In 1665, Diego Velazquez painted what was to become one of the great works of western art, Las Meninas. The large canvas portrays Velasquez painting the Infanta Margarita, daughter of King Phillip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain, along with members of the court. The work was completed at the height of belief in preformationism. Preformationism was an early theory of development that saw children as arriving into the world as miniature adults, physically and socially. (1) In the painting, Infanta Margarita, who can be no more than five or six, appears all the miniature queen. Starting with Locke and Rouseau, preformationist conceptions of children's social, cognitive, and moral development gradually gave way to a more complex understanding of childhood as a sequence of developmental changes. (2)
Preformationism was also a theory of biological development. (3) Well into the 1990s, we could have said that U.S. environmental policy took a preformationist view of children--to the extent that children were considered at all. In fact, the rallying cry of the efforts to bring children's health concerns into federal environmental policy was "children are not just little adults." The driving concern behind this cry was that environmental standards were set based on the impact of environmental hazards on adult health. And yet, physiologically, children are not little adults. As children pass through complex developmental phases, they are affected by environmental conditions quite differently than adults. Often, as with the case of neurotoxin exposure during critical periods of brain development, these differences can be severe and permanent. Several statutes and rules now recognize this explicitly. (4) For the past decade or more, regulatory science has been working out the implications of taking children's physiological differences from adults seriously. (5)
Environmental economics has been going down the same path, but more slowly. (6) Under the 1997 Executive Order 13045, titled "Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks", the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to conduct economic analysis of economically significant environmental regulations that the agency believes may disproportionately affect children. (7) But to a large extent, it is fair to say that environmental economics is still preformationist in what it can contribute to regulatory analysis.
In this article I explore what it might mean for environmental economics to take the implications of a modern understanding of children's cognitive, social, and moral development seriously. Environmental economists recognize that taking children seriously poses significant challenges to standard economic practice. (8) In particular it challenges conventional notions of consumer sovereignty that underlie much of economic analysis. Economists' commitment to consumer sovereignty reflects a belief that each individual is the best judge of his or her own preferences and well-being. One of the major themes of the discussion that follows is that focusing on children challenges this assumption and is forcing economists to think about who can best represent the changes in children's welfare created by environmental programs. I will try to show that as economists consider the implications of child development more seriously, they can learn a great deal from law, as well as from their sister social sciences.
EPA has been investing in economic research focused on children's health valuation and has developed preliminary guidance on valuing benefits of reducing risks to children's health. (9) The agency is explicit in noting that this is only interim guidance because so little research has yet been completed on valuation of environmental programs that protect children's health. But the guidance is also clear in that the agency does not expect the value placed on protecting children's health will necessarily be the same as the value placed on protecting adult health. …