CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF VALUES
And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.... Matthew 21:12
There is a growing sense of frustration and disgust bordering on holy outrage among scientists and citizens around the world as we witness the evident collapse of political leadership on matters of grave environmental concern. President Clinton's disappointing address to the "Earth Summit Plus Five" meeting at the U.N. in June of 1997 illustrates the crisis at hand, but the problem is not limited to an individual political figure nor even to the unrepentant consumerism of industrial countries like the United States.(1) The global collapse of environmental leadership is both deeper and more pervasive than this. It intrudes at the level of our language of analysis and our metaphors of perception.
Ultimately the environmental problems we face including everything from global warming to the relentless destruction of biodiversity stem from the fundamental mistake of enshrining metaphors of market valuation as the primary framework for formulating and legitimating public policy. Over the last several decades, much of our public discourse about the environment has been reduced to a series of catchy cliches and oft-repeated mantras suggesting in one way or another that nature is an economy, the ecosystem is a marketplace and that our relationship to it can and should be calculated in terms of cost-benefit analysis. With our money capital we are exhorted to invest in the environment as part of a prudent portfolio from which we are encouraged to think that, with proper management, we can obtain a continuous material flow of goods for our infinite gratification.
In this context, the value of biodiversity is extolled for its future market potential as a source of food, materials for our creature comforts, and drugs which may well some day hold the cure to cancer and other illnesses of civilization. As one might expect in an increasingly service-driven economy, we are being made more aware of the services that nature provides for us which would be very expensive if their true costs were to be calculated. In short, the magnificent richness and manifest wonder of biological diversity in creation has been abusively flattened and crudely crammed into the impoverished concepts of "market commodities" and "ecosystem services."
One of the most sophisticated and comprehensive attempts to assess the market value of ecosystem "goods and services" was recently published by the ecologist and economist Robert Costanza and his colleagues in the science magazine Nature on May 15, 1997. The article entitled "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital" has received world-wide attention through an Internet discussion group devoted to it. The thirteen economists and ecologists who compiled the analysis on the basis of reviewing many previous studies acknowledged the problems inherent in assigning market values to nature. These difficulties, however, did not forestall their bold attempt. As they put it, "although ecosystem valuation is certainly difficult and fraught with uncertainties, one choice we do not have is whether or not to do it."(2)
Clearly such a preemptive statement generates more disputes than it settles. It may well be true that economists felt they had no choice but to undertake a market valuation study in their role as professional economists. After all, what else should we expect economists to do? But what does such an exercise by one group of specialists imply about other forms of valuation? What about the valuations of political leaders, scientists, citizens or those who strive valiantly to protect biodiversity for its own sake? Must they -- must we -- all sign on unquestioningly to the economists's sophisticated commodification of the ecosystem? The implication of the article is, if you are rational, of course you must!
What is so revealing and disturbing about the logic throughout the article is the blithe assumption that because economists can make their valuations "explicit" therefore these valuations should somehow be acknowledged by society at large as the preeminent basis for determining public policy. The term "explicit" in this context appears to mean the ability to provide numerical estimates in the form of monetary values. All other forms of valuation by implication are not considered explicit. The precise wording of these economists is worth a close reading:(3)The last statement is, of course, true; indeed, it is a truism. All choice is predicated on valuation. No one can dispute this. But beneath this obvious truism the authors' further, unstated implication is that all forms of explicit valuation must necessarily take the form of monetary valuation. Otherwise they can be dismissed because they lack clarity and can lead to moral disputes. As we shall argue, this is patently absurd. Further, although the evidence which these economists marshal and the market metaphors which their article promotes are widely embraced by politicians, we will argue that this is precisely what is wrong with current environmental public policy....the decisions we make as a society about ecosystems imply valuations (although not necessarily expressed in monetary terms). We can choose to make these valuations explicit or not; we can do them with an explicit acknowledgement of the huge uncertainties involved or not; but as long as we are forced to make choices, we are going through the process of valuation.
In part the difficulty arises from the fact that there is a superficial element of truth in talking about aspects of nature with market metaphors. Beans and barley, pork-bellies and pigeons are regularly sold for cash in markets around the world. People as diverse as stock brokers, farmers, academics and zoo-keepers can attest to this simple fact. But the kernel of truth in the market metaphors is not the source of their extraordinary power. The power of these metaphors resides ultimately in the fact that they require no thought. They work instead on a subliminal level, and they therefore succeed in controlling our behavior by mobilizing primordial beliefs and automaton calculations rather than rational thought and considered judgment.
Social scientists and students of language have provided insightful analyses of just how this subtle process operates. In a notable linguistic study entitled Metaphors We Live By two university researchers have emphasized that metaphors are far more important than simple figures of speech.(4) Each metaphor, they point out, entails and provokes a whole series of reflexive reactions, associated images and unconscious mental processes which we automatically adopt when we choose to enter a given metaphorical framework. Thought is short circuited by symbol, and groups of symbols are linked to one another in wide networks of implicit images which channel, direct and sometimes even preclude thought.
In effect, metaphors come in packages, and the power they exercise in generating thought derives not from their truth claims but rather from their "extensibility" -- that is, their power to spawn an internally coherent, imaginary vocabulary to mirror certain aspects of the parallel, external world. The substantive connection between any given metaphor and the reality it purports to illumine may be very tenuous indeed. Indeed, given the selective and partial nature of any metaphor, associative imagery may obscure rather than clarify important aspects of reality. Such is the case when economic metaphors are used to describe ecological realities.
For example, a very important way that economic metaphors constrain our thinking about the environment is by defining what Noam Chomsky has called the range of "thinkable thought."(5) In democratically organized societies thought is not overtly censored. We are not forbidden to think about particular topics, but thought control manifests itself nonetheless in the far more subtle form of self-censorship. It is not what it is forbidden for us to think, but rather what it does not occur to us to think, that establishes the bounds of publicly acceptable thought in democratic society.
In this context, economic metaphors function to define the range of so-called "responsible" public thought. For instance, environmental goals which are widely acknowledged to be desirable and good but which are thought to be "expensive" are often characterized as "unrealistic." In this manner, a certain conception of "economic reality" is swiftly invoked to label specific kinds of thoughts or proposals about the environment as out-of-bounds ("unrealistic," "unreasonable," "irresponsible," "too idealistic," etc.) for public discussion. Whether or not the particular notion of "economic reality" involved corresponds to anything more than an extended fiction is never questioned because market metaphors have been accepted as the governing framework for responsible discourse.
Perhaps the most insidious feature of the pervasive use of economic metaphors in our environmental thinking takes the form of the subconscious question: "can we afford a sustainable environment?" Strictly speaking, of course, this is a meaningless question because all questions of worth are predicated upon the prior and continuing existence of a valuing agent. Thus, it would be logically and physically impossible to "afford" anything over time if the environment of the valuing agent proves fatal. The evident absurdity of the question, however, is not confronted within the mind set of the market mentality because the question itself is never overtly posed. It remains implicit. It lurks in the background, conditioning every decision we make and suggesting on a subliminal level that a viable ecosystem is now a "luxury" no longer available to the mass of humankind.
This subconscious scene implanted in the back of our minds launches a largely autonomous train of thought -- or more accurately, images, because all of these processes are engaged in our unconscious mind, well beyond the reach of rational analysis. The implication of the subliminal image is that if you are rich enough you can "buy" your way to a healthy environment. Yes, we may have a collective environmental problem, but the market can offer you a way out of the problem. You need not concern yourself with those who are left out of this process because market metaphors encourage you to focus only on your role as an autonomous consumer. The "magic of the market," so it is argued, is that the system as a whole works best if everybody concerns him/herself only with maximizing their own self-interest. The market is portrayed as "natural" and equitable in its impartial and impersonal operation. Where market logic is supreme we are taught to believe that it is both possible and desirable to buy a private solution to a collective environmental problem.
Objectively, of course, this is impossible on a large scale or in the long run. Society cannot solve a collective problem simply by multiplying private solutions that try to opt out of that problem. All this accomplishes is to generate the collective problem on yet a larger scale. Nevertheless, from within the internally coherent fantasy world of market metaphors, there is no vantage point from which individuals can see that the private solution is a delusion. Indeed, as consumers we are urged to think that the market alternatives are the only solutions available. Alternate identities that we hold as parents, members of faith communities, volunteers, community members and global citizens, etc. are simply wiped away as we are taught that the only legitimate goal of public policy is to protect the "rights of the consumer." Even the much vaunted defense of the taxpayer on the part of politicians who say they will reduce taxes is publicly justified in order to provide citizens with more money to spend as consumers in the open market. The role of citizen-consumer is so thoroughly conflated in public discourse that we are made to feel that "buying American" or simply buying anything at all is a patriotic act to keep the economy growing.
Market commentators encourage us to think that self-interest, greed and unbridled competition are an expression of the natural order of things -- the only order that has ever existed or could ever possibly exist in the "real world." We live in a world, they assure us, characterized by "the survival-of-the-fittest," by which they seem to mean "survival of the fattest."
Of course, no one would be foolish enough to deny that human affairs can be characterized at times by the attributes self-interest, greed and competition. Still, the question remains: why should this narrow range of human attributes be selected as the cornerstone of public life? Alternative and more powerful human values like compassion, empathy, kindness, discipline, honesty, generosity, loyalty, integrity, bravery, a sense of fairness, a sense of belonging, a capacity for self-transcendence and selfless service, and a need to search for meaning and affirm belief all characterize the human experience at least as well as greed or selfishness. But this rich panoply of human values are summarily dismissed by market ideologues when it comes to devising or legitimating public policy.
Such is the worldview of the economic reductionist. By rejecting these universal attributes of the human condition as "unrealistic" market enthusiasts (economists and politicians alike) lend credence to the ground swell of public sentiment that our leadership has lost all sense of value. While overt acts of graft and corruption grab the headlines from time to time, there is a much more subtle and pervasive corruption of perspective which has taken hold of all public leadership. By giving unquestioned priority to market metaphors our leadership has narrowed its vision to such an extent that they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
The natural order of the world and our role within it is affirmed by market enthusiasts and politicians alike to be an inevitable manifestation of the ongoing logic of an economy of unending, capitalist accumulation. In recent electoral history, politicians took pride in mouthing the simple syllogism, "it's the economy, stupid!" -- as if the only significant role of political leadership was to "grow the economy." Whether we like it or not -- whether we fully know it or not -- this entire worldview is subconsciously enlisted whenever we surrender to the use of market metaphors in devising public policy.
It is no wonder that in this framework it is impossible to formulate effective environmental policy to protect biodiversity. Such a worldview arbitrarily restricts the notion of what is possible to what is profitable. Market metaphors truncate the range of policy options open to environmental leaders, and the vocabulary and images these metaphors generate completely fail to capture what we humans value most about our rich and complex world of everyday human experience.
The insidious thought control exercised by market metaphors in the public discourse needs to be squarely confronted and firmly rejected. Only by stepping outside the make-believe world of these market metaphors is it possible to see why they mystify rather than clarify our environmental circumstance.
Essentially, market metaphors are based on a logical fallacy that projects a fundamental falsification of reality. Despite frequent appeals to the "real world," market advocates live in a self-contained world of abstract modeling, statistical fantasies and paper currency that serves as a proxy measure of wealth. In fact, the real world is quite a different place, consisting of the physical parameters of all life forms that can be measured in terms of meters from sea-level, metric tons of gas emissions and degrees of temperature variation. The human economy needs to be understood as a subset of this physical ecosystem and not the other way around. Environmental policy based on an inverted representation of reality cannot help but fail in the long run.
It is for this reason that economism -- the belief that principles of market economics can and should always be used to resolve environmental public policy dilemmas -- represents such a palpable failure of political leadership. Further, the attempt to substitute economism for meaningful public policy constitutes a blatant abdication of the public trust.
This tragic abdication of the public trust through the relentless pursuit of economism has fueled the current righteous indignation of global citizens sensitive to the environment and concerned about the prospect of human survival. Politicians under the spell of economism fail to grasp what growing numbers of decent citizens sense and seek to affirm from a very deep level of conviction, and that is simply this: biodiversity must be saved for its intrinsic, expressive, and relational value -- not simply for the momentary advantage it may yield in some economist's cost-benefit calculations.
If global policy makers do not free themselves from the trap of market mantras, their claim to leadership will be seen to be vacuous and illegitimate in the long run. This will be so because misplaced market metaphors cannot help but prove fatal in mediating human relationships with the environment. Taken together they have the power to drive industrial civilization into the sad syndrome of "overshoot-and-collapse" so often characteristic of failed economies of accumulation throughout human history. Unless radically different forms of valuation can be rediscovered, unless public leaders can learn to embrace and articulate them, and unless these leaders can then proceed to formulate effective public policy based on these new values to change collective human behavior, we will witness the demise of industrial society as the unavoidable outcome of "business as usual."
In short, public leadership needs now to define, declare and defend the public good in terms that transcend private self-interest. There are no doubt connections between the public good and private gain, but to justify the former exclusively in terms of the latter is a fundamental mistake of moral reasoning. Without political leadership that can understand this fundamental difference and learn to defend the public good in its own right, industrial civilization will become irretrievably consumed in a scramble for private profit and personal advantage in a dismal world of diminishing resources.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, expressed this fear with a rivetting sense of urgency in his opening remarks at the Earth Summit Plus Five conference in New York.(6)In past epochs individual religious and spiritual figures emerged to warn society of this kind of impending doom. Prophets of old inveighed against gluttonous consumption based on inequity and iniquity, and they warned societies of the physical consequences of failing to mend their ways. Perhaps more importantly, they served to remind societies of the natural order of the created world and the proper place for humankind within it. Amos, Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed of Medina all arose in the ancient near east with strikingly parallel messages in this regard. Jews, Christians and Muslims to this day retain scriptural traditions which remind them that the earth does not ultimately belong to humans, nor will their mistreatment of the earth or their fellow creatures go unpunished.Failure to act now could damage our planet irreversibly, unleashing a spiral of increased hunger, deprivation, disease and squalor. Ultimately, we could face the destabilising effects of conflict over vital natural resources....We must not fail.
In these religious traditions arrogant, self-centered behavior with regard to the created order is thought to be morally wrong, however expedient or profitable it may prove to be for individuals in the short run. We are not fully informed by the preserved text, but one suspects that selling pigeons in the temple prompted a sense of moral indignation on the part of Jesus of Nazareth, not because the prices were a bit too high. Rather such activity inspired moral outrage because selling pigeons in the temple involved a fundamental confusion of the market place with sacred space.
It is -- perhaps not surprisingly -- the scientists who speak with the prophetic voice of conviction in our day. Physicists like Nobel Laureate Henry Kendall, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson and renowned "public" scientists like the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau now provide us with the clarion call to awareness and action that parallels the prophetic message of old. In a document entitled World Scientists' Warning to Humanity the Union of Concerned Scientists representing more than one hundred Nobel laureates put the message quite plainly:(7)It is hard to image a more thorough embodiment of the ancient prophetic tradition. Nevertheless, economists and politicians -- the scribes and Pharisees of our day -- do not yet seem to have understood the point. It is not that their prices are inaccurate -- goodness knows we have some of the world's most clever economists and accountants devoted to the task of assigning nature its cash value. We cannot expect much better on this score. But the issue before us is more fundamental than this. The essential problem is that to approach the issue of biodiversity as if it were an exercise in global bean-counting is fundamentally wrongheaded.Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
It is wrong because it mistakes price for value, proffering market valuations as a proxy surrogate for a meaningful discussion of values. In such a constricted framework there can never be a purposeful debate -- only a mindless, mechanical and endless set of calculations. Given the two-year time frame of the electoral cycle and the pressures to craft policy to please rich and influential interest groups, there are powerful and evident reasons why politicians may well wish to avoid meaningful discussions about values and the environment. In this sense, the alliance between economists and politicians is a marriage of considerable convenience for both partners, but it must be made clear to each of them that this is not acceptable as a mode of public leadership.
On this point, scientists and spiritual leaders agree, and it is for this reason that they have joined forces in such impressive numbers to express themselves in terms of the moral obligations facing the human community. The Union of Concerned Scientists has joined with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment to reiterate the prophetic message in churches, temples and mosques across the country and around the world. In a similar vein, research scientists at Harvard have provided strong support for the activities of the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values convened by the University's Committee on Environment and the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life in order specifically to explore the full range of valuation -- not just economic costs -- which can be drawn upon in developing public policy to protect the environment and biodiversity.
The message from spiritual leaders and research scientists alike is as clear as it is forceful: we did not create the world; we cannot control it; we must not destroy it. More precisely: we must not commodify and merchandise biodiversity merely because in the short run it may appear profitable for us to do so. Convinced that we know the price of everything we will soon have lost the ability to value anything that is priceless. The capacity to value some things and human experiences beyond all measure of worldly worth and to esteem them without any thought of their exchange value or sale is surely one of the most cherished attributes that makes us human. To forget this or deny it is to disavow our humanity, and down that road lies our swift and certain extinction. The capacity to appreciate intrinsic value is not a quality of humanity that it would be wise to denigrate, dismiss or eliminate in formulating environmental public policy. On the contrary, it may well constitute our last, best hope for survival as a species.
In these desperate circumstances scientists and religious leaders are called upon to speak truth to power. Instead of merely mouthing the mantra "it's the economy, stupid!" we must muster the courage to state with all the force and conviction of the prophets of old, "No, it's the ecology, sir!" Without insulting anyone's intelligence we must be clear that what is needed now from public leadership is an entire change in the relevant frame of reference. In short, we must strive to convince humanity and our political leadership through a combination of effective public policy and moral suasion that if we wish to survive as a species we must learn to live sustainably as global citizens within the parameters of the natural world. For those from religious traditions who consider the created order to be a manifestation of the sacred and for those research scientists who consider nature to be the rich and wondrous outcome of a four billion year evolutionary experiment, the current attempt to commodify nature's biodiversity in monetary prices to be assigned in today's transitory and fluctuating currencies is silly beyond all belief.
If the intent of this exercise is further to develop some form of pseudo-calculation of the economic trade-offs based on concepts of "withdrawal rights," "pollution permits" and other similar fictions designed to maximize human benefit from the ecosystem, the attempt is both scientifically misguided and morally bankrupt. It is important to emphasize that the issue is not that the work of Robert Constanza and his colleagues is meaningless. Far from it. In its own sphere it stands out as the most comprehensive and serious calculation we currently have, and it is hoped that it will spawn many more detailed studies that can inform public policy. The difficulty, however, is that such studies need to serve as a preface to a newly initiated discussion of environmental values and not as a substitute for one. Economic valuations should help to introduce a public debate, not foreclose it.
Unfortunately with the current mind set of public leadership this much-needed public debate rarely gets off the ground. All too often politicians side-step a meaningful public discussion of environmental values, grasping on to the logic of economism as a fig leaf to cover the naked self-interest of well funded groups or individual supporters that lend them financial backing. Political leadership should not be available for purchase in this manner, and the right to environmental survival should not be for sale at all.
Moreover, economists should know better than to let their work on prices be mistaken for a discussion of values. It is not economics that is at fault but rather economism -- that is, the overwhelming tendency to frame disputes of principle in public policy primarily in terms of a calculation of comparative momentary costs. Professional economists should be among the first to point out the profound peril of this fallacy. Just as nuclear engineers have been in the forefront of warning about the danger to all humankind of misusing nuclear materials, so too economists should be in the forefront of those warning about the misuse of their calculations in forming public policy.
With the notable exceptions of Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly few economists have been willing to engage in a meaningful public discussion of environmental values beyond questions of market pricing.(8) One senses that professional economists are ill at ease in this realm; and since they have no special claim on expertise in these broader discussions, they prefer to remain silent. If nuclear engineers had pursued that same path of least resistance and lacked the courage and character to establish such important organizations of public responsibility as the Union of Concerned Scientists, there may well not have been much of creation left to talk about valuing in our day. It is perhaps time for responsible economic analysts to muster a similar courage to organize a structurally equivalent Union of Concerned Economists.
In the absence of such a movement, scientists and citizens must make it clear to politicians and their economic advisors that economism represents a fundamental collapse of environmental leadership and a serious breach of the public trust. As research scientists have reiterated time and again, this type of thinking involves a profound confusion of the appropriate time scale and frame of reference needed in providing for human survival in the ecosystem. It is categorically wrong to confuse the fruits of evolutionary time with the annual calculations of gross domestic product, national budgets or quarterly profit statements. For those with religious grounding -- including many scientists, politicians and economists -- there is a more elemental confusion of metaphors at work here. For them, life is to be celebrated not sold. Exchanging, selling, calculating trade-offs or otherwise commoditizing biodiversity in the global sanctuary of creation simply to maximize immediate human gain represents the primordial blasphemy of confusing sacred space with the market place. Spiritual leaders and prophetic figures from all the world's religious traditions have warned against this form of idolatry since the beginning of recorded history. It amounts to nothing less than selling pigeons in the temple.
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Notes1) The New York Times, June 27, 1997, A11. [return to text]
2) Robert Costanza, et. al., "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital" Nature, 15 May 1997.[return to text]
3) Ibid.[return to text]
4) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). [return to text]
5) Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent : The Political Economy of the Mass Media , (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988). Also, Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, (Boston, South End Press, 1989), p. 48. [return to text]
6) "ENVIRONMENT-U.N.:Leaders find Little Progress," IPS (Inter-Press Service), 24 June 1997, 20:14 ped. [return to text]
7) Union of Concerned Scientists, World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, (Cambridge, UCS, 1992), "Introduction." In 1992, 1,700 scientists, including over 100 Nobel laureates, issued The World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, describing the growing threats to global life-support systems and urging corrective action. [return to text]
8) As a committed Quaker, Kenneth Boulding was one of the first modern economists to examine in depth the ethical implications of the limits that ecosystems impose upon the human economy. See particularly Kenneth E. Boulding and Henry Jarrett, Henry Environmental quality in a growing economy; essays from the sixth RFF Forum, by Kenneth E. Boulding, ([Baltimore] Hopkins ), and his Beyond economics : essays on society, religion, and ethics, (Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1970); and Kenneth E. Boulding; Michael G. Kammen and Seymour Martin Lipset, From abundance to scarcity : implications for the American tradition, (Columbus : Ohio State University Press, 1978). See also, Towards a new economics : critical essays on ecology, distribution, and other themes, (Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt., USA : Edward Elgar, 1992). For a published listing of Boulding's works see, Bibliography of Published Works by Kenneth E. Boulding, published by the University of Colorado Press in 1985. An on-line listing of his works is available under the a special set of Web pages dedicated to his work entitled, Kenneth E. Boulding, 1910-1993.
Herman Daly has devoted his work for more than a quarter of a century to emphasizing that the human economy is a subset of the larger ecosystem. His initial work focused on establishing "steady state economics," and in subsequent works he drew attention to the ethical and values questions embedded in economic choices. See the edited volume of papers entitled, Valuing the earth : economics, ecology, ethics, (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1993), and his jointly authored volume with theologian John Cobb, For the common good : redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). For a list of Herman Daly's major works see: Timothy C. Weiskel, "A Source List of Major Works by Herman Daly," Subject Bibliographies in Environmental Ethics, No. 6 , (14 July 1997). [return to text]