I’m pretty damn sure the following doesn’t make as much sense as the author thinks it does (again from Susan Buck, The Global Commons.
the illogic of the…frontier ethic, which presents nature as unlimited bounty, a cornucopia. It also supposes that science and technology will always find a way to reverse or bypass any environmental problem and that the human system is somehow divorced from and independent of the world ecosystem. The logic of this position is difficult to defend [It] cannot be used as a guiding principle for policy outcomes, and sustainability is left by default as the remaining alternative principle. (p.11)
I suppose if you want to badly misrepresent someone’s position, you can certainly say that the logic is difficult to defend. I’ve never heard anyone claim that human systems are “independent” of the “world ecosystem,” nor have I heard anyone but left-wingers use the phrase “frontier ethic,” so the ideology of this paragraph is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. But she seems to ignore the famous Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich eager, in which Simon, the most famous “frontier ethic” person of them all, absolutely smashed Ehrlich (who famously predicted mass starvation around the world in the ’70s and ’80s–he didn’t say it would happen if we didn’t change our ways, he actually said, in 1968, that it was already too late, and nothing could be done to prevent it).
Finding good books on environmental politics is hard. If they’re not so dry as to be causes of desertification in and of themselves, they’re rabidly ideological (whether from the pro- or anti-side). I’ve yet to find one that begins with the common-sense, yet not commonly-recognized, concept that “all animals affect the environment around them,” followed with the recognition that the only way for humanity to avoid having an affect on the environment is for it simply to die out. That recognition should include emphasis that there have been no human societies that truly “lived in harmony with nature,” then emphasize that, contra the hippy-dippy left’s beliefs about the wonders of communality, most–if not all–environmental problems result from collective action problems (particularly in the form of common pool resources) and poorly defined property rights (i.e., externalities). (Although the reason I am interested in using this particular book is because the focus is precisely and pointedly on common-pool resource analysis.)
And it would emphasize something Buck obviously misses–the value of wealth. She defines sustainability as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (. 10). The so-called “frontier ethic” doesn’t necessarily conflict with sustainability, then, as–however badly mis-named and mis-represented it is in this book–it emphasizes maximizing human wealth. If we leave our children more wealth, they will be in a better position to meet their own needs, particularly through innovation and technological development. If we limit wealth and stultify innovation in an attempt to preserve the specific resources that we know about today, and for only the uses of them that we know about today, are we really making it possible for either us or them to meet their needs? Ideological leftists (the anti-market crowd) take it for granted that the answer is yes. Anyone who’s made a serious study of economics will at least be less complacent about that answer.
But then it should be noted that the author admits (footnote 39, p. 18) to preferring a less anthrocentric definition of sustainability, one that defines it as the “ability to supply in perpetuity all life forms (Iin all bioregions of the planet) with the necessities of life.” In that regard, I’m an unabashed anthropcentrist.
Curiously, however, combining this with the author’s criticism of positive law, it’s clear that this ideological leftie would join our ideological rightie commentors in praising natural law. I imagine she would share their enthusiasm for the concept of the moral, but whether a concept that unites the left and right so well thereby proves its value or its incoherence is open to debate. Of course my position in that debate is probably too predictable to be worth stating explicitly.