15.1 The Standard View

As questionable as it may sound once stated explicitly, many aspects of our lives are based on an unquestioned and even unnoticed assumption, namely, that nature is essentially unlimited in its capacity to provide resources for human activities. Since environmental ethics challenges this assumption it is a good idea to consider it a bit more carefully.

The assumption that there are no limits to human activity is perhaps clearest in the realm of economic activity. We all take for granted that a healthy economy is a growing economy, one in which the amount of goods and services available for sale and purchase is always increasing, leading, of course to better and better lives for all of us. This kind of material progress is something we have gotten used to and have even come to expect. But economic activity requires inputs of matter and energy. For example, consumer products manufactured for purchase are made of raw materials while manufacturing them requires energy, as does transporting them from factories and warehouses to stores. The same applies even to providing services like, for example, investment advice, which requires buildings in which they can be offered for “sale,” equipment that must be manufactured and transported, etc. Thus the constant expansion of the economy leads to a constant growth in our use of raw materials and energy. Economics standardly assumes that there are no inherent limits to this kind of growth, since it assumes that whenever a particular resource starts to become scarce and thus more expensive, this fact alone leads people to begin to develop alternatives. If we start running out of cod and salmon to purchase at seafood restaurants, their price will rise and a new market will develop for previously unused fish like orange roughy and tilapia. If we start running out of oil as an energy source, rising energy costs will provide us with sufficient incentives to come up with alternative energy sources. Standard economics focuses its efforts on understanding in detail how such “market forces” work and simply does not ask whether there are some things we might need for which there is no possible replacement.

In addition to the sheer expansion of markets and resource usage implied by economic growth, economic activity leads to another kind of expansion, that of the value of things bought and sold in the economic marketplace. This follows from the fact that we “add value” to raw materials when we convert them into particular products, and thus we seem to get more value out of the process for free. For instance a car can be looked at as just a pile of rocks (metal ores), sand (the raw material used to make glass), and oil derivatives (plastics come from oil). If you were to buy these raw materials, you would pay significantly less than you would pay for a finished car made of them simply because a pile of rocks and sand and a puddle of oil are much less useful than a car. The processes of engineering design and manufacturing add value to the raw materials and thus generate growth in value. Once again, according to the assumptions built in to standard economics, there seems to be no reason why we couldn’t continue to grow the economy in this way indefinitely. Human beings are the only animal on the planet that adds such a significant amount of value to the natural items we find by thinking up new, more interesting and thus more valuable uses for them. Is there any reason to suppose that we cannot continue doing this indefinitely into the future?

Now we may wonder about the potentially negative impacts of economic activity, impacts such as pollution and resource depletion that seem to accompany many manufacturing processes as well as other human activities like transportation. Don’t these indicate some basic limits to growth? Again, according to standard economic approaches the answer would be “no.” This is because of its basic assumption that if enough of us care about resource depletion or pollution, we will be willing to spend money to fix the problem, and if the problem is pressing enough, then enough of us will offer enough money for a solution that will spur on technological developments to find a solution. In other words, whatever problems growth in the scale and impacts of human economic activity create, further growth can also provide solutions.

These, then, are the basic reasons why it is commonly assumed that nature provides no inherent limits to the growth of human activity, that there is always more “room” on the planet for more of us consuming more stuff and having better lives as a result of our increased consumption. This view is explicitly endorsed by some writers who have come to be known as “cornucopians,” people like the statistician Bjorn Lomborg and the economist Julian Simon. The name “cornucopian” comes from the traditional Thanksgiving symbol of the cornucopia or “horn of plenty” with the fruits and vegetables of an abundant autumn harvest spilling from its opening. Cornucopians argue that there are no inherent limits to economic growth since a combination of free markets and technological innovation will be capable of solving whatever problems our pursuit of “more” may find in its path. This view is pretty close to the official position of our political and economic leaders and is an assumption many of us share without even realizing it. It is fair to say that our society is committed to the assumptions that growth is always good, that the resource hungry lifestyle of Western consumers can and should spread to all parts of the globe as a part of continuing story of human progress, social and economic development. To sum up:

  1. Humans convert low value resources into high value products that make our lives better – we increase the value of natural resources.
  2. We will be able to continue relying on free markets and human ingenuity to overcome barriers to continued progress.
  3. For all environmental side effects of our continued growth there are technological solutions.

Values on the standard view

If this standard view of nature is correct, and for a moment we will hold off on reasons to think that it is not, what does this say about the value that natural things and nature as a whole might have? The basic answer is that natural things have no value in and of themselves, according to the standard view, but only have value in terms of human projects, needs and desires. That is, the standard view endorses a position called “anthropocentrism” (literally human-centeredness) which grants inherent value only to human beings and asserts that all other things can only have the value in terms of human projects, needs and desires. Anthropocentrism has a long history. Perhaps its most famous expression is in the Old Testament book of Genesis, in which after God creates the heavens and the earth, plants animals and then human beings He grants human beings dominion over all of the rest of creation. After God creates the first humans, so the story goes,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”16

This passage is often taken to imply that nature only has value in human terms, that nature is not valuable in itself, but only to the extent that human activity attaches value to natural things and nature as a whole. As we shall see in a moment, anthropocentrism is arguably behind many environmental issues we are currently facing. It is a major unspoken assumption of modern industrial/consumer society, just as much as it was one of the foundations of more traditional societies in the Judeo-Christian historical lineage. In spite of the widespread acceptance of the assumptions that nature is a limitless source of resources for human activities, and that natural things have no value except in purely human terms, however, there are a number of good reasons to challenge these claims.

  1. Genesis 1:28, New International Version↩︎