Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Value of Ecosystems

I woke up this morning to three excellent questions from the studio audience on three fundamental ethical concerns; the value of ecosystems, potential desires, and the relationship between beliefs and desires.

I want to devote a post to each of these in turn.

Sheldon asked the first of these three questions.

I find it interesting that you seem to focus on the word "property" in this post [on the evil of the global warming denial campaign]. Mentioning it at least five times. The focus on the destruction of property is given emphasis to the detriment of what I would think are more important phrases and concerns, such as "the degradation of the worlds ecosystems". Implicit in your choice of words is the idea that it is the damage to the (private) property of others instead of damage to the commons that is the greatest crime. Property after all is only is really temporary.

A boring part of my answer is that my word choice is a strategic choice based on my preferred audience. I do not wish to ‘preach to the converted’. Instead, I wish to focus on arguments that addresses the concerns of the unconverted. In this case, the unconverted tend to express their objections to being concerned about global warming in economic terms – fighting global warming would be economically destructive. Against this, the prospect of tens of trillions of dollars in economic destruction is a direct and relevant response.

I could talk about the destruction of ecosystems. However, since those who are concerned with that destruction already tend to recognize the problems with global warming, I would not be saying anything they do not already know.

However, this question does extend an invitation to talk about the value of ecosystems. What makes the destruction of an ecosystem a bad thing? Why, and to what degree, should we be concerned.

Ecosystems and Intrinsic Value

To start with, intrinsic values do not exist. Therefore, any claim that an ecosystem has intrinsic value is a false claim. Intrinsic values, since they do not exist, do not provide any real-world reasons for action.

The only value that an ecosystem can have is the only type of value anything in the real world can have – the value that exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. To the degree that there are desires that P (for some proposition P), and P is true in a given ecosystem, or Q is true in a given ecosystem and Q logically or materially implies P, then that ecosystem has value.

The value, for example of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana (a roadless wilderness about the size of the state of Rhode Island) rests in the fact that there are people who desire that such a wilderness exist, or the wilderness brings about other states that tend to fulfill desires.

There are some environmentalists who will not like this answer. They are very fond of the idea that ecosystems have intrinsic value, and anything that damages ecosystems is ‘just wrong’. However, a desire that ecosystems have intrinsic value cannot make it true that they have intrinsic value, any more than a desire for life after death can make it true that there is life after death.

Intrinsic values simply do not exist, and wishing this were not so does not change the fact.

I have spoken recently about how false beliefs interfere with the fulfillment of desires, and that religion is not the only source of false beliefs. A belief that certain states have intrinsic merit is one of those beliefs that an atheist can have which is still false, and which can do as much harm as any religion. A person can be convinced to do just as much harm to his neighbor in the name of the intrinsic merit of some state of affairs just as easily as he can be convinced to do harm to his neighbors in the name of some god.

Desires and the Value of Ecosystems

However, the desire that some people have that certain ecosystems exist is a real desire and, like all real desires, they generate real value. The killing of an ecosystem (to those who value that ecosystem) is not metaphysically different than the killing of an individual to those who value the continued existence of that individual. In both cases, the badness is found in the thwarting of desires (or, in desires that tend to thwart other desires).

Furthermore, the value that people find in ecosystems cannot be protected in the marketplace, at least under current rules. There is a tremendous free-rider problem. If Group A invests a huge sum of money to protect an ecosystem, Person B still gets the benefit of having is desire fulfilled (his desire that the ecosystem be preserved) even though he has not contributed a dime to its preservation. Because of these free-rider problems, the preservation of ecosystems will be underfunded in the marketplace. This argues for the government to take action to fund or otherwise provide for the preservation of ecosystems to a degree that corrects for this free rider problem.

The Value of the Desire to Preserve Ecosystems

Now, the desire utilitarian will take this one step further and ask about the value of the desire that ecosystems be preserved. Is this a good desire – a desire that tends to fulfill other desires? If so, then it is a desire that ‘others’ have reason to promote using social tools such as praise (for those who exhibit this desire) and condemnation (for those who do not). Or is this a bad desire (a desire that tends to thwart other desires)? If it is, then ‘others’ have reason to inhibit this desire through the use of the same social forces. Or is it a neutral desire – a desire that people generally have no reason to promote or inhibit?

One would need to take a thorough look at empirical research to answer this question. I think that there is reason to believe that the desire to preserve and protect ecosystems will tend to fulfill other desires.

Easter Island provides us an example of the costs that can be associated with the lack of a desire to preserve and protect ecosystems. Apparently, when humans occupied the island, it was filled with trees and forest and life capable of sustaining the humans who landed there. However, they destroyed the forests, which weakened the island’s capacity to sustain life. It would have been advisable for these people to have had an aversion to making significant changes to their environment.

For a more general example, I work in a company that is heavily dependent on our computer system. We have a production environment. This is where we live and breathe, where we do our real work. Plus, we have a development environment. We have rules, including a rule against making any significant changes to the production environment without testing the changes first in the development environment so as to predict the consequences – and never make significant changes to the production environment without a rollback plan.

This is because any significant change to the production system runs a risk of crashing the whole system – which would be catastrophic to the company and to everybody who works there (at least insofar as they value their paycheck).

The Earth is our production system. We have no backup. It is a particularly vulnerable production system since we have no backup. We can’t just reboot the servers and start over. We can’t even build a new server from scratch and reload everything from backup. We are living in a system where, if it crashes, we are going to pay a very heavy price. So, it would seem, preventing the possibility of a crash should be extremely important. The way you protect a system from crashing is to be very conservative when it comes to introducing changes to the system – to make no changes to the production system that have not been thoroughly tested and understood.

In the case of the earth (and all life on it) this argues in favor of a desire to preserve ecosystems. The lack of an desire to preserve ecosystems suggests a form of recklessness that puts the whole human race at risk. Even if it does not kill us, it runs the risk of bringing down enough of the system to do significant harm. These are consequences that people have reason to avoid (whether they realize it or not). These are consequences that people can avoid by promoting an overall desire that ecosystems be preserved.

So, even though ecosystems have no intrinsic value, there is at least some reason to believe that the desire to preserve ecosystems has tremendous extrinsic value. Its absence will likely cause us and, even more so, future generations, a great deal of harm.

I sincerely hope that somebody can deliver this message to the people of China, who seem to have no concern at all for ecosystems, and sometimes appear to believe that they can do whatever they please to our production environment without risking any adverse consequences. I have a genuine suspicion that future generations around the world will turn to China and the United States and say, “I told you so.” But by then it may be too late.

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