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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Towards a New Ethics of Nature"

Paul Collier says opposition to the plunder of natural resources is often based upon romantic environmentalism or self-denying utilitarianism. But these ethical structures do not provide the "simple common ethics of nature" that is needed to motivate collective worldwide action to stop this plunder from occurring. Instead, he says, we should adopt an ethical principle common among most societies, one that says our obligation to the future is "to pass on equivalent value for the natural assets we deplete":

Towards a new ethics of nature, by Paul Collier, Commentary, Financial Times: Natural assets are valuable and they are vulnerable. The current frontier for their exploitation is the quarter of the earth’s land surface home to the bottom billion: hence the new scramble for Africa..., but much of it is weakly governed. Advances in technology will open up those natural assets beneath the oceans and the poles... The governance of these huge areas is even weaker.
Ungoverned natural assets are subject to plunder... Plunder can only be avoided by robust collective action..., ultimately it can only rest on a common understanding by citizens, society by society. ...
 In popular debate the high moral ground has been seized by romantic environmentalists who define our ethical obligation as preservation. Even in the west this can never be more than a minority view. Meanwhile, in the more rarefied technocratic debate, the high ground has been occupied by economic models. The models judge choices about the future by an austere utilitarianism in which future people, however remote, count for just as much as we do. ...
[A] more practical common ethics of nature, around which majorities could mobilize, is latent in most societies. ... Economists should be bringing the insight that natural assets matter not because of their intrinsic purity, but because they are valuable. Our obligation to the future is not to preserve purity but to pass on equivalent value for the natural assets we deplete. If, by converting natural assets into more productive assets, a poor society can escape poverty, then it should do so. ... In an impoverished society, the future will prefer to inherit schools and cities rather than to remain in impoverished purity.
This simple ethical test of whether we are infringing the rights of the future is much closer to how we see our obligations than either utilitarianism or romantic environmentalism. Respecting the rights of the future is manifestly more compelling than basing decisions on the esoteric sanctity of the infinite-horizon utilitarian calculus. Recognizing that the future may want us to use nature rather than preserve it distinguishes humane environmentalists from romantics: we are the custodians of value, not the curators of artifacts. ...

Whereas the ethics of romantic environmentalism and self-denying utilitarianism are both eccentric, the idea that natural assets oblige us to be custodians of value is common to widely differing cultures. ... The struggle to prevent the plunder of nature will be fought mainly in the societies of the bottom billion, which control the current frontier, and in the international conference halls that must regulate the future frontier. Neither is a promising venue. Rallying around a simple common ethics of nature would improve the chances.

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 01:53 AM in Economics, Environment, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (20)


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