We’ll be Nice to Nature When it’s Good for Us

Among the few philosophers whom economists might deign to read, Mark Sagoff excites the most anxiety. Environmental economists are easily annoyed, and now ecological economists will feel the sting of Sagoff's insights in "The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics."


Spring 2012 | Daniel Bromley,

The modernist quest for the application of rational models to vexing questions is now a spent force. Systems ecology appears to be the barren figment of mathematical tyros who forgot (or never heard of) Hume's Fork. Models are not, despite the best efforts of ecologists, who seem to hold scant interest in the data-generating process we know as "the world out there," necessarily depictive of the world they are intended to connote. Ecologists seem to have succumbed to the warning of the German philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who noticed, "Delight at having understood a very abstract and obscure system leads most people to believe in the truth of what it demonstrates."1

The magic by which complex ecological systems are alleged to function, evolve, and ultimately arrive at some fortuitous climax, should be readily apprehensible to economists. After all, what is Adam Smith's vision of spontaneous order and all-around optimality, if not the same teleological balderdash that inspires ecologists to create systems tending toward the best of all possible worlds? Ecologists have their own invisible hand -- it is attached to the arm of systems modelers and utopian apologists for some alleged natural order of things.

Sagoff is prescient in showing how ecological economists were suckered in by the holistic metaphors of systems ecology. And he is equally dismissive of environmental economists who have never found reasons to consider nature as anything but a factor of production.

Ecologists valiantly labored on their mathematical conjuring in an earnest quest for the rational understanding of the world around us. Once rendered "real" by their mathematical contrivances, it became an automatic object of worship and veneration. Environmental economists paid no attention. But ecological economists, needing a "rigorous" metaphor with which to hold their own against the other tribe of economists, readily invoked the deceits of systems ecology to bludgeon the rest of us into being nice to nature -- or paying a high price. Indeed, in the ultimate irony, Sagoff reminds us that some ecological economists have now succumbed -- from desperation borne of being otherwise ignored -- to mimic the most egregious deceits of environmental economics by conjuring monetary values for anything and everything in the natural sphere.2 Anything, yes anything, to get your way in the great battle for the hearts and minds of a distracted public.

All of this desperate searching for some, any, mechanical (that is computable) algorithm to solve difficult problems is not really necessary. It is not necessary because for thousands of years, well before the creation of microeconomics and benefit-cost analysis, people somehow figured out how to answer important questions. In simple terms, we might think of it as prudence. The English gave us the common law of nuisance. All societies have had, for millennia, processes -- dare we anoint them as algorithms -- for figuring out what to do.

Sagoff's exegesis is a reminder that once religious law ceased to hold humans in its thrall, we have been without clear guidance. The Enlightenment Project was supposed to liberate us to think for ourselves. Modernism seems to have beguiled us into betraying that opportunity. We still are incapable of clear thought -- by which I mean the asking for and giving of reasons about what would be better to do.3 Instead, we seem to long for some authoritative source to spare us the hard work of actually thinking. There is no easy way out. Ecology, ecological economics, and environmental economics have each prevented us from seeing what must be seen. They have short-circuited the necessary creation of plausible ways to deal with what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce referred to as the "irritation of doubt."4

Unfortunately, Sagoff dissipates a very good head of steam when he closes with the following claim:

"The scientistic and self-referential controversies in which ecological economists engage drain away the moral power that once sustained environmentalism. This moral power may return if environmentalists employ science not to prescribe goals to society but to help society to achieve goals it already has. Environmentalists may then shape the natural environment of the future rather than model and monetize the environment of the past."

The obvious problem here is Sagoff's claim that the squandered "moral power may return...if environmentalists ...help society to achieve goals it already has." One wonders where, exactly, to locate these "goals it [society] already has"? It is idle to claim that something called society already has environmental --or any -- goals. Societies do not have goals -- they have histories, out of which are crafted candidate families of possible futures. Those possibilities are subjected to continual contestation, and out of that civil (and at times un-civil) discourse, will emerge certain ideas about what now seems better to do. But these are not social goals -- they are mere agreements to give certain ideas a try.

We must take seriously pragmatism's core idea that we do not know what we want until we are forced to think hard about what it now seems possible to have. Goals, social targets, are not found or discovered. Rather, they are created.5 But they are not created in a process that privileges them as clear teleological triumphs. The creation of directions is the task of civic governance. This is the inevitable process of working out what seems better to want to do now.6 Human societies will come around to being nice to nature when they are able to marshal sufficient reasons for considering it good to do so. That is all there is. Get over it.

Daniel Bromley is a professor emeritus of Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1. Lichtenberg, G.C. .1789. The Waste Books (Sudelbücher), Notebook J]. (back)

2. Vatn, Arild and Daniel W. Bromley. 1994. "Choices Without Prices Without Apologies," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 26(2):129-48, March. (back)

3. See Bromley, Daniel W. 2006. Sufficient Reason: Volitional Pragmatism and the Meaning of Economic Institutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Bromley, Daniel W. 2008. "Volitional Pragmatism," Ecological Economics, 68:1-13. (back)

4. Bromley, Daniel W. 2006. Sufficient Reason: Volitional Pragmatism and the Meaning of Economic Institutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (back)

5. See Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press and Rorty, Richard. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope, London: Penguin Books. (back)

6. Bromley, Daniel W. 2006. Sufficient Reason: Volitional Pragmatism and the Meaning of Economic Institutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (back)