Sunday, December 21, 2008

When It Comes to the Environment, Why Discount?: A Reply to Carden

I apologize in advance for the quote-bombing in this post, but a) I find that footnotes don't mix well with blog posts; b) I wanted to make sure that the references were preserved so that people can go back later and check out some of the sources that helped guide my reasoning here; and c) I didn't feel like putting in the effort necessary to polish this into a finished piece -- it's late. Maybe I'll revise it later. But without further ado:


In his article, "Should We Be Recycling Paper or Building Battlestar Galactica?," Art Carden asks:
If environmental stewardship obligates us to be mindful of future generations in making our day-to-day decisions, what should we do? Should we be recycling paper and preventing people from building parking lots to save trees? Or should we acknowledge that the planet will be destroyed sooner or later and try to find ways to build something like the Battlestar Galactica so the species will be preserved?

To answer this question, Carden turns to the issue of how future conditions should be compared to conditions today -- that is, how the future should be discounted against the present. He explains that "Questions about 'the world we are leaving for our children' and complaints about the alleged short-sightedness of present generations are ultimately claims that we are discounting the future inappropriately," and so the appropriate social discount rate becomes the focus of his analysis.

Carden is correct to point out that different approaches to discounting the future can have very significant consequences on the way we evaluate different sets of outcomes. In their essay, "Uncertain Discount Rates in Climate Policy Analysis," Richard Newell and William Pizer discuss a range of plausible discount rates which could be applied in forming climate change policy. They note that "Looking 400 years into the future, the plausible 2-7% range of discount rates has a corresponding difference in discounted values of 200 million-to-1. And there is little justification for narrowing our range..." Stephen Gardiner builds on this idea in his essay, "Ethics and Global Climate Change," pointing out that when the rate used to discount future events is positive, "all but the most catastrophic costs disappear after a number of decades, and even these become minimal over very long time periods." Carden himself is aware of this difficulty, acknowledging that on the other hand, using too low of a discount rate will force us to recognize that "at some point, the sun will die out and the planet we are so concerned about protecting will someday be no more, all else equal."

Further complicating this issue is the fact of radical uncertainty surrounding predictions about the future, especially when discussing people's values. In order to properly discount future events, we would need to know what those future events would be. But in their essay, "Carbon Dioxide and Intergenerational Choice," Ralph d'Arge, William Schulze, and David Brookshire suggest that even if we forget about the difficulties faced in predicting the physical outcomes of our actions:
...given changing lifestyles, substantial future shifts in technologies, and probabilities of drastic world political-social events, any quantitative measures of benefits or costs in 100 years are not subject to better than 2-4 orders of magnitude accuracy, and may even switch sign...

Thomas Schelling drives this point home in his essay, "Climate Change: The Uncertainties, the Certainties, and What They Imply About Action":
...what will the world be like in 50, 75, or 100 years when climate change may become acute? Think back seventy-five years: what was the world like, compared with now? Will the world be as different from now in seventy-five years as it is now from seventy-five years ago? How would we, seventy-five years ago, have predicted the consequences of climate change in today's world, and who are the "we" who might have predicted those consequences?

Accordingly, John Broome writes in his book, Counting the Cost of Global Warming, "Cost-benefit analysis, when faced with uncertainties as big as these, would simply be self-deception." So at this point, you might be ready to throw your hands up in frustration and demand to know why we should even bother thinking about this at all, since anything we come up with will likely be ad hoc and speculative. And that would be a good question: why should we be thinking about this in the first place?

Let's return to the point that got us started on this whole subject: Carden wrote, "Questions about 'the world we are leaving for our children' and complaints about the alleged short-sightedness of present generations are ultimately claims that we are discounting the future inappropriately." But is it true that questions about the world we leave behind ultimately reduce to questions about the appropriate way to discount the future?

Some people don't think so. In his essay, "Environmental Risk, Uncertainty and Intergenerational Ethics," Kristian Ekeli argues that "To discount the future implies that current interests and preferences count for more than those of future generations." Accordingly, Newell and Pizer note that "Many economists...have argued that it is ethically indefensible to discount the utility (i.e., well-being) of future generations--although this does not imply a zero discount rate for their consumption..." So by asking how exactly we should discount, we seem to ignore the important idea that it might not be appropriate to even approach this question in terms of discounting. If we really care about the condition of our descendents, it seems unclear why we would think of their well-being as being inherently less important than ours. But if we do not discount the future, then are we committed, as Carden seems to suggest, to the view that we should begin preparing to save our species from the end of the world?

I say, not so fast. It will be immediately apparent upon reflection that Carden's approach to this issue is blatantly utilitarian. The idea seems to be that the appropriate task of the social critic is to evaluate a society's decisions against the benchmark of aggregate well-being in order to determine whether or not people are doing what's best for everyone. But as David Schmidtz points out in his book, Elements of Justice, sometimes we get better outcomes when we don't actively aim to engineer a utilitarian ideal. Schmidtz writes:
A reflective consequentialist morality is not about one versus five. It is not even about costs versus benefits. It is about how we need to live in order to be glad we are neighbors. It's about getting on with our lives in way [sic] that complements rather than hinders our neighbors' efforts to get on with their own.

So even if we adopt a utilitarian mindset, it is not clear that the appropriate way to approach the issue of environmental destruction is to try to calculate the costs and benefits of alternative social policies. As we noted above, we are faced with serious uncertainty at every turn -- it could even turn out that by acting to promote wellbeing by being more focused on the well-being of future people, we would actually make them worse off. For example, imagine if in the industrial revolution, people were prohibited from burning coal to avoid causing mercury pollution. Our fish would be safer to eat, our natural environment would be healthier, and many of our children would avoid being harmed by toxic exposure to the metal, but I imagine that few would argue that on the whole, the policy would have been for the best.

Perhaps, then, the best way to provide for the future would be to focus on the world we live in today. There are plenty of things that we can do to make the world a better place: search for a cure for AIDS, learn to live in peace with one another, and yes, even develop an appreciation and respect for the natural world. As Aldo Leopold wrote in his book, A Sand County Almanac:
Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren't looking.

If we turn our focus to making our world a better place for today, the society we pass on to future generations will make for a much better place to live for our posterity as well. And I think that's something we can all agree to promote.

That being said, I have left an important issue unaddressed: Is environmental destruction unjust? An important objection to the utilitarian approach to looking at the world which we have used thus far is that it fails to take proper account of the seperateness of persons. If by acting in a particular way with respect to the non-human environment, we treat others (whether today or in the future) in a manner contrary to an attitude of appropriate respect for their value as individuals, then we must think long and hard about our actions. As Robert Nozick writes in his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, "...there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives."

I cannot give the question of whether environmental destruction or degradation is unjust the attention that it deserves here, largely because I have not entirely settled the issue in my own mind. But I think that it will suffice for now to suggest that if we are to discuss environmental destruction and degradation from an ethical point of view, it will not do to approach the issue from the standpoint of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. We must acknowledge that we do not always have the power to consciously shape the future in accordance with our desires, and that sometimes, the greatest successes in living together come from letting people get on with their own lives. If we are to find reason for conscious and organized action in response to environmental damage, it seems to me that an attribution of injustice would be the appropriate way forward. And so I think that while Carden's attempt to grapple with this issue was admirable, I have to conclude that he sort of missed the boat.

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