Anthropocentrism and Nature Conservation

In the environmental debate the claim can be often heard that granting nature intrinsic value would solve our problems – in other words, the difficulties we have with protecting nature are due to our overly human-centred perspective. Instead of invoking anthropocentrism one should, so the argument goes, move towards some sort of physiocentrism, i.e., grant some non-human entities intrinsic value. According to this view, anthropocentrism necessarily leads to destruction of the natural world. It is pathocentrism or biocentrism or ecocentrism or holism that would “save the world”. I already once showed that anthropocentrism is not as bad as claimed by those self-proclaimed physiocentrists. Today I would like to go further and show that meaningful conservation of nature is not compatible with physiocentrism – i.e., physiocentrism cannot consistently justify attempts to protect the natural world. Continue reading

In Defence of Neobiota

As essentially an anthropocentrist I am entirely comfortable with the notions of useful and harmful species (which correspond with ecosystem services and disservices, respectively). However, I fiercely oppose the notion of “(invasive) alien” species, which is quite popular in the conservation discourse. Notwithstanding its obvious popularity, I think that it is flawed in being xenophobic and arbitrary. Continue reading

What’s So Good About Biodiversity?

Sometimes, there are books you wish you wouldn’t have read. Mostly, these are bad books. Recently, I read a quite good book that I nevertheless first wished had escaped my attention. It’s Donald S. Maier’s What’s So Good About Biodiversity: A Call for Better Reasoning About Nature’s Value. It’s shaken up my view of why biodiversity is valuable (although not as much as initially thought). As I had to think a lot about Maier’s provocative and very polemic argumentation, for it has posed a challenge to the core of my PhD thesis, I would like to attempt a “self-therapeutic” review of his book’s first part, in which he attacks the status of biodiversity as carrier of nature’s value (I haven’t yet read his exposition of an own account why nature is valuable). Continue reading

In Defence of Anthropocentrism

In the environmental debate, economics is oftentimes criticised for being explicitly anthropocentric, which means, among other things, that it ignores any intrinsic values non-human entities might have. The last time I wrote about this subject, I defended an anthropocentric perspective for rather pragmatic reasons. This time, I would like to offer an ethical defence of it. Continue reading

The Economic Value of a Statistical Life

A human life is worth $4 million to $9 million. At least according to an authoritative meta-analysis of economic studies that estimate the so-called “value of a statistical life”. This is one of the most controversial issues in modern economics, which has met with vast criticism. Particularly, it has been argued that one cannot attach a price-tag to the life of a human being. In what follows, I would like to argue that a) this criticism is largely based on a misconception of the estimates; b) economists can only blame themselves that the misconception actually arised; and c) the calculation of the value of a statistical life is not sensible, albeit for reasons different from the ethical ones that are commonly used to argue against it. Continue reading

Putting a Price on Nature’s Beauty

In a recent Guardian piece George Monbiot was quite hard on my profession–or rather, on the issue of how politicians use the ideas behind the concept of economic valuation of ecosystems:

As Ronald Reagan remarked, when contemplating the destruction of California’s giant redwoods, “a tree is a tree”. Who, for that matter, would care if the old masters in the National Gallery were replaced by the prints being sold in its shop? In swapping our ancient places for generic clusters of chainstores and generic lines of saplings, the offsetters would also destroy our stories.

While I do not think that economic valuation is useless, an important question implicitly posed by Monbiot is: even if economists know what they’re doing and where the limits of their work are, is it justified to expect that politicians do? To price or not to price: That is the question…

On highly connected but dysfunctional academics (or The downsides of networking)

Very interesting perspective on scientific networking. Since I see the problems my supervisor has to find time for truly scientific work, I cannot but agree with Joern Fischer’s message.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

As researchers, we live in a highly connected world. Many colleagues work on things that are related somehow to what we do. Conventional wisdom has it that we ought to keep up with Table of Contents, with conferences, and with funding calls, so that we know what’s going on elsewhere. Moreover, early career researchers are told frequently about the importance of “networking”. You’ve got to know who-is-who and who-does-what to effectively position yourself for a research career. To be part of the next “big thing”, you have to be known to those people centrally involved in that “big thing” (e.g. a new funding call, or some other kind of research collaboration).

Through this kind of logic, powerful research networks have formed around many issues. So, for example, there are scholars interested in “resilience stuff”, others interested in “pollination stuff”, others interested in “Amazon stuff”, and yet others…

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Public Debt and Intergenerational Justice

In order to guarantee intergenerational justice to prevail, we as a society should “keep” a certain amount of accumulated debt and pass it on to future generations.

This sounds rather counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? In public debate debt of whatever kind, but public debt especially, is mostly seen as something bad and running counter the ideal of intergenerational justice. In a recent discussion I took part in, however, this counter-intuitive argument has been made by one of my colleagues (whom I esteem for his ethical and scientific intuitions). I initially had rejected it, but after thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that he might be right. Let me explain why. Continue reading

Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

Most people in the world would probably agree that sustainability is a good idea. We would probably not agree as easily on what sustainability is. And it is highly improbable that we would agree on who is responsible for achieving sustainability. Is it us consumers in rich countries? Or rather the governments in poor countries? Or is it the UN? Or maybe transnational corporations? Can this broadly put question be sensibly answered at all, or should we rather discriminate between different aspects of sustainability – by which we return to the question of what sustainability is? In what follows I would like to offer some possible answers to these questions. Continue reading

Getting Prices Right vs. Getting Morals Right

One major justification of my work on the economic valuation of ecosystems is that we need to “get the prices right”. Economists think that factoring the value of ecosystem services into the prices of goods and services traded in markets is one important way of creating incentives to use these ecosystems sustainably. Opponents of the economic approach, however, fear the resulting “commodification of Nature”. Instead, the Douglas McCauleys and Mark Sagoffs of this world suggest that, instead of getting the prices right, we should attempt at getting morals right. In their view, this is the right approach to end the ongoing destruction of Nature, rather than the harmful valuation exercises conducted by economists. Continue reading

The Northern Lifestyles Problem or On Arrogance and Hypocrisy

There is a frequently recurring theme in the discussions about global environmental problems. It starts with the observation that we, the so-called “West” or “global North”, have overused global resources and sinks badly, be it reserves of minerals and metals (rare earths, oil, phosphorus…), the atmosphere or the oceans. Part of the problem seems to be our common modes of consumption. All too often, the destruction of nature does not take place in our own neighbourhoods, but in the so-called “global South”, where many of our resources come from and where many sinks tend to be located (or where the overuse of the latter is most visible – vide climate change). But the problem of the near future is often perceived not to be us, not only us at least, but the societies of the so-called emerging economies – particularly China and India, but also South Africa, Brazil, Argentina or many countries in South-East Asia. Continue reading

Mark Sagoff’s Schizophrenia

I am currently reading The Economy of the Earth by the US-American philosopher Mark Sagoff, one of the more influential critiques of the economic approach to preservation of nature based on its valuation. There is a lot of things in Sagoff’s book I don’t agree with, including a few false analogies, sadly common feature in the economic valuation debate. What has stricken me the most, however, is how Sagoff supports the frequent criticism that economic valuation of environmental public goods conflates the consumer and the citizen – he does it by invoking schizophrenia. Continue reading

Is Some Number Assigned to Nature Better Than No Number?

Imagine the following situation: a 6-year old approaches you holding in his hands a picture – he drew a dolphin. Then you see a number above the dolphin, with an €-sign at its end, and the child tells you that the dolphin costs this amount of money. When you ask him, however: Where does the number come from? Who is to pay this to whom? And what is the expected result of the transaction?, he knows no answer.  This situation is not so much dissimilar from what sometimes happens when economists attempt to assign a value to ecosystems. Continue reading

Entitlements: Why Income-Based Measures of Poverty Are Not Enough

In this blog, I repeatedly criticized the use of income-based indicators of well-being in rich countries. Probably the most important reason why their use is inappropriate is the so-called Easterlin paradox, viz. the fact that people seem not to become happier as they become richer in absolute terms (above a certain threshold level). In measuring the well-being of poor people or societies, income seems to be of much more merit. However, here also there are reasons to be sceptical. One of the main problems has been identified by Amartya Sen, who stressed that income (or, more generally, command over commodities) alone does not generate well-being if the individual in question lacks entitlements. Continue reading

For Nature’s Sake

The protection of Nature is, among other things, an ethical problem. Ethics plays an at least equal role as the other components – technology, economics, politics, sociology, psychology. Particularly so, since it is clear that the environmental protection comes at a cost. We cannot have it for free. Indeed, every serious attempt to stabilize the climate, to change the conditions of farm livestock or to protect the Earth’s scarce resources, should be expected to be painful for us humans. The more every call for action needs a clear ethical foundation. Why should we emit less greenhouse gases? Why should we abstain from the consumption of industrial meat? Or become vegetarians? Maybe even vegans? Should we do that because we grant other people rights – possibly also those who are not born yet? Or does Nature, at least parts of it, also an intrinsic value, independently of what we humans consider useful? These are questions in need of clarification before we talk about concrete measures. They determine which measures are needed and which are redundant or even excessive. Continue reading

Is Happiness a Good Indicator of Quality of Life?

In 1972 the King of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan introduced a fairly new and unconventional concept of social and economic progress measurement – Gross National Happiness. It is a symbol and a manifestation of the ever more widespread belief that GDP and its derivatives (GNP, GDI, GNI etc.) don’t provide what was long thought they do – an imperfect but nevertheless sensible proxy for a nation’s well-being. However, this raises the question: is happiness a better measure. There are reasons to believe that it is not. Continue reading

Justice in a Plural World

There is much talk about justice in the media. It has become a very popular word. And rightly so. In today’s world justice is very important – be it in the area of politics, economy or, increasingly, ecology. But what exactly is justice? Whom do we owe justice? And who are the “we”? What is the source of justice? What are its consequences? Is there something like the often invoked global justice? And if yes, what is its foundation (or: do we need a global government?)? What do democracy or human rights mean for justice? All these questions have been answered in many different ways by many different thinkers throughout history. One of those thinkers – a contemporary one – is Amartya Sen. His is the theory of justice I would like to present here (as it is discussed in his The Idea of Justice). Continue reading

Jeffrey Sachs on Economic Growth and Happiness

[H]appiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies. As individuals, we are unhappy if we are denied our basic material needs, but we are also unhappy if the pursuit of higher incomes replaces our focus on family, friends, community, compassion, and maintaining internal balance. As a society, it is one thing to organize economic policies to keep living standards on the rise, but quite another to subordinate all of society’s values to the pursuit of profit. [more]

Climate Change and Burden Sharing

Perhaps the most controversially debated issue in climate negotiation is the question of burden sharing. According to the 1992 UNFCCC, the challenge of tackling anthropogenic climate change requires “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. This by itself is politically and ethically hardly a controversy. But, as always, the devil lies in details. What does this important principle exactly mean? How are we to define “responsibility” and “capability”? And what does follow? Many approaches have been proposed. A fairly appealing one is called the Greenhouse Development Rights and was proposed by Paul Baer, Tom Athanasiou and Sivan Kartha. Continue reading