Does This Paragraph Make Any Sense, Part Two

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.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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11 Responses to Does This Paragraph Make Any Sense, Part Two

  1. Pinky says:

    .
    I have to say that it almost looks as though you are allowing yourself to be caught up in the politicking that is taking place in the dominant media.
    .
    Before we know it–when we allow ourselves to be so caught up–we find we are in a place from which there is little chance of escape.
    .
    It’s interesting how much we change when we allow ourselves to remain open to different voices.
    .

  2. Matty says:

    the human system is somehow divorced from and independent of the world ecosystem.

    Funny, in my experience it is the ideological ‘environmentalists’ who lean towards this view with talk of untouched wilderness. I like open wild looking places as much as anyone but the reality is that the option for a world not influenced by humans passed sometime around the invention of agriculture if not before. The real challenge it seems to me is how we can adapt and add to our existing management of natural resources so that we can “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” while still developing technologically and economically.

  3. Chris says:

    I think what she means by “divorced from and independent of” is essentially the Christian view that we’re separate from the rest of nature, and have dominion over it (given to us by God). This is not an uncommon view, even if it’s not a conscious one, particularly in the West.

  4. Scott Hanley says:

    I’d say it makes sense. The ideology is as thick as you say, but also the language has been distressed to make the thought look more subtle than it is. I simply read it as a statement of the pioneer’s faith that the environment could be made more productive, without considering the possibility that those same efforts could also unwittingly make it less productive. That’s a fair enough charge, but it’s also a mistake that many people have made over the millennia – especially cultures that have built their agriculture around irrigation products.

    The bit about “divorced from and independent of the world ecosystem” is a recognition that Euro-Americans have a tradition of drawing a bright line between Man and Nature, so it’s a true enough statement. But it doesn’t automatically imply a careless attitude toward the environment; in fact, it could just as easily promote an appreciation for how much destructive power humans have en masse. Nearly everything I’ve ever read about Native Americans suggests that they gave animals far more credit for being able to protect themselves than they really possess, and all that concern for respecting the game you killed didn’t necessarily prevent overhunting when the animals seemed to so willingly make themselves available to you.

  5. ppnl says:

    Has anyone here read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”? It is certainly not dry and does not cater to either the left or right.

  6. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    I haven’t read all of that one, but I have read, and highly recommend, his Guns, Germs, and Steal. I did use a chapter in Collapse (about Easter Island) in my Enviro Politics class, but the students rather missed the point (that environmental destruction is not simply a White European Christian Capitalist problem). I can’t use the whole book, though, because Diamond doesn’t organize it around the political economy concepts I want to use.

    That’s not a knock on it, though. No book can be all things to all people.

  7. James K says:

    Sigh.

    This is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from discussions of environmentalism, outside of environmental economics at least. First off, there is a difference between saying “nature has unlimited capacity” and “nature’s capacity can be extended to a very large extent, with the proper technology”, so I have to take marks off for the false equivalence. Secondly, there’s a false dichotomy: either this “frontier ethic” or sustainability, a vague concept at the best of times. What’s the bet than when she says “sustainability” she means her specific conception of sustainability.

    And for the record, no economists thinks we’re divorced form nature. Optimisation under constraints is what we do for crying out loud.

  8. James Hanley says:

    And for the record, no economists thinks we’re divorced form nature. Optimisation under constraints is what we do for crying out loud.

    Amen.

  9. Matty says:

    I did use a chapter in Collapse (about Easter Island) in my Enviro Politics class, but the students rather missed the point (that environmental destruction is not simply a White European Christian Capitalist problem).

    I read the point (or a point) of Collapse as being the inverse of this, that we cannot assume that the problems of Easter Island were unique to them.

    Another important point is that working out if you are depleting resources is hard and the kind of collapses he talks about are probably not down to stupidity or malice. The example of Greenland Norse who had no reason to think that soil there would erode differently than in Norway comes to mind.

  10. AMW says:

    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.”

    By her definition, nature itself is not sustainable. Look at the fossil record.

  11. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    Indeed that is Diamond’s primary point. But the other point is implicit, and is what I wanted my students to get. For the most part, they already assumed that such problems weren’t restricted to places like Easter Island, as they tend to believe we’re on the verge of collapse in the U.S. But they tend to romanticize “native” cultures, and I wanted to break through that idealism. I think in the end I did, and Diamond’s chapter helped–they just didn’t get it right away. For a few of them, the idea of Native Americans using buffalo jumps to slaughter dozens or hundreds of bison at a time when they couldn’t make use of that many was obviously very disturbing.

    But underneath, Diamond and I were making the same fundamental point. Humans are humans.

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