Evolutionary Ecology: A New Environmental Vision

By Scarlett, Lynn | Reason, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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Evolutionary Ecology: A New Environmental Vision

Scarlett, Lynn, Reason

The 25th anniversary of Earth Day came and went last year, with little fanfare and no public demand for more environmental laws. The new Republican Congress tried, and mostly failed, to enact reforms designed to lessen the burden of environmental regulation. Behind the scenes and in public forums, various schools of environmental reform debated and discussed. They talked cost-benefit analysis and "takings" compensation, emissions trading and "win-win" environmentalism. They disagreed about many things, including basic principles. But there was general consensus about two ideas: that environmental goals are important, and that the current structure of regulation isn't that great.

Environmental policy is finally growing up. But to make genuine improvements, rather than merely tinker around the edges, we first need to understand where the demand for environmental regulation comes from, and where it went wrong. And we need a vision of how environmental policy might be set right - of the general principles and concepts that might guide a new environmentalism.

Environmentalism is not, as its critics sometimes portray it, simply a New Age ideology foisted upon an unwilling public. The environmental movement has important ideological components, but the demand for cleaner air and water or for wilderness and species preservation is not that different from the demand for any other good. As living standards rise, people want to buy more environmental "goods." Pollution is as old as human activity, but only recently have we been rich enough to worry about it.

Looking across countries, University of Chicago economist Don Coursey finds a clear correlation between increased wealth, measured by per capita GDP, and increased allegiance to environmental protection. As incomes rise, per capita expenditures on pollution control increase - a phenomenon Coursey observes in most advanced industrialized nations. The amount of land set aside for protection also rises with GDP. Green groups may decry economic growth, but it is growth itself that makes environmental protection possible and popular.

Coursey's work also points up a fact often forgotten in public discussions: "The environment" is not an all-or-nothing good, but a bundle of different goods. In surveys, he asks people to indicate how much they'd be willing to spend to preserve different species. The results are wildly varied. Animals like the bald eagle and grizzly bear consistently rank high, while spiders, beetles, snakes, and snails are barely valued. The varied costs of real-world regulations reflect this distinction: Coursey calculates the amount spent to preserve a single Florida panther at $4.8 million, compared to a mere $1.17 to preserve a single Painted Snake Coil Forest Snail.

Political maneuvering may produce such disparate results, but the law does not actually recognize such distinctions, or the implicit tradeoffs they express. It declares species protection, like many other environmental goods, an absolute. Early environmentalist thinking - influential to this day - did not recognize environmental values as some goods among many but rather proclaimed them preeminent: Earth First! A California regulator describes his state's water policy this way: "If Mother Nature didn't put it in, you had to take it out - everything - that was the goal. This drove us to rigid, grossly exuberant attempts at clean up."

This absolutism suggests one way that environmental policy went wrong. It did not recognize that quality of life resides in pursuit of multiple values. People seek shelter, nourishment, health, security, learning, fairness, companionship, freedom, and personal comfort together with environmental protection. They even seek many, sometimes competing, environmental goals. They don't agree on how to marshal their resources (and time) in pursuit of these many goals. And it is often difficult for outsiders - or even individuals themselves - to know in advance how they would prefer to trade off among different values.

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