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Environmental Ethics as a Policy Primer
by Leslie Paul Thiele



This article constructs a conceptual and normative framework for policy-oriented discussions of environmental uncertainty and risk. Human-caused environmental risks are unavoidable in a technologically and economically advanced society. Contemporary environmentalists deploy ecological and ethical axios to structure the debate over environmental uncertainty and risk management. They adopt the "imperative of sustainability" and the "precautionary principle" as the foci of an ethical and ecological effort to evaluate and limit environmental risk. The policy implications of these axioms for those engaged in environmental risk and cost/benefit analysis are explored.


This article addresses the ethical dimension of managing human-caused (anthropogenic) environmental risks that are not knowingly or willingly assumed by individuals. Environmental risk might be defined as a statistically circumscribed uncertainty pertaining to an adverse outcome emanating from the environment. The normative question that I attempt to answer is how should we evaluate and limit the involuntary, anthropogenic environmental uncertainties that potentially threaten the health and welfare of humans or other species.

Many of the anthropogenic environmental risks that people face are voluntarily assumed. One increases the probability of death from lung cancer by 1 in a million for every 1.4 cigarettes that one smokes (Wilson, 1990, P. 57). This risky activity is freely chosen (at least before addiction develops), and the nature or level of the risk involved is relatively well known. The risk, moreover, could easily be avoided. Getting struck by lightning, in contrast, is largely an involuntary environmental risk. Lightning strikes and other "acts of God" are also not anthropogenic. With the onset of global warming, however, the intensity of adverse weather patterns (and the accompanying floods, droughts, tornadoes, or hurricanes) may be heightened owing to human activities. Indeed, many of the involuntary environmental risks we face today are exacerbated if not caused by humans. These anthropogenic risks are generated by the things we do to the environment--actions that come back to haunt us. Pollution-induced diseases ar e prime examples of such involuntary, anthropogenic environmental risks.


Risk in life cannot be escaped, only limited. We readily accept certain anthropogenic environmental risks, as, for instance, when we enter into the acrid chambers of a designated smoking room. Others, such as heightened exposure to ultraviolet radiation that results from a depleted ozone layer, intrude upon our lives without our permission. This article addresses the ethical issues that arise for policymakers who must determine the kind and extent of anthropogenic environmental risk that the public involuntarily faces.



As a means of addressing this problem, I explore how contemporary environmentalists invoke ecological laws to structure the normative debate over environmental uncertainty and risk management. The article highlights two foci of ethical concern that are generated from these ecological laws: the "imperative of sustainability" and the "precautionary principle." Unlike the empirically grounded articles that follow, I do not focus on a particular policy area. My concern is broader and more theoretical in nature. The primary intent is to construct a conceptual and normative framework within which policy-oriented discussions of environmental uncertainty and risk might fruitfully be organized. I address, as well, certain policy implications of the imperative of sustainability and the precautionary principle for those engaged in environmental risk and cost/benefit analysis


The Nature of Risk


Despite the usefulness of the distinction between involuntary and voluntary risk, there can be no rigid bifurcation. The risks we face are typically produced by an inseparable mixture of avoidable and unavoidable activities whose dangers are known and understood in varying degrees. Smoking cigarettes, we noted above, is a voluntary risk. Yet the campaign against youth smoking is based on the assumption that children do not have the knowledge or rational capacities to make an informed decision regarding the risks associated with tobacco use. In turn, while lightning poses an involuntary risk, our chances of being struck can be substantially decreased by taking certain precautionary measures, such as staying Out of open spaces or getting inside a car or building during thunderstorms. Precisely determining the extent to which any particular risk is voluntarily assumed is difficult.


We increase our chance of accidental death by 1 in a million for every 300 miles that we drive by car and every 10 miles that we ride by bicycle (Wilson, 1990, p. 57). While the risks involved in driving a car or riding a bicycle are relatively well known, these activities are often practically unavoidable. If the nature of risk depends upon the avoidability of the risky activity, then the risk associated with automobile or bicycle commuting to and from work might well be classified as involuntary. Pleasure travel, in contrast, would pose a more voluntary kind of risk. Driving to the bakery to buy a donut, presumably, would fall somewhere in between.


The waters get muddier. We engage in many largely avoidable activities without clear knowledge of the risks associated with them. We increase our chance of death from cancer by 1 in a million for every 30 cans of saccharin-sweetened diet soft drink that we consume (Wilson, 1990, p. 57). Perhaps that is a voluntary risk, for one could certainly avoid drinking certain brands of diet soda. Yet many people are unaware of the heightened risks they face by ingesting this artificial sweetener. Indeed, much of the food we consume contains potentially dangerous additives or pesticide residues. It is difficult to avoid these health-threatening agents, and we often have few means of discovering their presence. It seems reasonable to categorize such risks as involuntary. Likewise, if you breathe New York's polluted air for 2 days, you increase your chance of death by one in a million (Wilson, 1990, p. 57). Residents might be aware of this heightened risk, and they could always opt to live elsewhere (notwithstanding the associated social and economic hardships of moving). Still, it seems reasonable to consider the environmental risks associated with urban life as involuntary. Indeed, a sizable proportion of the anthropogenic environmental risks we face as members of modern, technological societies are involuntary in this sense. We assume these risks more or less unwillingly and unknowingly simply by working and living in an economically developed, technologically advanced, socially interdependent world.


No modern society could exist without imposing some (largely) involuntary environmental risks upon its members. Collective life is defined by interdependence. Interdependence, by definition, subjects one to increased benefits and heightened risks. A society that provides the infrastructure for mechanized travel and allows fast-moving, polluting vehicles on its roads effectively imposes involuntary risks to the health and safety of its members, whether they are drivers, passengers, pedestrians, or urban dwellers. Anthropogenic risks are also associated with large-scale food production and healthcare service. These risks can be mitigated, but they cannot be wholly avoided.


Certain radical environmentalists argue that it is unconscionable and immoral in all cases to create or allow involuntary environmental risks, and that any imposed environmental risk is wrong because it transgresses the sanctity of human agency (Gilroy, 1992). Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, maintained that human beings have intrinsic worth and dignity and are thus "above all price, and therefore admit of no equivalent." Human life is "incompensable." With such a principle in mind, it has been suggested that anthropogenic environmental risks should only be assumed by way of free, informed consent.


That is a tidy ethical formula, but it is wholly unworkable as a policy position in a complex society. Involuntary anthropogenic environmental risks confront us the moment we sit down to breakfast or set foot out the door. Social interaction is permeated with involuntary environmental risks. As members of society, we are both the producers and subjects of these threats. While most environmental hazards today are produced by businesses and governments (the U.S. military is the nation's largest single polluter), we are all implicated in creating and allowing environmental risks by our participation in social life. We increase risks to pedestrians every time we drive our cars or ride our bicycles. We increase risks to future generations every time we consume scarce natural resources. As interdependent members of local communities and global systems, we cannot wash our hands of responsibility. The question, then, is how ought we to assess, manage, and limit involuntary, anthropogenic environmental risks?


Assessing and Managing Environmental Risks


Risk management sets itself as many as three goals: a) reducing risks by reducing the probability of the occurrence of adverse events, b) spreading risks across a group such that particular individuals or subclasses are not inequitably subject to noncompensated risk, and c) allocating responsibility for compensation to those producing risks (Segerson, 1992, p. 101).


Almost all efforts to reduce some risks produce others. These unintended consequences are known as "countervailing risks" or "side effects." The side effects of our efforts to reduce risks may be relatively insignificant. Medications taken to prevent heart attacks or other lethal diseases, for instance, may cause minor stomach irritations. Some cures, in contrast, prove worse than the disease because they produce countervailing risks more dangerous than the risks they were designed to alleviate. The existence of countervailing risks may be known or unknown to the parties concerned. In some cases, countervailing risks may take years or even decades to manifest themselves. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), for example, were developed in the 1930s. They facilitated cheap, effective refrigeration, which reduced the incidence of illness from the consumption of bacterially contaminated food. Only decades after their widespread use was it discovered that CFCs depleted the layer of stratospheric ozone that shields the bio sphere from the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet radiation. More than half a century after the development of CFCs, we remain subjected to the countervailing risks of higher rates of skin cancer, eye cataracts, and related ailments.


Certain efforts to reduce risk effectively transfer risks from one population to another. Consider passenger-side airbags in automobiles. Although these devices had the effect of saving the lives of many adult passengers, they placed small children at greater risk of injury or death owing to the force with which they inflate. The countervailing risks of passenger-side airbags are specific to a particular population. The siting of hazardous waste facilities demonstrates a similar transference of risk. NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) activists oppose the siting of hazardous waste landfills and incinerators in their neighborhood because of the increased health risks these facilities pose. Critics observe that certain NIMBY activists are often quite willing to have hazardous waste facilities located near other communities. Advocates for environmental justice have documented that the communities that end up holding the short end of the toxic stick tend to be populated with minorities. The political and economic powerl essness of these minority communities leaves them vulnerable to "environmental racism" (Bullard, 1990, 1994; Gottlieb, 1993). In tandem with efforts to fight environmental racism, environmentalists have opposed economic and technological growth that may improve (i.e., reduces risks to) the welfare of this generation yet threatens (i.e., increases risks to) the welfare of future generations. A similar kind of advocacy for powerless and voiceless victims is manifested in efforts to protect endangered species whose habitats are usurped or degraded by human development.


Reducing environmental risks is certainly a laudable goal, but it is seldom cost or risk free. Ideally, the effort to reduce risk would constitute a scientifically and ethically informed exercise in implementing favorable "risk tradeoffs." The goal would be to minimize overall risk while ensuring equity in the distribution of risks and compensation for inequitable distributions. One also would have to account for the tolerance levels of the general public for various forms of involuntary, environmental risks. In a democratic society, presumably, risks targeted for reduction should be those that an informed public is least willing to accept (Graham & Wiener, 1995).


Certain environmentalists refuse to engage in any form of risk assessment and risk management. They have reason to be wary. As currently practiced, risk assessment and risk management are prone to misuse and often serve the interests of the producers of involuntary environmental risks rather than their victims. Yet abstaining from scientific or ethical criticism of risk assessment and management is unwise. It has the effect of maintaining status quo values and practices (Patton, 1993; Shrader-Frechette, 1985, p. 81). If we forego critical engagement, the likelihood is that risk assessment and risk management will continue to be employed in ways that undervalue or ignore ecological and ethical concerns (Shrader-Frechette, 1985, p. 200). For this reason, risk assessment and risk management require close monitoring and informed criticism.


Currently, risk assessment and risk management operate within a culture driven by technological, economic, and political forces that are seldom environmentally benign. The imperative of technology might be summarized by the dictum: "If we can do it, we should do it." Economic practices are grounded in business efforts to maximize profits and in the marketing logic that supply creates demand. Politics, notwithstanding its enduring ideals, often reduces itself to a pandering to the powerful. These technological, economic, and political forces form a dangerous liaison. The politicians, ultimately responsible for managing the environmental risks we face, often follow the path of least resistance laid out by business interests that, now more than ever, find their profit margins widened by technological innovation and the stimulation of mass consumption. Operating together in advanced industrial nations, these technological, economic, and political forces degrade natural habitats, pollute air, land, and water, cre ate toxic waste, deplete natural resources, and overproduce synthetic goods and chemically altered foodstuffs. In short, this coalition of forces produces most of the anthropogenic, involuntary environmental risks that we currently face.


Environmentalists marshal scientific knowledge and ethical conviction in their struggle against the technological, economic and political forces generating environmental risks. Facts and values supplement each other. Indeed, environmentalists argue that scientific knowledge and normative values coalesce in certain ecological laws. These ecological laws allow environmentalists to ground risk assessment and risk management upon a scientifically sound, and morally informed, foundation.


The Three Laws of Ecology


The science of ecology is a vast and continually expanding body of knowledge. Environmentalists attempt to capture its essence under the rubric of three laws. The first law is that the social and natural worlds are chiefly characterized by complex interdependence. The second law follows from the first: every human action has an ecological effect or cost. Since these effects or costs ramify across time and space, the full ecological impact of our actions will remain unknown to us. The third law is that the security, stability, and resilience of ecological systems derive largely from their diversity and complexity. Preserving the health of the natural environment therefore requires that limits be placed on those human activities that threaten its integrity (List, 1993).


These ecological laws underline the connectedness that characterizes the natural world. They express the scientific import of ecological interdependence. When taken together, they generate two normative implications: an imperative of sustainability and a precautionary principle. The imperative of sustainability is a future-focused sensibility that is intrinsic to contemporary environmentalism. Environmentalists embrace an expanded time horizon. They act with the welfare of future generations in mind and insist that our practices should not undermine themselves if continued over the long term. The precautionary principle identifies the practical means of living under an expanded time horizon within nature's vast web of interdependence. It dictates that humans advance with circumspection and act with restraint.


To be ecologically oriented is to be future-focused and risk-averse. As interpreted by environmentalists, the three laws of ecology dictate that we operate with an expanded time horizon and that we err on the side of caution whenever we are in doubt as to the precise, long-term effects of our actions. The imperative of sustainability and the precautionary principle stand in marked contrast to the powerful cultural forces currently fostering unrestrained economic and technological growth. To understand the normative priority of the imperative of sustainability and the precautionary principle, it will be useful to examine how and why environmentalists embrace the aforementioned ecological laws. [1]


The Ethics of Interdependence


Barry Commoner argues that the "first law of ecology" is that "everything is connected to everything else." It follows, for Commoner, that "You can't do just one thing" (Commoner, 1972, p. 29). Arne Naess, the Norwegian environmentalist who developed Deep Ecology, writes in the same vein: "The study of ecology indicates an approach, a methodology which can be suggested by the simple maxim 'all things hang together'" (Naess, 1989, p. 36). If these laws or maxims hold, then every human action has its corresponding environmental effect or cost. These effects or costs may be immediate, direct, and fairly obvious, or distant in time and mediated through complex relationships that become evident only in retrospect. Regardless, every human action becomes, from an ecological perspective, either part of an environmental problem or an environmental solution. Still, are all problems necessarily environmental? Is something as seemingly divorced from ecological affairs as, say, urban crime, truly an environmental issue?


Many environmentalists respond to this question with a resounding yes! (Ruffins, 1995, p. 120). At first, there may appear little relationship between urban crime and ecological well-being. Yet fear of crime stimulates people to leave the inner city for the suburbs. Thus, urban crime fosters suburban sprawl. Sprawl usurps and degrades agricultural lands, woodlands, and other natural areas. Urban crime also discourages the use of public transport, and consequently increases automobile driving, the consumption of fossil fuels, pollution, and global warming. Crime also heightens the consumption of other goods and services, such as packaging to deter tampering and shoplifting, street and house lighting, burglar alarm systems, law enforcement, and prisons. Were urban crime to diminish, the resources employed for these goods and services could be redirected to environmental protection or restoration. Moreover, certain environmental threats may exacerbate urban crime. Pollution, some studies indicate, actually cont ributes to law-breaking. Toxic chemicals disrupt brain chemistry and the neurological mechanisms that normally inhibit antisocial behavior. High crime rates thus may reflect the increasingly degraded environmental conditions of urban perpetrators (Masters, 1997, p. 39).


With these connections in mind, a scholar of conservation biology observes that "Every personal act--of production, consumption, travel, communication, recreation, disposal, voting--is an ecological act. And every ecological act should be a conscious one" (Soule, 1994, p. 39). This affirmation of social and ecological interdependence is intrinsic to contemporary environmentalism. Carl Anthony, president of Earth Island Institute, insists that "The environment is not limited to what's out there--it's what's everywhere" (Earth Island Institute, 1996-97, p. 3). Since relationships of complex interdependence define the system as a whole, the well-being of the biological subsystem can only be adequately achieved in tandem with the well-being of the social subsystem. The reverse, environmentalists are quick to point out, is also true. Social welfare rests upon ecological health. Concern for environmental integrity is borderless.


The problem with affirmations of boundless social and ecological interdependence is that they may prove debilitating. If the environment is everywhere and everything, then environmental protection necessarily subsumes all other social, political, economic, technological, and cultural concerns. But nothing so inclusive could have much practical significance. In casting their nets so broadly, environmentalists risk catching too much--and being unable to haul anything in. For this reason critics have pejoratively dubbed all-encompassing orientations to environmental protection as "everythingism" (Rubin, 1994, p. 243). To speak indiscriminately of an ubiquitous interdependence may inhibit initiative and preclude judicious action. By hitching everything together, moreover, we may obscure the fact that certain human practices are more environmentally harmful than others. Everythingism undermines environmentalism by making it mean too much and achieve too little. Effective risk management is jeopardized.


Implementing the Ethics of Interdependence


Every human act, in some manner or form, affects the state of the earth. Clearly, good judgment is in order to determine, as precisely as possible, how ecologically intrusive or restrained, destructive or reparative, pernicious or benign particular human actions are in isolation and in the aggregate. All species are not equally important to the viability of their habitats; all habitats not equally fragile or equally capable of recuperation once degraded. Natural resources vary dramatically in their susceptibility to depletion and in biological importance. Every human practice is not equally threatening to its natural surroundings. All actions do not generate the same level of environmental risk, and every effort to reduce risk does not generate the same level of countervailing risk. Ecological judgment, therefore, must be firmly grounded in sound science as well as moral inquiry. To avoid a debilitating everythingism, environmentalists need not abandon the fundamental ecological insight that all the parts ar e connected. Rather, they must seek as detailed an understanding as possible of how all the parts are connected.


Garrett Hardin, in accord with Commoner, maintains that the first law of human ecology is "We can never do merely one thing" (Hardin, 1993, p. 199). This ecological fact, Lester Milbrath observes, constitutes the "central axiom of environmentalism." Milbrath spells out its ramifications for our daily lives: "We must learn to ask, for every action, and then what?" (Milbrath, 1990, p. 292). Asking this question forces us to investigate how all the parts are connected.


Owing to the intricacies of ecological interdependence, the investigation of mundane practices can foster a surprisingly sophisticated environmental education. Take the problem of litter. Not wanting to spoil the aesthetic quality of the landscape, one might be persuaded to put refuse in trash cans. But what happens to one's garbage once it is collected from its temporary receptacles? To answer this question, one would have to investigate the local landfill where collected trash is deposited or the emissions from the local incinerator where it is burned. This might lead to an investigation of the threat posed by toxins leached into the groundwater or emitted into the air by landfilled or incinerated products. One might also examine the commercial trends leading to excessive waste from overpackaging and a plethora of disposable goods. The concern with unsustainable waste streams, in turn, might stimulate a critical assessment of overconsumption and resource depletion. A sophisticated environmental ethic of re ducing, reusing, and recycling might be the result-all from asking the simple question when tossing out a piece of trash--and then what?


In many respects, this story line parallels the development of contemporary American environmentalism. The movement was largely inaugurated in the 1970s with campaigns to end littering and to stem pollution. A quarter century ago, the chief environmental message was "Don't be a litterbug." This approach to environmental care, to employ Allan Schnaiberg's apt term, identified environmentalists as "cosmetologists." The problem was litter, the cause was consumers with bad habits, and the solution was getting the man in the street to put trash where it belonged (Schnaiberg, 1980, p. 375). There was little insight into the deeper causes or effects of environmental degradation.


Few asked, and then what? once the trash had been put in the bin. Keep America Beautiful, a coalition of companies involved in glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic production and use, ran a popular TV spot in 1971 showing Native American actor Iron Eyes Cody with a tear running down his cheek at the sight of roadside litter. The advertisement was very popular and received tens of millions of dollars in free air time. Meanwhile, Keep America Beautiful was actively engaged in opposing a national bottle bill that would mandate a recycling deposit for glass bottles. Few questioned the obvious conflict of interest.


A recent Greenpeace television advertisement marked the transformation undergone by contemporary environmentalists. When we throw away a piece of trash, it suggested, we should ask ourselves, "Where is 'away'?" Filled trash cans solve one problem by creating another. Landfills and incinerators are not environmentally benign. If trash cans are always filled, then enough things are not being recycled or reused and too many of the wrong sort of things are being produced. Overflowing trash cans suggest resource depletion and a society infatuated with overconsumption. This is ecological thinking. It is radical rather than cosmetic because it engages the interconnected web of ecological issues and asks the key question of whether our practices can be sustained over the long term.


The Imperative of Sustainability


To affirm ecological interdependence is to expand one's time horizon. Thinking ecologically forces one to think of the long term. "If there is anything that has distinguished the environmental movement during the past 100 years," Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope writes, "it has been our insistence that we not plan for a one-generation society, that the future matters" (Pope, 1994, pp. 14-15). The concern for future generations is common to all environmental groups. Since the publication in the late 1980s of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, environmentalists' concern for future generations has been formalized under the rubric of "sustainability."


Living sustainably means preserving the opportunity for future generations to engage in the kind of activities known to this generation. More generally, it means preserving the conditions that will allow a similar range of experiences. The modifier "similar" is crucial. Time changes everything. Strictly speaking, future generations will never have access to our experiences. Our descendants will not have the opportunity to make our historical or scientific discoveries, to produce our own cultural or technological innovations, or to understand and experience the world as we did before these discoveries or innovations were made. Environmentalists who advocate sustainable living are not suggesting that we petrify human existence and cease development. The point is to allow future generations the opportunity to meet their own needs. We are speaking not only about basic needs. Environmentalists aim to protect more than the subsistence rights of future generations. As a member of the Environmental Defense Fund obse rved, living sustainably means that future generations are given the opportunity for "a quality of life that isn't just mere existence." Sustainability is not only about preserving life, it is about preserving the opportunity for a good life. Environmentalists insist that the current pursuit of a high quality of life must not undermine the capacity of future generations to attain a high quality of life.


A Green theorist remarked: "It is only if we value what is sustained, that we can answer the question why it ought to be sustained" (Barry, 1996, pp. 128-129). To advocate sustainability is to engage in a form of paternalism. Future generations cannot inform us of their needs and values. Consequently, we must assume that they will share many of our own needs and that many of our own values will serve them well enough. Living sustainably does not entail knowing precisely what constitutes the good life, what the future will bring, or what specific needs and values future generations might have. Environmentalists assume, however, that future generations will share our own basic needs--for health care, nutritious food, adequate housing, clean air and water, and nontoxic environments. In turn, environmentalists believe that future generations deserve the same opportunities that current generations enjoy: opportunities to experience pristine landscapes, open space, scenic beauty, wilderness, biodiversity, and natu re's capacity to instill wonder and stimulate higher aspirations.


"I have a love of beauty and want to see that perpetuated," a member of Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste observed. He identified his love for the "mystery" of life as the chief value that he wanted to pass on to descendants. Another environmentalist suggested that "keeping at least a few pieces of shaggy frontier for Americans yet unborn to roam in" is the only means of preserving for our progeny the opportunity to "understand freedom in its truest form" (Chadwick, 1995, p. 112). Under the logo of "Do It For The Children," the Wilderness Society urges the preservation of wildlife and wildlands, insisting that "no child should grow up without knowing the beauty and mystery of the natural world" (Wilderness, 1995, p. 33). Environmentalists safeguard the opportunity for future generations to embrace these components of the good life.


The logic of sustainability is straightforward where the depletion of natural resources is easily measured. America's aquifers, on average, are being depleted at a rate 25% faster than they are being recharged. Currently in the United States, erosion of cropland occurs between 13 and 30 times faster than the natural replacement rate of soil. Two-thirds of the world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce. These are not sustainable practices. The imperative of sustainability dictates that the depletion of renewable resources, such as topsoil, fresh water, or species populations, must not exceed their natural rate of recovery. Those resources that are irretrievably diminished by our use--all extracted nonrenewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels--should be exploited only at such a rate that the discovery or development of viable substitutes might be expected before these resources are practically exhausted (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p 46). Sophi sticated calculations are obviously in order for those who seek to live sustainably. One must not only gauge present rates of resource use and environmental degradation but also predict future trends. As a National Wildlife Federation member concluded, "We need to conserve resources and increase knowledge."


Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It can stimulate awareness of the complexity of natural systems and the limits of their resilience. Alternatively, it can leave us arrogant in our power and prerogative to alter and abuse them. With this in mind, environmentalists insist that scientific inquiry should be tempered with the insight that we may not yet be ready for many of the lessons that nature has to teach us. We are told that "Nature is not only more complex than we think, but it is more complex than we can ever think" (Manes, 1990, p. 71). "The wilderness," another environmental writer observes, "holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask" (Brower, 1995, p. 105). The web of life is so dynamic and complex that no amount of investigation can fully reveal the intricacies of its patterns or the (long-term) consequences of our intrusions.


Continually asking the key ecological question, and then what? promotes scientific investigation as well as ethical consideration. But there are limits to such interrogations. If we spend all of our time posing and attempting to answer an extended chain of these questions, we would have no time to act. With this in mind, Richard Norgaard argues that sustainability does not entail exact prediction and control of the indefinite future. Such a level of knowledge and power is beyond us. Indeed, believing that we have or could have such knowledge or power is hubristic and a recipe for disaster. An ecological perspective, grounded in an understanding of the known and an appreciation of the unknown, links sustainability to cautious living (Norgaard, 1994). To engage in sustainable living is to pursue knowledge while practicing restraint.


The Precautionary Principle


Wendell Berry writes that, ecologically speaking, "there may be specialized causes, there are no specialized effects." The effects of our actions are "invariably multiple, self-multiplying, long lasting, and unforeseeable in something like geometric proportion to the size or power of the cause" (Berry, 1981, ix, 116). Ecological linkages are both direct and mediated. The results of severing them cannot be anticipated. The disappearance of moose from Vermont in the 19th century, for example, was largely caused by overharvesting beavers. The moose, it turned out, were dependent for their summer foraging on the vegetation growing in beaver ponds. Likewise, the decline of songbird populations in the United States has been exacerbated by the extermination of cougars and wolves. These large carnivores hunt midsize predators such as raccoons, foxes, and possums that eat songbirds and their eggs. In the same vein, environmentalists discovered in the 1960s that DDT not only killed mosquitoes, its intended target, but also threatened entire populations of raptors. Because DDT (as well as other pesticides and certain heavy metals) are prone to bioaccumulation, each higher species on the food chain suffers an increasing level of contamination. Whereas DDT was found in negligible quantities in the waters of treated areas, it was present in greater concentrations in the plankton in these waters, and in increasingly greater concentrations in the small fish that ate the plankton, the larger fish that ate the smaller fish, and the ospreys and other raptors that ate the large fish. In fact, ospreys were found to have levels of DDT many millions of times greater than that of the water over which they fished. When we act into nature, the results are often unknown and unwelcome.


Normal Myers observes: "Probably the biggest environmental problem of all on the horizon will turn out to be that of the interactions between lesser problems" (Myers, 1993, pp. 204-205). The cumulative environmental disruption caused by the "synergism" of various individual disruptions can never be fully anticipated. Each year, U.S. manufacturers produce about 6 trillion tons of synthetic chemicals, almost 12 tons for every resident. There are currently some 84,000 synthetic chemicals regularly introduced in our environment. The vast majority of these, about 68,000 chemicals, are released without report under current "Right-to-Know" legislation (National Environment Trust, 1997). Current U.S. regulations determine the danger of chemicals proposed for agricultural or other use by examining their effects as isolated reactants. Their cumulative effect on human health remains unknown and unassessed. In turn, newly introduced chemicals often interact with other synthetics already in the environment to produce har mful compounds. This dangerous interaction is quite unpredictable.


Epidemiological or animal studies are the usual methods of gauging risks to human health. Typically, these studies only test for the risk for cancer, ignoring other health problems that may result from exposure, such as neurotoxicity, reproductive dysfunctions, and immune system dysfunctions. Yet current studies suggest that many pesticides, though relatively benign to non-target species when applied in isolation, may be a thousand times more disruptive of endocrine and reproductive systems when organisms are exposed to two or more of them over time--as often occurs in the environment. Along with chemical compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and furans, these pesticides, known as "hormone disrupters," may cause reproductive problems among many species and pose danger to human fetuses and the young (Colborn, Dumanoski, & Myers, 1996).


The unassessed and unassessable risks associated with synergism apply as well to the release of genetically altered and engineered species into the natural environment (Wuerthele, 1998, p. 4). The ecological downside of synergistic connections is also demonstrated in the arena of global warming, where the interactive effects of climate change threaten regional drought and flooding, agricultural setbacks, habitat loss, species extinction on land and in the sea, the spread of disease, and pest infestation (Bright, 1997). Russell Train, World Wildlife Fund's Chairman of the Board, warns that "We still do not fully understand the implications of human-induced disruptions to natural ecosystems, but there is growing evidence that we may be tampering severely with our children's--and their children's--capacity to survive" (World Wildlife Fund, 1992, p. 1). To protect the opportunities of future generations in the face of the risks posed by synergistic connections, a cautious form of living is required.


Ecological disruptions are inevitable, regardless of our circumspection. Nonetheless, environmentalists insist that we must not present our progeny with irreversible faits accomplis, which is the case, for example, every time this generation exterminates another species. A member of The Nature Conservancy maintained that the onus is upon present generations "not to do anything that they [future generations] will not be able to undo." Of course, it is difficult if not impossible to predict which problems will prove unsolvable to future generations. Our responsibilities, therefore, are twofold. First, we must increasingly understand the implications of our actions. Second, we must cautiously rein in those practices that may rob future generations of opportunities that we ourselves have enjoyed. The first responsibility is to increase knowledge; the second is to cultivate caution.


The precautionary principle has become foundational for contemporary environmentalism (Costanza, 1994; Flavin & Tunali, 1996, p. 20; Hudson, 1995, p. 7). The principle holds that in the face of scientific uncertainty about the potential risks generated by human activities, the burden of proof should rest on the proponents of an activity rather than on its potential victims. Even when certain cause-and-effect relationships are difficult to establish, reserve is in order. Precaution, in effect, becomes the "default mode" of technological and economic decisionmaking (The Networker, 1998). In turn, when action is taken in spite of known risks, those who take action should remain responsible for any needed remediation. To put this principle into practice, Robert Costanza suggests that businesses posing potential environmental threats should be required to post interest-accruing "environmental assurance bonds." The value of these bonds would be based on estimates of the largest future environmental damages that mi ght be incurred by the proposed activity (Costanza, 1994, p. 402).


Costanza's recommendation would be difficult to implement, practically and politically. Yet the endorsement of the precautionary principle is not restricted to environmental radicals. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration maintains that


In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.


A recent World Bank paper on the threat of global warming similarly states that "When confronted with risks which could be menacing and irreversible, uncertainty argues strongly in favor of prudent action and against complacency" (MacNeill, Winsemius, & Yakushiji, 1991, pp. 17-18). A significant number of national laws, in countries such as Sweden and Germany, are already based on the precautionary principle. It has been observed, as well, that "the precautionary principle is so frequently invoked in international environmental resolutions that it has come to be seen by some as a basic normative principle of international environmental law" (Costanza, 1994, p. 399). The efforts of certain nations to combat global warming, though scientists remain uncertain of its precise effects, exemplify this understanding. To wait until an ecological crisis is upon us before responding is to act incautiously. In many cases, it is too late to act. For this reason, the Brundtland Report maintained that "Economic development is unsustainable if it increases vulnerability to crises" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 53). Climate change increases our vulnerability to ecological crises. That is enough to justify action.


The imperative of sustainability is grounded in the precautionary principle. One cannot sustain practices over the long term that heighten risks and increase vulnerability to crises. Speaking at the ozone treaty negotiations as head of the U.S. delegations, a senior fellow of the Conservation Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund stated, "If we are to err, then let us, conscious of our responsibility to future generations, err on the side of caution" (Benedick, 1993, p. 314). That is a universally adopted maxim within the environmental community. The precautionary principle allows one to negotiate the interdependencies of life under an expanded time horizon.


Calculating Risks, Costs, and Benefits


How should ecological sensibilities inform our understanding of the uncertainties involved in environmental risk assessment and risk management? Risk assessment and risk management are part of a more encompassing enterprise that K. S. Shrader-Frechette labels "risk-cost-benefit analysis" (RCBA). RCBA, writes Shrader-Frechette, "incorporates notions of probability and uncertainty as a basis for estimating technology and environment-related risks and for determining their values as costs" (Shrader-Frechette, 1985, p. 33). Environmental RCBA is typically employed in efforts to weigh the economic costs of proposed regulations against the economic benefits, including the benefits of reducing risks, that would be achieved were those regulations enforced. Faced with the problem of weighing easily inflatable economic costs (e.g., to industry) against the less easily quantified benefits of public health and welfare, the cost side of the equation often comes out ahead. Projected economic costs, however speculative or inflated, may effectively "dwarf soft variables." Environmentalists worry that the effort to quantify environmental protection may prove to be its undoing.


Take the example of air pollution. Many industry representatives argued that conforming to the 1990 Clean Air Act would be prohibitively expensive. They projected costs of reducing sulfur dioxide ([SO.sub.2]) emissions from smokestacks at $1,500 per ton. High costs and negligible benefits, they argued, made this regulation economically unwise and unnecessary. Government representatives estimated the cost of reducing sulfur dioxide emissions at $600 per ton, and figured this to be acceptable. The actual price paid in 1994 was $150 a ton, and by the spring of 1995 the price had dropped to $128 a ton, widely perceived to be a pretty good bargain for cleaner air (Environmental Defense Fund Letter, 1995, March, August). In the effort to regulate sulfur dioxide emissions, highly inflated estimates of the economic costs were quickly generated. The benefits of reduced air pollution to citizens--in terms of decreased respiratory disease, bluer skies, cleaner rivers and lakes--are desirable to be sure. Yet these benef its remain difficult to monetize, and consequently, their value is easily deflated. In this case, the regulation was adopted, largely owing to strong public support for clean air. In turn, market incentives for reducing emissions quickly lowered the costs of the regulation. Yet the initial calculations of certain RCBA practitioners told another story.


To weigh the costs and benefits of a proposed industrial process, commercial development, or technological invention, a common metric is needed. Money becomes the measure of all things. RCBA is grounded in the assumption that everything has a price and is for sale. Not everything of value can be bought and sold in the marketplace, however. To determine the value of nonmarket goods, economists have developed the notion of "shadow pricing." Shadow pricing assigns dollar values to nonmarket goods by calculating the worth of "bundled goods"; that is, different groupings of goods traded on the market that vary only by way of a single nonmarket good.


Peace and quiet are not marketed, for instance, but houses near airports or freeways are. One might assume, therefore, that the market value of peace and quiet (a nonmarket good) is commensurate with the price difference between similar houses (bundled goods) that are located at various distances from airports or freeways. Yet such an exercise may determine not how much most people value peace and quiet, but how little those of us least sensitive to noise are willing to pay for greater tranquillity (Kelman, 1990, pp. 132-133). The effort to assign "shadow prices" to many natural goods, moreover, may demean them. Imagine having to put a price on the love, health, or life of a child or friend. For good reason we speak of these things as "priceless." Many natural goods, such as wilderness, also resist direct translation into market terms. This resistance is intrinsic to their value. Donald Murphy observes that wilderness parks "have a value beyond valuing." Using cost-benefit analysis to determine the value of wilderness, Murphy maintains, is a:


To a significant degree, we value wilderness for the same reason that we value love or friendship-because it is or should be beyond economic measurement.


To maintain public health in the face of pollution-induced diseases, RCBA calculates the costs of medical care to treat these diseases and the costs of human resources lost to sickness and early death. Yet spending money to treat disease or to compensate bereaved families and businesses does not produce the same level of human welfare as is obtained by preventing disease in the first place. Moreover, pricing the reparative costs of environmental hazards does not address the potential infringement of the rights of those harmed. As a writer for the Natural Resources Defense Council observes, the cost-benefit calculus "sidesteps" basic questions of justice: "Imagine a law requiring federal agencies to measure the worth, in dollars, of free speech or civil rights before acting to enforce them: any attempt to weigh an intangible public good against hard currency will shortchange the former, whether it is the right to vote or the value of protecting a human life against cancer" (The Amicus Journal, 1994, p. 8). Th e point is well taken. Yet public goods are not necessarily "intangible." They are real enough, though often difficult to monetize and potentially demeaned by such monetization. Economic calculations become even more problematic when the welfare of future generations is taken into account.


The problem of assessing the costs and benefits of protecting endangered species is a case in point. Species preservation is not as great a drain on tax dollars as is often suggested. The average annual allocation for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is about $40 million, approximately the cost of constructing a mile of urban interstate highway or less than one-seventh of the cost of one C-17 transport airplane (Shaffer, 1992, p. 7; Watkins, 1996, p. 41). The Act, moreover, has not proven much of a threat to property rights. The number of residential, commercial, agricultural, or industrial projects actually stopped on account of the ESA ranges between 0.03 and 0.06% of all projects surveyed. This means that of the hundreds of thousands of projects surveyed since the ESA came into existence, an average of under five per year have been terminated.


Still, if very few projects have been stopped, thousands have been altered on account of the Act, and many of these alterations have proven costly. Southern California scrub land, for instance, is home to gnatcatchers, a threatened species of bird. Gnatcatcher habitat has decreased from 2.5 million acres to less than 400,000 acres since 1940, as the human population of Southern California quintupled. At the current level of development, all gnatcatcher habitat would be destroyed within 20 years. The gnatcatcher's habitat is prime real estate that sells at $200,000 to $3 million an acre. The economic cost of not developing the land is therefore easily determined in the marketplace. The benefits of preserving the gnatcatcher's habitat are not so easily calculable.


How does one "get the price right" for the safeguarding of this land? No obvious ecological collapse would result from the demise of gnatcatchers. Yet even from a purely human point of view, forgetting for the moment the potential "rights" of the birds, saving what is left of natural southern California has its obvious public benefits. The natural beauty and recreational opportunities of the land, after all, is why many people moved to this area. RCBA usually measures threats to the physical health of humans, typically ignoring threats to other species, to biodiversity, and to other components of human welfare, such as mental health, spiritual well-being, and social stability. Yet all of these goods may be put at risk by the degradation of the environment. How would one begin to assess the economic coefficient of the recreational, aesthetic, spiritual, and ecological benefits of Southern Californian wilderness (Abramovitz, 1997, p. 99; Daily, 1997; Mann and Plummer, 1995)? Finally, how would these recreation al, aesthetic, spiritual, and ecological benefits be extrapolated to account for the welfare of future generations? As William Ophuls suggests,


even with perfect information, the economists could not answer most of these questions, for they involve political, social, and ethical issues, not the issue of efficient resource allocation that neoclassical, marginalist economics was designed to handle. They are 'trans-economic' questions (Ophuls & Boyan, 1992, p. 226).


Faced with difficult trans-economic questions, RCBA may favor the real estate developers with ready figures at their fingertips.


Environmentalists argue that RCBA as it is currently practiced is problematic for at least three other reasons:


1. It tends to ignore regional and social maldistributions of risks and benefits, and thus sidesteps the question of environmental justice.


2. It generally does not take sensitive populations into account when determining safe levels of risks to health, ignoring the special dangers faced by children, the elderly, and chronically ill.


3. It is notoriously imprecise. Experts in the field acknowledge that uncertainties of six orders of magnitude are not unusual (Shrader-Frechette, 1991, p. 54). That is a margin of error large enough to make projections of threats to health and welfare meaningless.


Finally, it should be noted that RCBA is not democratic in its orientation or operation. As one critic observed, "The main cumulative impact of cost-benefit analysis may be in legitimating the idea that public policy formation is a matter for technical, expert choice and not a question on which non-specialists such as elected officials, still less any broader public, have any rightful say' (Dryzek, 1997, p. 72). It follows that RCBA tends to favor the powerful proponents of risk-producing economic or technological ventures because they usually have greater access to information and decisionmakers. Thus RCBA easily plays into the hands of those who have most to gain from heightening environmental risk while disenfranchising the potential victims.


For all of these reasons, RCBA may have the effect of reinforcing rather than restraining environmentally threatening technological and economic growth. In turn, it may undercut the search for alternative, more ecologically sustainable means of conducting our lives and making our livelihoods. With these concerns in mind, K. S. Shrader-Frechette argues for the institutionalization of public control of environmental risk by way of technology tribunals. In these tribunals, citizen juries would make informed decisions over the proposed production and use of synthetic chemicals or the initiation of industrial processes. Their decisions might be extended to include greater democratic control over commercial and technological development threatening the environment. In effect, citizen juries would engage in RCBA to help craft policies that heed the imperative of sustainability and the precautionary principle.


Democratic influence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of good public policymaking. It should accompany, not replace, scientific inquiry and technical expertise. Clearly, citizen juries will be hampered by their lack of knowledge and skills. As Shrader-Frechette argues, however, democratic adjudication need not produce poor policy recommendations, because


good policy is not merely a matter of discovering highly technical truths, but also a question of attempting to guarantee justice. If one recognizes that the purpose of adversary proceedings is not primarily to establish some empirical point, but instead to attempt to provide conditions under which policy can be established in a fair, orderly, timely, and representative manner, then there seems to be no strong case for claiming that such democratic procedures are likely to yield poor policy (Shrader-Frechette, 1985, p. 307).


This understanding exemplifies the precautionary principle. To ensure that a sufficient level of caution is employed, environmentalists argue that economic and technological development should be open to critical assessments and be judged in terms of sustainable alternative practices (The Networker, 1998).


Environmentalists worry that technological and economic growth is currently treated as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Citizen tribunals would provide one means for allaying these fears. Greater democratic control of the environmental risks that the public faces would ensure that ecological laws and environmental ethics have their day in court.




Morris Berman observes that "If you fight the ecology of a system, you lose--especially when you 'win'" (Berman, 1981, p. 257). Berman's point is not that humans should have no effect upon the natural environment. It is a question of setting limits such that natural resources are not recklessly depleted and our manipulations of the natural world do not erode its integrity and diversity. Unrestrained economic and technological growth couples immense power with tremendous ignorance. By carelessly dominating the environment for short-term gains, we jeopardize our own health and the continued existence and potential evolution of the myriad of other life-forms that are engaged in vastly more humble projects of interactive living. Oscar Wilde's observation that the tragedy of not getting what you want in this world is only overshadowed by the tragedy of getting it is nowhere truer than in our efforts to master nature.


Anthropogenic, involuntary environmental risks are unavoidable in a technologically and economically advanced society. The question is how to assess and limit these statistically circumscribed environmental uncertainties. Contemporary environmentalists deploy ecological laws to structure the debate over environmental uncertainty and risk management. They adopt the imperative of sustainability and the precautionary principle as the foci of their ethical considerations. The laws of ecology inform us of the need for more knowledge and, at the same time, of the uncertainties that will remain despite intensive study. While emphasizing the necessity of sound science, environmentalists insist that many--perhaps most--environmental problems will not be solved by gathering and processing more data. Another type of learning is required. We have need for an education in prudence.


Prudence is the art of staying out of trouble. The importance of prudence is underlined by the fact that many ecological problems arise from the efforts to resolve other problems. Quick fixes, in particular, often become the recipes for future disaster. Prudence demands that our action be tempered by knowledge and that our knowledge be tempered by wisdom. Wisdom is a special kind of knowledge. It is knowledge aware of its own limitations. As such, wisdom is a key ecological virtue and the sine qua non of good environmental policy. Ecological wisdom avoids unnecessary risk-taking and preempts the need for crisis intervention. Tragically, ecological wisdom often only arises post factum, when, in the midst of an environmental disaster, we are reminded of earlier calls for caution and restraint. Yet there remains hope that such wisdom, democratically cultivated through citizen juries, will play a larger role in future policymaking.


Leslie Paul Thiele is professor of political science at the University of Florida. His teaching and research interests include political philosophy and environmental ethics and politics. His most recent book is Environmentalism for a New Millennium: The Challenge of Coevolution (Oxford University Press, 1999).




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