In their book “Free Market Environmentalism,” the authors Anderson and Leal emphasize an assumption that is fundamental to the way of thinking underlying the book’s arguments, namely, that the environment itself has no intrinsic value. I wonder if the assumption may lead at best to an incomplete and at worst to a wrong analysis of the problem at hand. In fact, if the environment does have an intrinsic value, the reasoning would base on a wrong assumption, making the development of the discussion questionable.
Merriam Webster provides a few definitions for the noun “value,” perhaps we can use some of them for the purpose of this post. Let’s start with “the monetary worth of something.” With respect to the environment, environmental services may be seen as something. Examples are the creation of natural resources, understood as concentrated sources of energy and materials that make extraction economically viable; support of life by providing habitats; waste assimilation. Now, it is difficult to assess the monetary worth of environmental services but Kaufmann and Cleveland argue, in their book “Environmental Science” that, I quote, “the value of these services was about $33 trillion in the late 1990s.” Obviously, the environment does have significant monetary worth. As a supporter of (human) life, the environment also seems to enable “something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.”
So, does the environment have intrinsic value? I suppose, if we value “modern lifestyle,” the environment’s ability to assimilate and recycle waste, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, indeed, if we value life, the answer must be yes. Perhaps, as in our economic modeling the environment is inexistent, it is of no surprise that a free market perspective on the environment does model the environment as having no intrinsic value. With this, I don’t want to argue that market theory cannot be a plausible tool for environmental problem solving. I question if market theory is a silver bullet for environmental issues, in particular as it does not internalize environment’s intrinsic value.
Imagine human species disappears from Earth. Each of us is assigned a star on which we sit for the rest of our days with a telescope watching upon Earth. Would you say, what you see has no intrinsic value? The beauty of life would go on, evolution would not stop, the planet would still reflect its white, blue, brown, green characteristic colors and provide value for its inhabitants. It would again rain and snow. The sun would appear at day, disappear at night, feel warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. Grass and trees would not stop growing. Animals would continue to mate and multiply. What would disappear, however, are our own traces, our houses, cities, waste, thoughts, this blog. This begs the question: Might we be a species with no intrinsic value? Perhaps we have, as long as we exist, as long as we interplay with the environment, with nature.
I’m afraid, we see ourselves too much as to be over here, while nature is over there, failing to see how we are nature. Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Some of the oxygen atoms, drivers of your existence, you are breathing might have been released by the plant next to you. Some of the carbon you inhale might be a product of your last barbecue where you used coal to grill your meal. Some of the carbon you exhale might be used by algae living in the river next to your house for their purpose of survival, the algae used to adorn your makizushi rolls.
Do we betray ourselves in believing the environment has no intrinsic value?