The Deliberative Approach in Environmental Valuation

Article excerpt

How can and should decision makers collect information on public preferences and integrate public input into the environmental policy process? Since environmental issues often involve conflicts in values among goals that all of us consider important, there are no simple answers to this question. Environmental problems are not--indeed should not be--only about the efficient use of scarce resources but are also about ethical issues such as fairness in the decision-making process, the moral claims of non-humans and future generations, and cultural values (Sagoff 1988). Any meaningful decision-making institution must be able to incorporate different modes of articulating environmental concern.

For the above reasons some social science researchers have begun to question the use of neoclassical environmental valuation techniques, which in many cases are the ones preferred by the official authorities. Within the neoclassical paradigm a number of valuation methods--most notably the contingent valuation method (CVM)--are employed. All aim at measuring people's willingness to pay (WTP) for an environmental benefit or their willingness to accept (WTA) a change that is likely to reduce welfare. For critics, however, these methods rely on overly restrictive assumptions, which implies that they often produce poor descriptions of the environmental values people actually hold as well as of the process of preference formation (Spash 1997, 2000).

Most importantly, contingent valuation method approaches rely on the notion that individuals aim at maximizing personal utility and that they possess well-articulated, exogenous preferences for environmental "goods." However, environmental values often have a broad ethical content, and since ethics are a matter for argument, environmental valuation ought to be endogenous to the political process and rely on social agreements (e.g., Jacobs 1997). In other words, the initial challenge of environmental policy lies not in discovering private preferences but in specifying the conditions for public discourse over what is worth valuing and for what reason.

While many analysts question neoclassical value theory on these grounds, few have discussed the methodological implications of this critique. One interesting suggestion, however, is to rely on the literature on deliberative approaches to the formation of public values [1] and to move toward a discursive and jury-like research method. This method typically relies on so-called focus groups or citizens' juries in which lay people develop preferences about complex policy issues through informed discussion. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the role of such deliberative research methods in environmental policy decision making. The principal thesis of the analysis is that while deliberative approaches certainly contribute to a better understanding of the environmental values people hold, they should be considered a complement--rather than a substitute--for alternative valuation processes.

The Deliberative Attack on Neoclassical Environmental Valuation

The theory of neoclassical environmental economics is based on economic measures of human welfare, such as utility. People are assumed to seek to satisfy their private preferences, which are exogenously determined, complete, continuous, context independent, and ethically unchallengeable (Jacobs 1997). The environment is essentially treated as any other private commodity, and people are assumed to be willing to consider tradeoffs in relation to the quantity or quality of environmental goods. The change in the level of individual welfare resulting from an environmental change is measured as the amount of income necessary to maintain a constant level of utility before, and after, the change. Monetary estimates of environmental preferences can be obtained by simply asking people about their willingness to pay for an environmental benefit in a contingent valuation method survey. …