I mean, of course, other than “la la la la la I can’t hear you la la la la la”. This article about Arne Naess, a philisophical forefather of so-called “deep” ecology, got me thinking about this question. Dot Earth, an NYT blog, has reactions to his work from a number of environmentalists and ethicists, but not economists.
One of the commentators, David Orton, says,
Naess defined the shallow ecology movement, which he says is more influential than the deep ecology movement, as “Fight against pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.” The shallow approach takes for granted beliefs in technological optimism, economic growth, and scientific management and the continuation of existing industrial societies. Naess expressed it this way: “The supporters of shallow ecology think that reforming human relations toward nature can be done within the existing structure of society.”
That’s a tough pill to swallow. Even “shallow” approaches seem like a giant step forward from the status quo. Most economic discussion of the environment, and ecology, begins and ends with externalities. It relies on putting a price on every natural resource, ecosystem, etc. University of Chicago is holding a conference this May that will approach the issues of ecosystem service valuation.
My problems with the shallow approach veer more towards the practical side, but they hit on the same issues that the deep green folks are worried about. Can we accurately value the services that ecosystems provide? Will the discount rate, set far too high for accounting and “economic” reasons, lead to overconsumption and destruction of these resources? Finally, will this valuation process ever consider a concept like intrinsic value?
A lot of my frustration with the approach of economists to the environment ultimately stems from my experience in environmental economics. The professor, who will remain nameless, mocked the deep green people four or five times throughout the semester. “Some people at these conferences say, ‘you can’t put a dollar value on these things.’ I say, ‘we can measure it in pesos, apples, whatever, but these things have some value.'” Obviously this misses the point they are making. It’s not that these things are priceless, it’s just that you, the methodologically constrained economists, cannot accurately value this.
After seeing how he actually does value things like rainforests, I agree with the deep folks. This professor is fond of revealed preference models, where you use surveys (of ND students, no less) to figure out what they value the rainforest as. If they aren’t willing to pay more than a logger to keep that rainforest around, start your chainsaws. I think the shortcomings of this method are pretty obvious, so I won’t belabor the point. My main point, though, is that economics is not the end all be all, and does not have all the answers. Deep ecology seems to be light years ahead of environmental economics in terms of its guidance for our present situation.