands a great many other values override eco¬nomic ones In the naturalistic sequence, we are advocating a kind of maxi min principle in something like the ratio of continental do¬mestication to wildness.

A minimum level (2 percent, 4 percent) of wildland values (intrinsic and human instrumental) need max¬imizing (at 98 to 2, 96 to 4 odds), opposing a maxi max principle (maximum consumption increasing from 96 percent to 98 percent to 100 percent our available acreage to raise our already high standards of living). That 2 to 4 percent surfeit is a few more pounds on already fat people, who need the rigorous leanness that disciplined exposure to wilderness can give. Considering probable economic productivity rather than acreage, there is no reason to think that, on average, U. S. itizens would be even 1 percent bet¬ter off if all the wildlands were sacrificed. From this viewpoint the odds are 99 to 1 that the sacrifice of wildness makes sense in terms of economic gain at the cost of the other values lost. From here on, any loss of wilderness is likely to be a tragedy. The areas richest in resources have long since been domesti¬cated, and sacrificing the remaining wildlands is scraping the bottom of the barrel, a matter of diminishing marginal returns (notwithstanding newly developed technologies), although from other points of view the value destruction would be enormous.

Public lands, often left over from the public domain in the West or reacquired after marginal use in the East, tend not to be eco¬nomically productive in agriculture, timber, or minerals. The diagram yields prima facie rules. For exceptions, the burden of proof is on the dissenter. On remnant wildlands the odds are that the sacrifice of wild values will not both contribute to long term human goods and be justified.

The wilder and rarer the land, the lower the probability that any consumptive economic use will override other values. Virgin forests will stay intact. The demand for wilderness is increasing quite as rapidly as the demand for timber. The latter can be satisfied on private lands; the former cannot. On particular occasions the saving of an endangered species (the California condor) might provide insufficient social and personal benefits and such high costs that one could plead an exception ($3. million annually: $2 million in oil and gas left underground and $1 million in phosphate left unmined but all retrievable later; $0. 2 million spent in research and management) . 4 Nevertheless, the policy sets the presumptions, as in the Endangered Species Act, which mandates the preservation of species and permits only rare exceptions. To abandon a life form because of the economic costs, or in order to secure market goods, or to satisfy personal or social

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