Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beluga – Isn't that caviar?

Belugas (Dean Rocky Barrick)
No, that's the other beluga. We're talking whales here.

First right whales ( Now belugas.

Beluga whales are animals that occur in disjoint populations at Arctic and sub-Arctic latitudes. It's a "small", toothed, whale, sans a dorsal fin – an adult immediately recognizable for its uniform, creamy white color. We use the modern definition of "small", which is "weighs less than your SUV, and is typically shorter than one, too". Unlike your SUV, the beluga has the misfortune of liking to congregate in river estuaries, fjords, bays, and other shallow waters right off the coast and near busy ports such as Anchorage, Alaska.

On January 14, 2009, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced that she would sue to have the endangered Cook Inlet population of belugas delisted ( Cook Inlet is an area where exploding gas and oil development has spurred planning to expand the port of Anchorage and possibly build a new bridge (presumably this time, to somewhere). The beluga swims – at a typically unhurried 3-9 kph – squarely in the way of this increase in economic welfare. Whatever small economic benefit the little white whale contributes derives mainly from the amusement it affords people in marine "parks". So far as Palin is concerned, the whales should stay there and stay clear of the development of vastly greater economic goods in the Cook Inlet. There it is just a natural liability.

Ironically, Ms. Palin's previous move (in August 2008) to remove federal protection for the polar bear might well have been in the beluga's interests: Aside from humans and orcas, the polar bear is the beluga's primary predator.

We dedicate this limerick to Ms. Palin's zealous dedication to keep the caviar on her plate.

Damn nuisance – that slug-like white whale:
Obstructs us wherever we sail.
    So sue 'em we must
    Or surely go bust!
God's will is for us to prevail.


Monday, January 19, 2009

And the great president said...

Deadly Embrace:
Cypress and strangling fig
On the eve of his presidency, No. 44 is channeling No. 16. The earlier great president's unifying vision – his embrace of diversity and diverse interests – brings to mind the broad and inclusive vision of The Natural Capital Project and the new environmentalism that it inspires.

This new environmentalism – embodied in the work of The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund – also embraces inclusiveness and unification. It rightfully boasts astounding success in attracting corporate funders. See, for example: Goldman, R.L., Tallis, H., Kareiva, P., and Daily, G.C., "Field evidence that ecosystem service projects support biodiversity and diversify options", Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 105:27 (July 8, 2008), pp. 9445-94448 ( It is truly awe-inspiring to find such a tight partnership between the wealthiest and most powerful multi-national corporations and the environmental movement, that Rio Tinto, among others, is literally setting The Nature Conservancy's agenda –

Biodiversity offsets, habitat banking, mitigation banking – are all innovations that have put new life into Rio Tinto's resource-extraction business. (For some of its handiwork, see These innovations affix the environmentalist imprimatur on activities that were previously seen by less broad-minded environmentalists as simply beating the crap out of the natural world. Of course, Rio Tinto still does that – but now in exchange for not beating the crap out of real estate worthless to it, or manufacturing a facsimile of the crap-beaten-out land on real estate worthless to it, or (the finest innovation of all), the mere promise to do one of these things. This is the magic of offsets and banking – a magic which spikes the rejuvenating elixir of the new environmentalism.

Skeptics of this approach may be unaware of one of the 16th president's most powerful nation-unifying speeches. This ignorance is forgivable. For obscure reasons, this speech was scrapped and all but a few rarely seen and never-heard excerpts are lost to history. But the few extant passages are truly inspiring – in no small part because we can see in them the clear inspiration for The Natural Capital Project and The Nature Conservancy.

Here is the longest surviving contiguous fragment:
We need to bring everyone with an interest in slavery into our house and to our table, including those with a direct economic stake in it. We cannot arbitrarily ignore any interest if we hope to forge an effective agreement, which must be one acceptable to all. By respecting all interests, there is no doubt that we can reach consensus on a new, gentler, more humane kind of slavery that can sustain the unity, harmony, and welfare of this great nation of ours.
One can imagine that at this point, had this speech been delivered, everyone in attendance cheers and waves their 34-star American flags. No. 16 goes on:
Of course, we must honestly acknowledge the undeniable economic cost of more humane treatment. And so undeniably, we cannot expect our fellow citizens, those who happen to be slave owners and who have contributed so much to the greatness of our nation, to bear the cost without gentle encouragement to lighten their brutality.

The way forward is together. It is one in which we appeal to the better nature of those of us who own slaves. We must offer just compensation which coaxes from that nature an understanding that a slave owner's best interests are served when his most brutal acts are abandoned. And we must give the slave owner a way to offset and bank whatever brutal acts he cannot, despite his best and most sincere efforts, abandon for fear of economic ruin. The greater good will be served by asking of the slave holders among us that they set aside places where no slave can be flogged without cause and where slave families are permitted to stay together, unless they attempt to flee this just and humane compact.

This, I believe, is at the core of an effective healing of this nation's deeply dividing wound.
So the great 16th president might have spoken.

It was our good fortune, as the election of No. 44 has made more clear than ever, that we instead got the 13th Amendment.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Climate change limerick

With reference to

Were climate Caldeira's own toy,
Away he would play for his joy.
    Spray sulfates up there!
    It's easy, I swear –
So easy, the earth to destroy.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Walking and Flying with Pelicans

It is a late autumn afternoon at the Baylands.

American Avocet (winter plumage) plying the mudflats
This is an avian paradise whose denizens have no apparent complaint about the place's recent history as a complex of man-made levees, landfill, salt-evaporation ponds. Only my non-avian eyes smart when touched by the plain evidence of this. The full moon, not yet risen in the eastern sky, has tugged away tidal waters to expose a vast expanse of mudflats. For many birds, the veil has been removed from a table bearing a great banquet. I walk out from the trailhead expecting that a riot of birds will have come to the feast.

Instead, I find a normal-sized congregation of some of the usual suspects. Blackbirds in the reeds on the bay's periphery. Gadwalls, shovelers, mallards, and coots voluntarily corralled together, looking for dinner in isolated islands of water. Avocets, whimbrels, willets, dowitchers, and western sandpipers, trawling through the mud for tasty treasures. California and ring-billed gulls flying overhead. A single cormorant on the wing. But other of the usual suspects are conspicuous by their absence. Where are the stilts that keep the avocets company, the terns that dive and plunge for their repast, the herons that discretely wade, watch, wait, then spear theirs? These are no-shows, as are the often seen swallows, teals, ruddy ducks, pintails, canada geese, herons, pelicans. On a day like this, the hope for a rare appearance of a rail or white-faced ibis quickly fades.

Watching creatures that are here today plying their trade and thinking about those that aren't, it is not hard to feel that "there is somebody there behind the ... feathers", as Holmes Rolston III puts it (Rolston, H., "Value in Nature and the Nature of Value", from Philosophy and Natural Environment, ed. Attfield, R, and Belsey, A, Cambridge University Press, 1994). That "somebody" is an animal that, like me, needs to work for a living. I can appreciate that effort and relate it to mine. I can even imagine myself living their life, finding food the way they do. Philosophers wrap themselves in knots trying to unravel the meaning of counterfactual statements. The rest of us find straightforward meaning in "if I were a pelican..." Those feathered "somebodies" are, in some significant sense, one of "us".

White pelicans. In warmer weather months, they can be seen together in a great flock, swimming together and flying in formations so impossibly low over the water that their huge, powerfully flapping wings must inevitably drown; but never do. Sometime every fall, the pelicans suddenly vanish to I-know-not-where. Apparently, I have arrived after their departure.

Why aren't more birds here? Didn't the word get
out? "GOOD EATS". I imagine that the message was somehow sent, but was then swallowed up by the hum of traffic on nearby Route 101; or knocked down to the ground by the single engine planes that drone overhead from and to a nearby municipal airport; or scrambled into gibberish by the electromagnetic fields around the power transmission lines strung along erector-set towers that line the bay.

My habit is to walk out a few miles on a dirt road atop a levee; then retrace my steps. Almost at my turnaround point, I spot a solitary white pelican – incapable of disappearing amidst a dense congregation of of gadwalls and shovelers. What is he doing here alone? Did he miss a cue while deep in pelican thought? Does he suffer from not having his companions for flying in tight pelican formation? Could he be a pelican iconoclast and just not care about such things? I reach the slatted bench which marks my turnaround. Affixed to an upper slat is a small metal plaque. I hope that I accurately recall the inscription: "Libby Dutton (1948-1998) Her spirit now flies with the pelicans that she loved."

I arrive back at the trailhead at sundown and look back at the sky across the bay to the east. Until this time, it has born the brownish tint of nitrous oxide. But the setting sun now has repainted the eastern sky in rose colors, and the nitrous oxide is evident only in a sepia deepening and intensification of the roseate hues. The birds, just moments ago chattering, twittering, calling, are now hushed.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Existential Truths about Pollution

Perhaps not since Meursault's struggles to cobble together new values from the crumbled remains of the old (Albert Camus, The Stranger), have we had such an existential outpouring of Weltschmerz as we see in Stanley Fish's August 3, 2008 New York Times commentary "I Am, Therefore I Pollute" ( The world-weary heaviness of his words testifies to the heaviness of the burden that Mr. Fish perceives himself to carry. "Forgive me, father, but I have not the will to consume the environmentally right things."

The burden of green consumption
Mr. Fish's angst registers with us because we see in him at least a partial reflection of ourselves. Many of us are convinced that many environmental goals – centered around trying not to transform the nature (quite literally) of our planetary home into something utterly alien and unrecognizable – are justified, even noble. But when it comes to specific deeds to achieve them, we find a hollow emptiness in lieu of the expected resolve. We truly do will the environmental ends, but we have no will for the means.

In some of the most environmentally committed persons I know – including (or especially) world-leading environmental and ecological scientists – horror replaces Mr. Fish's angst. Unlike Fish, these elite environmental cognoscenti seem to have a still-intact, even laser-focused determination to adopt "environmentally enlightened" lifestyles. Their formidable resolve is bolstered by epistemic resources well beyond that of ordinary and even most extraordinary citizens. If anyone can know what do do, it is these people. Yet with efforts that can soberly be characterized as heroic, they still find themselves among the polluters – still contributing to the growth of pollution problems, just at a rate modestly below the average. Astonishment turns to embarrassment. And then, horror. It would be sad, but no surprise if the will of these people began to flag, eventually reaching Mr. Fish's nadir. Others, not so painfully well informed and not so acutely aware of the minimal effect of their efforts, nevertheless suspect it. They live with this gnawing suspicion.

What is going on here? We try to buy biodegradable or recyclable products. We recycle the recyclable items. We try to turn off lights and appliances when not using them. We try to buy things that don't take an enormous amount of pollution to make and whose use doesn't excessively pollute, either. (See, for example, Kevin Coyle, "Environmental Literacy in America", The National environmental Education and Training Foundation, 2005, Chapter 3 ( We know in our hearts that these are right things to do. We also know in our hearts that doing them, or really trying to do them – even en masse – is not enough.

Part of the reason has to do with the "trying to do them" part. It is hard, and it quickly comes to seem truly impossible, to fully assess the environmental impact involved in something as basic as toilet paper or napkins or diapers. Scientific analysts with Ph.D.'s have difficultly coming to a common understanding of the environmental impact of the resources used, their transportation to the factory, the energy and processes and waste produced in the manufacture, the transportation (again) to the store, the transportation (again) to your home, your use, the processes involved in your reuse, your disposal, or your recycling. When they do reach agreement, the consensus can be ephemeral – later found to be shot through with mistaken assumptions or facts. The impenetrable inscrutability of something so apparently simple as diapers torpedos any hope of making informed environmental choices for all the things that touch on and flow through the course of a normal human life.

There are well known and highly discouraging cases of highly touted "solutions" that well-meaning and conscientious environmentalists have enthusiastic embraced, only later to be served notice that the initial analysis was mistaken. Biofuel is one. Some still believe that biofuel is the only morally responsible way to run a private vehicle. There certainly are huge corporations with a huge amounts of influence that have every interest in promoting that belief. But it is mistaken, and on a very general scale for some very broadly applicable reasons. We have come to know that the incorrect view of biofuel's advantages relied on two mistakes. First was omitting the impact of biofuel plantations on the environment – including the production and use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides; as well as the plantations' appropriation of land and primary plant production. (See Foley, J., Monfreda, C., Ramankutty, N. and Zaks, D., "Our share of the planetary pie", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 101:31 (July 31, 2007), pp. 12585-12586 ( Second was overlooking the basic thermodynamic fact that biological organisms in general, including photosynthesizing ones, are terribly inefficient energy transducers. A leaf, that most common of photosynthesizing parts, manages to extract and store only about 5% of the incident sunlight's energy. (That figure plummets to about 0.2% for the efficiency of all photosynthesizing organisms in converting available sunlight to sugars, when taking into account the relatively small surface area of the planet that such organisms occupy.) Such small margins are easily swamped by the energy expended to produce fertilizer, seeds, herbicides, insecticides, and farm machinery; to do the farming; and for transportation. By way of comparison, photovoltaic cells with 30% efficiencies are now produced commercially, with laboratory experiments hovering around 40%. Of course, we also need to look at what kind of pollution their production involves.

Trying to choose is hard when you know that you're ill-equipped to make the right call; even harder when you realize that having a Ph.D. in the subject doesn't yield much better success. But several other currents may run deeper. We surely must feel some significant malaise about the fact that our principle instrument of environmental action seems to be consumption and consumptive choices. We are urged to consume our way out of our environmental woes. Yet we know, or are at least vaguely aware, that our desire for more, bigger, cheaper, easier-to-use things (cars, refrigerators, air-conditioned houses, and food that requires industrial production, etc.) combined with the eager willingness and astonishing efficiency of companies in satisfying those desires in return for our wallets, is primarily responsible for the environmental mess in the first place. How could we not feel some bitter irony in this? At least some cognitive dissonance?

For most of us, there is also a great existential remove from both the causes and the most terrible consequences of our environmental destruction. The causes are diffuse in space, in time, and agency – in the multitude of seemingly minuscule and insignificant individual contributions. Diffuse too are the effects – again in space, but especially in time. Descendants of ours – persons whom we don't and will never know and with whom we have no apparent relation other than as ancestors of distant progeny – will endure the full brunt of a wasted planet. We currently respiring heaps of protoplasm will not. Compounding this diffuseness of cause and effect are enormous uncertainties surrounding both. This multi-faceted remove of both cause and effect makes them hard for human beings to feel viscerally. We are the kinds of creatures whose focus beyond the relative certainties of next week and beyond the familiar spatial compass of our daily routine becomes quite fuzzy.

Mr. Fish elicits another, very important element. The mere attempt to do the things we are told might be helpful, for example to change what we buy, generates a palpable and grating friction in our psyche – even when the changes are truly trivial. We feel this friction in parting with our customary and comfortable ways of thinking and doing things. Conceivably the other, previously mentioned elements of doubt enter into this – doubt about whether we can make the right choice, doubt that even the right choice makes a difference, doubt that the differences, so distant from our experience here and now, are real. But the feeling of friction may well be an independent phenomenon worth considering on its own, however intermixed it might be with others.

Pondering the origin of this impedance, some of its independent significance emerges. It may be due partly to a blind inertia of personal attitudes, dispositions, habits, or ways of doing things. But this doesn't tell some deeper stories. One story has something to do with what we view as the primary "goods" in our lives – the things that we buy and consume, the means by which we acquire them, and the attribution and feeling of "success" that is largely defined in terms of the possession of such goods.

"What we consume are the 'goods' that are most central to our well being." To some of us, that last sentence may even appear tautological – so strange may it seem to conceive of "goods" other than "what we buy". No wonder we tend to couch our environmental problems in terms of consumer choices. These goods are so central in our life that there is no question about whether we should consume them, let alone whether they should be produced. The only question has to do with which ones to consume. This explains something about why we find ourselves stuck agonizing over which toilet paper or which car to buy. Even if these decisions may be of relatively minor consequence in getting to the root cause of environmental destruction, we perceive them to be of enormous consequence because even small adjustments in enormously important goods are inevitably perceived as enormous.

Another story has to do with those aforementioned inertial forces. The narrow channels in which our personal choices run are excavated primarily by our economic and political institutions. The goods that we embrace are largely the goods that those institutions are concerned to create, propagate, and sustain. The same institutions define the rules for, and dictate the terms of our public and private discourse. Those terms dictate a narrow focus on human interactions in the marketplace. They say nothing about
the interactions most meaningful to humans and that have nothing to do with trade. Lost is any consideration of how humans interact with the environment and natural world.

Our discourse confines attention to time frames comprising small fractions of a human lifetime, which are inappropriately minuscule for any kind of rational accounting for environmental value. The logic of their use has prevailed long enough that they have influenced fundamental decisions about how to organize our society both physically and socially. What industries we have and that people depend on for employment; where we build houses (far away from our workplaces), how big they are, and their frequent siting in places that were formerly undisturbed – physical and social constructs such as these have become preconditions of subsequent discourse and further constrain it.

When we agonize over our choice of a car, it is likely that we are oblivious to these preconditions. That makes it enormously difficult to ask more unconditioned questions: What are our real needs to get from one place to another? Are there other needs or values at stake with essentially free and unrestricted travel? What about the consequences of sealing the earth's surface beneath impermeable materials that form our roadways? Or the fragmentation of habitats that make it impossible for many of our fellow creature to continue their run on the planet alongside us? If we look beyond the range of a car, what about the planetary homogenization of species that accompany us on our travels? Or the sudden effective increases – sometimes beyond a critical threshold – of populations susceptible to infectious diseases? In light of all these considerations, what amount and manner of travel makes sense and does it even make sense for all of us to have even one private vehicle, let alone the two or three or more in many individual households?

These are questions that break free from institutional constraints. That, by definition, makes them "radical". But they are not haunted by the doubts that burden the usual, suffocatingly narrow questions to which we now ordinarily confine ourselves. As a result, they have at least the potential to be as energizing as the usual questions are enervating. Energy is certainly required. Not only are the needed questions radical, but the needed responses are likely to be radical, too. They are likely to require, not just an easy shift from one product to another, but a much tougher reexamination of character, attitudes, and habitual behaviors, and how these act on our life situation and well-being taking into account "goods" beyond "the stuff we buy". Which in turn feeds back on and influences our character and attitudes.

Is it worth the expenditure of energy? Is it worth wrestling with questions that require a tough reassessment of character? An answer to these questions may come down to an answer to the question: Is it worth struggling for an expansion of value and an expansion of how people can lead good and flourishing lives by having healthy relationships with the environment? The alternative is well voiced by Mr. Fish. It is a kind of anomie and a constriction and diminution of values available to us all.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Future Persons, Future Values: Ignorance, Non-Identity, and Sustainability

0 Introduction

0.1 Change

(Stanley Donwood, poster, 2006)
Questions about human relationships with the natural world are inextricably entangled with questions about the future. This is not a startling claim. More startling is that it is rarely stated so plainly and with such generality. Perhaps it's so obvious that it doesn't need to be said, except by philosophers who are reluctant to leave anything unsaid.

We nonetheless risk stating the obvious: How we currently live from the natural world, how we live in it, and how we live with and within it – the behaviors that flow from our current attitudes and dispositions toward the natural world – certainly affect currently living persons. But it seems abundantly clear that their affect on future persons will be far greater.

Certainly this point has been made in the context of some specific discussions. It has received particular emphasis in the context of climate change, a topic that dominates much of today's environmental discourse. A 0.76° C increase in global yearly average surface temperature during the 20th century already dramatically affects a small number of contemporaneous human lives. But the effects on most of us currently respiring organisms are modest – a mere warm-up, so to speak – compared to the effects of the further 1.1° C to 6.4° C increase on living creatures that enter the 22nd century – after most of us have recycled our carbon. (Temperature figures are from the IPCC 2007 report: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis/Summary for Policymakers, pp. 4, 11.)

The arena of climate change is not the only one within the environmental realm whose discourse is heavily invested in future concerns. Other areas include the progressive elimination of species in the Sixth Great Extinction of planet earth, and the progressive elimination of places that are not largely artifactual or at least not largely reflections of human tastes, skills, destruction (intentional or mindless), development, management, domination, and consumption. In these other cases, too, some changes are noticeable right now. Many of us already notice that formerly near-deafening fortississimo amphibian choruses are subito pianissimo. Many of us find it increasingly difficult to find places that do not mostly "speak" of human attitudes and activities. But I who am writing this piece and you who are reading it won't be alive in a world totally devoid of amphibian serenades. Nor with sufficient effort, will we be completely unable to find some place that is recognizably part of a natural history rather than mostly or only a part of human or just human industrial history.

In these various special (and important) contexts, environmental discourse has shown a sense that some significant part of the value we place in our relationship with nature has to do with the future. That sense combines with a sense that our current behavior in this relationship is changing what we are relating to. And it is changing it
in a way deleterious to that value.

We will return to the "deleterious" part shortly. But that our behavior is changing the natural world is not a matter of serious question. Moreover, we have recently come to realize that the changes that we have precipitated are not imperceptible, not trivial, not incremental, not modest, but dramatic. And they are dramatic not just in how our world looks and feels to us in myriad small or confined particulars, but also in systematic ways at systemic levels of observable behavior and function. Scientists say that these sorts of systemic changes have already yielded wholesale and dramatic transformations of our home planet that may be the relatively minor initial stages or precursors of incalculably greater transformations.

Yet change in the natural world is natural. Earth's climate has changed before. In its 4.5 billion year history, it has on the whole been warmer than it is now. Mass extinctions have previously occurred. Trilobites came. Trilobites went – in the Permian-Triassic Extinction. With the trilobites went perhaps 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates. The current great extinction hasn't wreaked nearly that much havoc. Not yet, at least. And it is just the sixth in a series of extinctions that we have no convincing reason not to expect to continue until either volcanism stalls or the sun engulfs the earth, thus making our planet entirely uninhabitable. Not just the inhabitants but the places they inhabit have continually been transformed in ways that make them unrecognizable as the places they previously were. The Himalayas were once a plain. The Grand Canyon was once a seabed.

Of course, the nearly unprecedented nature of some changes we have wrought (unlike the "mere" change in climate and species) and the absolutely unprecedented pace may give pause. One such nearly unprecedented change – or really set of changes – at an unprecedented pace has to do with the chemistry of air, land, and water. Even leaving aside our injection of fossilized carbon into the atmosphere, we have reconfigured how much and where the atmosphere's ozone resides – more in the troposphere, less in the stratosphere. Along with our spewing of CFC's into the atmosphere, this is due to our enormous amplification of the flux of chemically active nitrogen. The same, vastly increased flux of nitrogen has fundamentally altered the chemistry of soils and the waterways and oceans into which they eventually make their way. Heavy metals such as lead and mercury, but also other heavy and some light metals and metalloids such as uranium, plutonium, cadmium, copper, nickel, cobalt, vanadium, arsenic, molybdenum, niobium, chromium, zinc, and aluminum – hitherto rarely found anywhere in significant concentrations – also make their way into soil, water, and the living tissues of organisms worldwide. We have introduced chemical compounds such as dioxins and PAH's – chemicals that radically alter the biochemistry of most carbon-based life-forms – in quantities that took them from barely noticeable natural background to center stage. We have even concocted and introduced into the natural world chemicals such as plastic resins and PCB's, previously entirely unknown to nature. These compounds, nearly indestructible, also have a durability previously almost unknown. They are humanity's permanent contribution to the earthly chemical mix.

0.2 The ethics of change in a "fixed firmament" of values

Still, in and of themselves, these are just changes – precedented or not, huge or small, friendly to carbon life forms, or not. They, their causes, and the resulting new conditions are themselves neither good nor bad. But we perceive that our nature-affecting behaviors are effecting changes that are bad in some ways – and bad primarily, if not overwhelmingly, for the lives of future persons. That together with the fact that humans are principle agents of this change transforms this into an ethical issue.

These two simple and basic thoughts lead much discourse about human behavior and the natural world to fix on a canonical, tripartite characterization of our troubled moral relationship with nature: 1) Humans are ethical agents who 2) act on the natural world to dramatically change it 3) in ways that are bad principally for future persons. Of course, not all thinkers share this formulation or focus. There are biocentrists such as Paul Taylor, intrinsic value theorists such as Holmes Rolston III, and those, such as Peter Singer, who take the interests of non-human animals seriously. These and others find ample ethical handholds in current states of affairs. They do not require support from considerations that are fundamentally future-regarding. They, among others, would maintain that there would be something bad about what humans are doing to their planet, even if all future generations of humanity were whisked away to live on a unaltered twin earth. But the majority of thinkers start by staring out into the future to look for the value proposition in the changes we are working. Specifically, they look to the future of future persons in the future world that we are making very different from anything previously known by us and all past persons.

Various thinkers take various paths leading out from the canonical starting point. In subsequent sections, we survey a representative sample. We consider those who view the ethical problem as one primarily of intergenerational justice. We consider, too, the economists who view the heart of the ethical matter as a matter of sustaining economic welfare – the allocation of resources over time in a way that prevents any permanent decline in economic welfare, roughly defined as the satisfaction of human preferences. (A more precise formulation is presented in that discussion.) And finally, there are those who reject economists' specific notion of sustainability, but who try to rehabilitate it in some way. One approach latches onto the notion that if some kinds of changes are bad, we should be preventing them by sustaining the relevant states of affairs
despite the absence of economic justification. Another approach urges that, at least, we should have a satisfying story about whatever changes that we make or allow to happen.

These three approaches take paths that lead to varying conclusions about what we owe future persons. But our principal concern is not so much with the differences in their conclusions about future-regarding value, but in some significant similarities in the metaphysics of morals that leads up to those conclusions. One common thread in those metaphysics is some form of an assumption that we can talk about values – including moral values and natural-values-that-are-moral-values – as though these were permanently ensconced in a "fixed firmament" of values. While this thread takes on various and sometimes not-so-obvious twists and turns, there is a recognizably fixed core. Values are just "out there" – now, before now, and for all time. They are removed from the world of causation and particularly, human agency. Embedded like Anaximenes' stars in a rotating crystalline sphere, they are there to be found and embraced... or not – as different past, current, and future persons, with differing sensibilities and capacities for discernment happen upon them; or as the sphere rotates different stars of the value-firmament into human view.

The picture that emerges is not unlike that of different astronomers with telescopes of different resolving power that are, in any case, trained on different parts of the sky to satisfy the astronomers' different interests. This picture depicts a universe of values that may be held by contemporaneous persons. Under the permanently installed firmament of values, one person may well find and embrace certain constellations – that is, different categories – of value and ignore others embraced by other, contemporaneous persons. But because of its timeless quality, the picture has no trouble spanning generational differences, too. It is entirely possible that future persons may tend to find and hold onto constellations of value that we now tend to ignore; while those values held by us, the currently respiring representatives of the human species, may be unhesitatingly overlooked, dismissed, or ignored by those future persons. But while we may focus on some part of the "fixed firmament" and future persons may focus on another – we all are living under the one and the same unchanging firmament. The values in it are static; and they do not change because there is nothing – no causal force – to change them.

Of course, there may be some values, and in fact some natural values that, while contingent on facts about human beings, are so closely tied to humans as narrowly construed biological organisms, that they never go out of value fashion – at least so long as we do not transform ourselves into cyborgs. Values that blatantly derive from the needs and dependencies of organic biological creatures may not survive into a transhuman future in which (according to the likes of Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurtzweil) human minds, uploaded into circuitry, have abandoned their biologically evolved vessels. But we need not wrestle with the possibility of a transhuman future. For nobody would contend that all or even most of the values that attach to the natural world fall into the "timeless fashion", biological needs-based category.

The future-regarding nature of the canonical starting point does not logically dictate or imply this "fixed firmament" metaphysics of values. But those at the canonical starting point immediately confront questions of enormous complexity and difficulty. If our actions bring into existence particular persons who would not have existed had we acted differently, how can we be said to harm them? Beyond that, how can we presume to know what the interests of those persons are? Is that even our business? These are thorny questions, indeed. They seem to encourage and cultivate the "fixed firmament" metaphysics as a simplifying assumption.

Simplifications of a problem that clear away marginally important and distracting tangle can make it easier to see where to plant protection and get purchase. But simplifications can also sweep from view the best available placements. I believe that the fixed firmament metaphysics of morals does the latter. In a universe of statically defined values that are eternally "out there", removed from the world of causation and human agency, there is no visible anchor for questions about how values themselves evolve, how they are sustained, and how they are propagated. Insofar as answers to these questions are critical for understanding moral value in general and natural value in particular, the "fixed firmament" universe cannot frame a satisfying account.

The "fixed firmament" necessarily looks past several critical considerations. I have already suggested that it ignores the fact that the firmament of human value is dynamic – that constellations of value can emerge, linger, fade away, or be obliterated. Secondly, it does not take into account that we human moral agents have a great deal of control over these dynamics. We may even have an obligation to exercise this control in certain ways. We make many of the choices that determine what categories of value may be available to infuse and enrich the lives of persons who are receptive to them, and which ones may become universally inaccessible or even unimaginable. Finally, it ignores the principal means by which we exert this control. That is through self-imposed behavioral constraints that are woven into the fabric of social, politital, and moral institutions. We can, and often do jointly agree to refrain from engaging in, or (critically) even considering certain ways of pursuing the projects that give value to our lives so as to make those projects (and those of others) possible at all. Taken together, these considerations suggest that some our most important moral choices have to do with what constellations of value we wish to install or preserve in our value firmament.

This last point is crucial. It is usually ignored and the minimal attention that it does get is often confused. The point has to do with preserving attitudes and dispositions
ways of reasoning about our individual and social behavior. It has little to do with preserving "stuff", though that might be the end result.

Making a choice between a value universe with a few dimly lit stars and one containing a densely milky galaxy of values may be a matter of far greater moral consequence than choosing between and trading off values within an already defined universe. This, I believe, goes to the heart of the moral value in general, and to the heart of human relationships to nature, in particular. Ignoring it predictably leads to truncated and ultimately unsatisfying accounts of both.

The first three non-introductory sections of this piece tease out the meta-ethical similarities that guide the three paths mentioned above. In a final section, I flesh out an alternative to the "fixed firmament" metaphysics of values – one that, I hope, provides a framework for a richer, more realistic, more profound, and more satisfying understanding of natural value.

We start from the canonical starting point, staring out into the future. We are immediately confronted by an overwhelmingly daunting characteristic of the view. We can't see much at all. We know very little about the future. We are, in effect, starting from ignorance. No matter. Much good and some great philosophy starts there.

1 Non-Identity and Being Fair to Future Persons

One profound kind of ignorance concerns the identity of future persons. That mere ignorance, in itself, is not morally confounding. What is confounding is that the actions, behaviors, and policies of currently living persons inevitably determine who those future persons will be. Differences in actions, behaviors, and policies will lead to differences in investments, which will lead to differences in jobs, which will lead to different people meeting and conceiving at different times, which will lead to different children with different genomes. And so for the children of those children. And theirs. And so on.

Each particular person who ends up existing thereby owes her life to whatever actions, behaviors, and policies that led up to their existence. Suppose that those same actions, behaviors, and policies had effects that we would regard as deleterious to conditions for living. Suppose, for example, that they resulted in an utterly ruined natural world. Provided that those conditions still permitted these future persons to live worthwhile lives, then we have no basis for saying that they were harmed or wronged. The deteriorated state of the world doesn't make these persons worse off than they would have been otherwise – because there is no other world in which they otherwise would have existed.

This is Derek Parfit's "Non-Identity Problem" (Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 359). Much philosophical ink has been spilled agonizing over this problem in future-regarding value. Parfit himself concludes that, if there were no differences in the number of future persons, then a straightforward consequentialist principle resolves the dilemma:
The Same Number Quality Claim or Q: If in either of two possible outcomes the same number of people would ever live, it would be worse if those who live are worse off, or have a lower quality of life, than those who would have lived.
(Parfit, p. 360)
Unfortunately, the same number assumption grossly oversimplifies the effects of different characteristic behaviors and policies in the real world. These differences would produce, not just different particular individuals, but different numbers of particular individuals. In the face of the reality of numerical differences, Parfit is stymied. He is reduced to suggesting another consequentialist resolution – "Theory X". But he confesses that he cannot specify Theory X, except by analogy, as a "different number" version of Q.

A very penetrating discussion of the Non-Identity Problem comes from Jeffrey Reiman, "Being Fair to Future People: The Non-Identity Problem in the Original Position", Philosophy and Public Affairs, 35:1 (2007), pp. 69-92. Reiman brings the classical, "original position" framework of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971 to bear on the question of intergenerational justice. Within this framework, he convincingly defuses the force of the Non-Identity Problem by showing how it relies on the confusion of trying to attribute to a particular person an interest in being the particular person that she is.

From behind the veil of ignorance of Rawls' veil of ignorance (Rawls, pp. 136-142), which particulars exist as persons – including, for example their race or gender – is not relevant to determining what rights those persons have, and how to achieve a just and fair regard for those rights. As Reiman points out, membership in a particular generation and whether or not a particular person is already born or not, cannot be distinguished from race and gender in this fundamental respect. It does not provide a legitimate basis for discriminating against the rights of such a person.

This is not to deny that a particular person's individuating characteristics and accidents of birth or history might affect her quality of life. Her genome and her date of birth, for example, might well have significant effects. Members of one gender as opposed to the other may encounter special difficulties. Just so, members of one generation may experience a very different quality of life (for better or worse) from members of another. But these effects do not hinge on a person being the particular that she is, as such. That fact, the original position insists, must be resolutely ignored to meet the requirements of fairness and justice.

On the other hand, those who deliberate from behind the veil of ignorance must consider as morally significant many of the properties that affect the quality of the life of particular persons – whomever they happen to be and whenever they happen to exist – and in which those persons, considered independent of which particulars they wind up being, may have a legitimate interest. The properties in question may be the personal properties – constitution-determining ones that, for example bear on the likelihood of early mortality or morbidity. More commonly, they will be properties of the world in which a particular person ends up living and that affect the quality of that person's life. The degree of pollution in the world is a clear example (so to speak) of such a worldly property.

Reiman concludes that it does not make sense to say that it is in the interest of a person to be born this particular person or that. But we can harm a future person by harming her interests – in being born with certain personal properties but not others; and in living in a world with certain properties but not others – despite the fact that she would not have existed except under these circumstances. It makes no moral sense for a future person to say that she has an interest in existing, to be considered alongside her interests in having a well-considered set of personal and worldly properties. These sorts of interests, not the particular person she is, are what count morally.

But when we ask, "Just what sorts of interests are morally relevant?" the "fixed firmament" assumption enters Reiman's discussion with the clearest possible statement of it:
We suppose that the interests of future people are just like the interests of present people, only later.
(Reiman, p. 84, emphasis in the original)
Reiman implicitly builds this assumption into his description of the remarkably narrow set of interests that he proposes as meriting intergenerational moral consideration:
It seems reasonable for parties in the original position to agree to a general duty of living people to provide for future generations’ normal functioning since the parties want to safeguard their ability to pursue their goals whatever they turn out to be, and maintenance of normal functioning (including prevention of serious defects) provides such a safeguard. Moreover, the standard of normal species functioning has the advantage of avoiding a hemorrhage of unlimited duty that could flow from the idea that we owe future people to make them the best people possible.
(Reiman, p. 81, emphasis added)
For Reiman, the goals that a person can conceive of as available and open to pursue, and thus the values that are can be derived in pursuing these goals, whichever ones are selected, cannot reach beyond the available possibilities that are "out there" in the "fixed firmament", independent any contingency other than "normal species functioning". This is presumed constant through time, fixed by biology. Therefore, all contingency concerning what values there are can be safely ignored. Contingencies bear only on whether or not the fixed values are actually realized. And these contingencies have to do with personal and worldly properties of a person that make pursuing chosen goals more or less difficult.

Moreover, obligations to serve selected interests are never unqualified – not even those that serve the narrow and most basic set of interests involved in pursuing the goal of normal biological functioning:
... this is not strictly a right to normal functioning as such, but to living people’s reasonable efforts to ensure that level of functioning; nor is it a right to a certain quality of life, but to living people’s reasonable efforts to ensure that future people face normal life expectancies and morbidity rates.
(Reiman, p. 81, emphasis added)
With this qualification, Reiman can secure only a "reasonable effort" on our part to provide future persons with a "normal level of functioning". And that seems to be little more than functioning according to a biological standard for the species. We act with appropriate moral consideration for future persons if we merely avoid unreasonably weak means of aiming to sustain a level of human functioning that can be "objectively" described in biological terms. We will have done no harm even if our not unreasonably weak efforts fail to achieve the end at which they are aimed, and the end result is, in fact, the sub-normal functioning of significant numbers of future persons.

Oxygen Should Be Regarded as a Drug
(Stanley Donwood, acrylic on canvas, 2008)
Could Reiman's approach be further pursued to include levels of functioning that go beyond pure biology? Perhaps it could embrace an accoutrement of other properties that are commonly deemed basic and "normal" human needs – including autonomy, security, breathable air, food, potable water, and shelter. But even after including these other basic human needs, one can imagine a grossly impoverished, sterile world that still meets the "normal species functioning" test. One can argue (and offend many by arguing) that many of us already live in such a world. The most obvious of such worlds we call "cities". Not only are the people who live there provided for, but many of them flourish in this environment. But this phenomenon is not restricted to cities. It is pervasive and fast approaching ubiquity – to the point where ecologists have come to realize that there is little for them to study, except for "anthropogenic biomes" ( These are places that cannot be understood without taking into account increasingly dominant human impacts.

But there is no need to stop with the current, highly compromised states of affairs. The world of future persons' contentment and satisfaction could be one in utter natural ruin. It need not contain even a single plot of land that is not either literally covered in human artifacts – human dwellings and possessions – or that is given to cultivation, or the extraction of resources, or that is largely shaped by previous such activities. It could be a world that contains only animals that are bred for human use and consumption. There is no logic that would prevent it from being a world where one dared drink only bottled water of human manufacture, where one dared breath the air only from canisters or in climate-controlled buildings, and where UV protection suits were donned without a second thought. Such a world in ruin could still satisfy even an extended accoutrement of basic human needs. Still, this concept of what we owe to future persons embodies one normative notion of sustainability – that we have a duty to sustain (or not make too weak an effort to sustain) normal levels of human biological functioning (and perhaps meet other basic human needs).

Why do these results seem so severely restrictive? Frankly, they don't to many. But to those who feel that some value proposition is missing from these results, it is worth asking why. In particular, why do they fall so far short of even a minimal conception of natural value? Of course, one possible reason is that Reiman, like Rawls, is concerned with a theory of justice that may not comprise a complete theory of the right and the good. A theory of justice need not account for all values.

But another possible reason for the restrictiveness of Reiman's result, we believe, traces back to a series of assumptions that start with the firmament of values that stays fixed for all generations. According to Reiman, the only legitimate candidates for goods owed to future persons are ones that are objectively "out there" in the "fixed firmament" – for "justice should concern objective goods rather than subjective ones such as [preference] satisfaction." (fn. 20, p. 81). But apparently, it does not suffice that these goods be objective in the sense of "always out there in the firmament of values". They must also be timeless in the sense that they serve needs so basic that it is guaranteed that, as a matter of contingent fact, people current and future value them. Not only always available to try on for size, they must be values that never go out of fashion, that no person would or could ever willingly forego. "A basic level of biological functioning" is a good that meets this strict criterion in a world of "fixed firmament" values. It cannot be other than a good for us, currently respiring humans; and cannot be otherwise for future, non-cyborg humans. Yet it seems that even a theory of justice that hangs on to some requirement for "objective value" has no apparent basis for assuming that it must fulfill that requirement within a universe of fixed and static values that transcend causal forces, including the causal forces at the disposal of human moral agents.

There is another way of viewing Reiman's journey – as starting from, and dealing with one kind of ignorance, but ending up by running into another. Reiman starts from our ignorance of the identities of particular future persons. He dissolves a moral conundrum that is rooted in a misconceived take on the moral implications of that ignorance. But in addressing the question of what goods we owe future persons, he lets ignorance of another sort – ignorance of what those future persons may value – dictate that we consider only the narrowest conceivable range of values for them – a range of values that seems completely and indisputably knowable now (and forever).

Following Reiman's path to this point makes it appear that the problem of ignorance of the identity of future persons is not the real obstacle in determining our obligations to them. In retrospect, we may regard the Non-Identity Problem as a detour that takes us to another problem of ignorance – this time, ignorance of the values of future persons. Again, no matter. For many contributors to the discussion about future persons and what we owe them, this, in fact, is the starting point.

2 The Non-Identity of Future Values and Economic Sustainability

We may believe with Reiman that we owe future persons an environment that ensures their normal functioning as biological beings. But, as we have presented, this need not amount to much in the way of preserving anything – plants, animals, places, habitats, ecosystems – in a way that doesn't obviously show the hand of human influence and manipulation that dominates and obscures all other characteristics and relationships of these natural entities.

If we cannot, with any assurance, argue for the importance of natural values for currently living persons, the case must be that much more tenuous for future persons. If some interests of future persons attach to the natural environment, what could they be? Even if there were such interests, how could we know what they would be? What assumptions are we entitled to make about the values important to future generations? What assumptions can we make that would not be paternalistic?

All these questions are no better presented and confronted than by economists – though, as we shall argue, there are far better answers than the ones economists supply. We include in the "economist" bucket ecological economists as well as neoclassical economists. That is because both groups share all the critical and interesting assumptions about the nature of value that render their distinctions – over which these camps have spilled oceans of ink – irrelevant to our concerns. We will nonetheless touch on the major division below for the illumination it provides on economic thinking generally. What is presented here is a compendium of the ideas of economists such as (in unprejudiced alphabetical order) Wilfred Beckerman, Herman Daly, David Pearce, and Robert Solow. This, of course, is something like a majority report, or even a vast majority report. There are occasional outliers such as Amartya Sen that may not fit the mold.

Economists have appropriated the language of sustainability to talk about future-regarding obligations. What we sustain is what future persons get. The term has infiltrated common parlance in a value-laden, if otherwise largely unspecified way. Whatever sustainability is, and in whatever unarticulated respect it might be good, it is undoubtedly good.

Not. Insofar as sustainability is about sustaining current states of affair and preventing or forestalling change, it is clearly not good in itself. There are many things that are not worthy of being sustained. Not slavery. Not suppression of women. Not bad policies that lead to war. Not my being 17 years old. Definitely not my bad luck in blackjack. Perhaps not even a species about to go extinct after a damned good 12 million year run on the planet. Certainly not ecosystems, which in nature, are never sustained in any recognizably coherent form over natural historical periods of time.

To be a useful normative concept we clearly need to know in what respect is sustainability good. What is worth sustaining and why? Whatever else one might say about economic precepts, they offer an easily grasped answer to these questions. In fact, the economic answer is at once an answer to the "what" question as well as to the "why" question.

Economists can conceive no good that isn't a matter of the satisfaction of personal preferences, which themselves stand above the need for justification. The justification, one might think, is that having a preference gives an individual a reason to try to satisfy it. But as a justification for what is good, that is doubly wrong. First, the preference may be based on false beliefs; or it may perverse (though based on true beliefs). In any case, its realization may not be in in the individual's interest. It might even be enormously destructive – for the individual, for other individuals, or for both. Second, even a preference whose satisfaction is in the preferring individual's interest does not thereby derive any special moral claim on us. We judge the preference and its satisfaction as good or bad based, not on the mere fact that something is desired, but on whether or not what is desired has some intelligible and legitimate claim as something worthy of being satisfied. On this normative notion of "worth", economics is mute.

So we must put "economic good" in scare quotes because, despite the inclusion of the word "good", the phrase has no genuine normative content. The notion of "economic value" builds on this empty concept of "economic good". In essence, it is the degree to which something is preferred as we express them in either actual market transactions, or in theoretical surrogates for market transactions (such as "hedonic value" signals and expenditures for travel or avoidance), or in imaginary surrogates for market transactions (a "willingness to pay" or "willingness to accept" gleaned from contingent valuation studies). This is what economists call "welfare". We shall call it "economic welfare" because, derived from a notion of "economic good" that lacks normative content, it is equally devoid of normative content and therefore does not resemble any commonsense, normatively nuanced notion of human welfare. It is just another name for "economic value" or "market value". That latter term is the only one that isn't grossly misleading because it captures the essential fact that "economic value" is really a measure of scarcity and consequent demand in a marketplace. If any of the best things in life are really free, they are not and cannot be represented by economic welfare.

(This should not be interpreted to mean that nothing of "economic value" is good. It
means only that the fact that something has "economic value" has little or no bearing on the question of whether it is good in the sense of "part of a justifiable good that is, in fact, justified with reasons". Some conditions that could be associated with a "healthy economy" – such as good, well-paid jobs that contribute to persons' feeling of purpose in life – are undoubtedly "good". But the currently prevailing economic conditions (in August, 2008) show that even an economy judged "robust" by most economic indicators may not hold any real good for most people.)

Welfare economics is generally also interested in an "efficient" satisfaction of preferences – a strategy that attempts to increase or maximize levels of preference satisfaction overall. However in the context of sustainability, economists are mostly inclined to drop the criterion of (in this case) intertemporal efficiency in favor of a criterion based on sustaining some "adequate" level of overall economic welfare through time. Often, there isn't any notion of "adequate welfare" in the sense of satisficing at some absolute level. Rather, "adequate" is based on a criterion of a non-diminishing basis for producing "economic goods". (See, for example, Arrow, K., Dasgupta, P., Goulder, L., Daily, G., Ehrlich, P., Heal, G., Levin, S., Mäler, K.G., Schneider, S., Starrett, D., and Walker, B., "Are We Consuming Too Much?", Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:3 (Summer 2004), pp. 147-172.) But (as we shall see) the bases for producing "economic goods" are themselves "economic goods" – the ones that are "invested" in producing other "economic goods". So the economic view of sustainability can be seen as a kind of globally encompassing intertemporal CBA (Cost Benefit Analysis) that, applied to a particular economic development path, determines whether or not the benefit of maintaining or raising investment welfare at one time comes at the expense of its later diminishment. Using this latter kind of criterion, a development path deemed economically sustainable need not be intertemporally efficient. (In fact, the converse also fails to hold: A development path that is intertemporally efficient may not be sustainable in the sense described.) These details of the economic analysis of sustainability need not concern us at this point in our discussion. They are mentioned in passing only to clarify the basis for our description of a distinction that Bryan Norton presses into service on behalf of his notion of sustainability, which is discussed in the next section.

The notion of "economic value" described just above is central to the economic version of the ignorance-of-values problem with reference to future persons. As Daly says:
... the welfare of future generations is beyond our control and fundamentally none of our business. ... our obligation therefore is not to guarantee their welfare but their capacity to produce, in the form of a minimum level of natural capital.
(Herman Daly, "On Wilfred Beckerman's Critique of Sustainable Development", Environmental Values, 4:1 (1995), p. 50)
Solow echoes Daly's sentiments, but brings welfare back in as the raison d'état for maintaining productive capacity:
If ‘sustainability’ is anything more than a slogan or expression of emotion, it must amount to an injunction to preserve productive capacity for the indefinite future.
(Robert Solow, "An almost practical step toward sustainability", text of an invited lecture, Resources for the Future (RFF), 1992)
Here on display is the economic dance around ignorance. We cannot know the preferences of future persons. That (according to economists) defines all value. Therefore, we must bequeath to future persons the productive means to produce the stuff that they want – whatever that may be. In doing this, we fulfill our obligation to do everything at our disposal to ensure value in the lives of future persons.

But on closer scrutiny, it seems that the economists aren't so much dancing around ignorance of the future, as making unsupported assertions about it. They certainly make claims about what constitutes future value, and about how currently living persons can (and should) ensure it. The basic logic is:
  1. What should be sustained is some basic level of economic welfare (the satisfaction of market-expressed preferences).
  2. Alas, the contents of the future economic welfare box cannot be known because we cannot anticipate future markets or future preferences.
  3. Moreover, we cannot have an obligation to do what we cannot know.
  4. Therefore, we must bequeath "adequate means" (the basis) for future persons to produce what they want.
  5. The "means" is a stock of stuff (variously called "assets", "capital", "capital assets", or "economic wealth") that we currently living persons value in market transactions. It is revealing that some economists (for example, Arrow, et al., p. 151) here try to sneak in "society's institutions". But as soon as it is mentioned, it is forgotten in their calculations, and for good reason: No marginal value, in the context of a market transaction, can be imputed to something like the Bill of Rights.
  6. "Adequate" means there's "enough" of this kind of stuff. There are various definitions of "enough". For our purposes (and following Arrow, et al.) we can take it to mean "a non-decreasing amount of capital over time". Though for our purposes, it could also be taken to mean "above some predefined level of welfare" (à la absolute satisficing).
  7. Summarizing, we need to leave enough stuff for future persons to produce whatever they want. Fulfilling this obligation is a matter of leaving enough stuff for them. To do this is to act "sustainably". This is the crux of our obligation to future persons.
No argument is presented for premise 1 – the assertion that the only good of future persons worthy of our attention is satisfying market-expressed desires. Think about it for just a moment, and you realize that that assumption is an extraordinarily bold claim about future value. One would think that it requires justification. But no economist (or anyone to my knowledge) has supplied one. Nor is any argument or evidence presented for 5 and 6, which jointly assert that some adequate stockpile of "stuff" (according to some economic measure) is a sufficient condition, or perhaps a necessary condition, or perhaps a sufficiently significant gesture towards supplying a necessary or sufficient condition (the logical role of the condition is never made clear) for a future in which persons satisfy their desires at some adequate level. This claim is doubly vexing because premise 5 amounts to projecting the preferences of currently living persons into the future, which contradicts premise 2.

(Stanley Donwood, photogravure, 2007)
To summarize: Economists say that our future-regarding obligations are rooted in "the good" of the ability of (future) persons to get whatever they may desire (at adequate levels). Professing ignorance of these desires, economists shift their focus from satisfying unknown and unknowable desires to the means that (they assert) are adequate to ensure this. This shift away from the actual satisfaction of desires occurs in two steps – first to the capability of producing whatever "economic goods" may be desired; then to what economists presume is the basis of this productive capability. Economists variously call this basis "assets", or "capital", or "economic wealth" – all of which is, like all stuff with "economic value", stuff valued in market transactions. This stuff is distinguished only by its role in producing other stuff of "economic value". The economic view of our obligation to future persons thus devolves into a matter of sustaining into the future (i.e. "investing") enough of the stuff that we currently living persons value economically largely for its role as the basis for producing whatever satisfies our own preferences.

Of course, we need not bequeath to future persons a basket of invested "economic goods" whose contents match exactly what we inherited. We are free to change the proportions in which various kinds of goods are represented. But the kinds of goods do not change. Nor really does the value attributed to them. This is because the value of an "economic good" in our bequest basket is just its "economic value". This is a matter of its being an "economic good" apart from any role it plays as the basis for producing other "economic goods". And this "economic value", in turn is a reflection, not of the desires of future persons, but of ours. It is furthermore a reflection of the current relative abundance or scarcity of that object of current desire in the current marketplace. And finally, it is a reflection of what transactions we enter or are willing to enter now in order to acquire that "economic good", given the strength of our desires as expressed in our current marketplace under these conditions of relative abundance or scarcity. In this way economists come full circle. They first shun the proposition of sustaining "goods" based on current preferences. But they then come around to saying that those same "goods"
or a subset of them in some combination and relabeled as "productive basis" or "economic wealth" are precisely what should be sustained as the basis for satisfying future preferences.

What metaphysics of morals underlies this theory of current and future "economic value"? What is the structure or dynamics of economics' universe of values? At first one might think that placing an unqualified, uncritical, and unfortunately (as we have seen) unjustified normative imprimatur on all preferences (in determining economic welfare) implies a completely un-predetermined and boundless firmament of values, not something at all fixed and static. Of course, this bonanza of value flows from the single fixed but fecund fountainhead of human desire. The monistic nature of the source of value might redound upon its plausibility. But this doesn't diminish the plethora of values that seem to flow from it. Nor does it seem to deny the dynamic character of those values' existence, which may be seen to follow directly from the absence of bounds or qualifications for the desires of persons. The domain of human desire is so free and unfettered, so completely unconstrained, that it is only limited by human imagination – which may be no limitation at all. There is nothing too absurd, too perverse, too trivial, too wise, or too wonderful that it can be excluded from the set of things that a person may want. Or that a future person may want.

But this account of the economic metaphysics of morals ignores the role of "sustainable productive basis" that economists impute to certain stuff that has "economic value". The "economic value" of this stuff – "assets", "capital", or "genuine wealth" in economic parlance – is defined by current preferences and current (real and imaginary) markets. But in its role as "sustainable economic basis", this stuff is what satisfies (or more precisely, the basis for producing what satisfies) future desires as well as present ones. This is, so to speak, the stuff of immortality – or in the context of our discussion, the stuff of a "fixed firmament" of values. In the economic framework, these values stolidly underlie the flux of particular "economic goods" that may indeed wink in and wink out as personal preferences change and desires wax and wane over time.

The static quality of the economic meta-ethical framework is reinforced by the complete absence of any force that may cause flux in preferences. Individuals are pictured as space-time points in a force-free vacuum, isolated from the social, moral, political, and cultural institutions that, in fact, impinge on their lives. So too are they isolated from changes in our understanding of the world. In tracing out their space-time trajectories, people spontaneously acquire and abandon wants and desires, thereby altering the content of the value firmament. So the values in the firmament, reflections of preferences, may change within the confines of that one value-containing constellation. But these changes in preference and value occur in a surreal world in which the forces that shape them are absent. It is a world that is dynamic in some limited, random/Brownian motion kind of way in which no forces are evident.

Let us now take a look at the aforementioned internecine debates among economists, which concern a detail in step 7 of their basic logic of sustainability. One group of economists say that a certain kind of stuff called "natural capital" has special status and must be "sustained" separately from other stuff. Those who say this are advocates of economic "strong sustainability". Those who deny or marginalize this special distinction are advocates of "weak sustainability".

The arguments for strong sustainability (most famously propounded by Daly) are singularly unconvincing. As Dale Jamieson points out in "Sustainability and Beyond", pp. 3-4 (, the central arguments come down to some notion that human-produced capital "presupposes" natural capital, or that natural capital is the agent for transforming natural capital into products. These arguments are just obviously incorrect for many kinds of human-produced capital such as services and intellectual property. But even aside from these cases (noted by Jamieson), the special status plea for natural capital is highly, if not entirely contingent on, and limited by the ability of technologically produced surrogates to play the roles cited to justify special status. As a matter of fact, the requirement for natural capital in these roles is already limited and rapidly becoming more so with the rapid advance of technology.

That there is essentially no objective or legitimate basis for the special status of natural capital becomes less surprising when one realizes (with Jamieson, p. 3) that the very definition of "natural capital" (and value as capital) hinges on human economic interests. A non-renewable resource such as oil constitutes natural capital only if it is extracted and finds its way into the gas tank of your car. A renewable resource such as water is natural capital only insofar as it can be retrieved and is potable. An "ecosystem service" such as the pollination of crops is a service only if you have an almond farm or like to eat almonds. The real interests are that you get to drive your car, drink a cup of water, and sell or eat almonds. The means of satisfying them are incidental. One day, the workings of natural systems may be those means, and be the only practicable candidates for this service. The next day – with a new invention to regenerate water from organic sludge or that transgenically modifies almonds to free them from reliance on natural pollinators – the workings of natural systems may be completely dispensable. In a world not needing nails to hold things together, we can happily and without compunction or a second thought, discard all our hammers. So much the worse for hammers... and nature.

Such a highly functional and contingent notion of natural value is, of course, instrumental and human-centric. But that, I believe, is not what makes it so highly objectionable. To those with some deep sense of natural value, it is instrumental in a way that is so fragile, so narrowly focused in time and on individual whims, and so brutishly calculating, that its normative force is eviscerated. That is partly because, with such narrow focus, the contingency isn't just a theoretical possibility. It's more like a guarantee for dispensability. Rapidly progressing technologies are making it an increasingly common reality that natural systems are not the only or even the most efficient sources for resources or services that humans already want. It is also because there is no test or standard for judging the preferences and desires, which are the ends that natural capital serve. In fact, economic sustainability – both strong and weak – denies any such standard and even, in its unsuccessful attempt to avoid paternalism, the possibility or legitimacy of such a standard in principle. Paternalism is an interesting issue and we shall return to just below as well as in the last section.

Another peculiarity of strong sustainability further illuminates, and further eviscerates whatever value that natural capital represents. Strong sustainability advocates rail against weak sustainability. They protest the free and complete interchange of natural goods with human-produced ones – a caricature that they tend to substitute for a characterization of weak sustainability. Yet, they do not hesitate to talk about the fungibility of goods within the domain of natural capital. One hammer is as good as the next. Just so, one wetland is no more nor less valuable than the next one. One patch of forest may legitimately serve as the sacrificial victim to save another. One mountain is as good as the next. In fact by the lights of strong sustainability, comparative judgments such as these are legitimate premises for development plans. To each of these last claims, one can ad: "... because each instance is as good as the next in serving whatever preferences make them natural capital."

Another unsupported and apparently unsupportable claim on behalf of the economic concept of (strong or weak) sustainability is worthy of reflection. Economists claim to stake out and take sole possession of the value-neutral, non-paternalistic high ground – achieving this by adopting a self-consciously agnostic stance on future preferences and by focusing on sustaining market-valued wealth. Economists portray themselves as courageously resisting temptations to impose their own preferences on the future. It is remarkable that this claim has gone largely (perhaps entirely) unchallenged. For, as we have seen, the economic conception of sustainability is anything but value-neutral . Rather, it rests on two value-laden assumptions in the basic logic (above) of the economic manifesto of value, now and for all time. Assumption 1, as we saw, declares that what is good for all persons – living and future – is getting more of what they want, no matter what they want. And assumption 5 declares that what we currently living persons value (according to economists) as the means of satisfying our desires – a big stockpile of capital – is what future people will value, too, as the means of satisfying their desires. It is hard to imagine a more bold (or more weakly justified) imposition of current values on the future.

Economists do not avoid paternalism in their views of what goods we should bequeath to future persons. But the guilty sometimes legitimately implicate others in the same crime. So it might be with economists' charge of paternalism in other approaches to defining future-regarding value. Perhaps paternalism is widespread and difficult to avoid. Maybe it's impossible to avoid and therefore universal. Perhaps even, this is key to understanding future-regarding values. We shall return to this thought. But first, let us try to sustain our discussion of sustainability with a brief survey of attempts to expand and buttress it.

3 Sustainability beyond Economic Welfare

How can the economic notion of sustainability be bolstered to make it a more plausible normative concept?

3.1 Norton: Beyond economic "stuff"

Bryan Norton, in his mighty 600 page tome Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management (University of Chicago Press, 2005) has one answer that fortunately can be conveyed in a short space. He says that there is more "stuff" to sustain than the stuff of economic welfare. Curiously and confusingly, Norton promotes "stuff" to an honorific status reserved for what he proposes to pile onto an existing pile of economically "justified" stuff. Our discussion uses the term indiscriminately and so requires a qualifier to distinguish the two kinds of "stuff". We shall dub Norton's "more stuff" "CBA-challenged stuff" that he thinks should be propagated into the future, in contrast with the stuff whose sustaining is justified on the grounds of some form of intertemporal CBA . That is about it – except for how "CBA-challenged stuff" qualifies for sustainability. That qualification comes from an association with the values of a community, as opposed to its individual members. The "CBA-challenged stuff" that should be sustained, says Norton, is whatever a community prefers to keep around, even a CBA does not justify this. So "CBA-challenged stuff" that should be sustained is fully described as "CBA-challenged community stuff".

While Norton is never particularly clear about how community preferences differ from aggregated individual preferences or how they differ from individual preferences expressed in community forums, this has little consequence for our discussion. What is of consequence is that, just as for the individual preferences whose level of satisfaction comprise "economic value", there are no normative criteria for the extra, "CBA-challenged community stuff". The rightness of sustaining it (or not), if that normative concept even applies, is determined by a kind of social or cultural Darwinism: So long as the community survives, it (in retrospect) was right about keeping around whatever it chose to keep around (Chapters 2 and 3). In the war for survival, the survivors get to author the norms as well as the history.

At times (for example, p. 124), Norton attempts to argue that his Darwinian "good" is not a matter of mere survival. The culture has to survive, too. But a community's choices for what stuff (including "CBA-challenged stuff") to keep is a key part of what defines its culture. To the extent that it does, if the community survives, so does its culture
– by definition.

There is also, as with economic welfare, a major disconnect with natural value. The concept of "CBA-challenged community stuff", as Norton defines it, has no built-in or obvious connection with nature, natural systems, or the environment. A community might just as well prefer to obliterate a hitherto largely natural landscape as to preserve it – despite onerous costs of construction and maintenance, combined with a limited use benefit that make it fail a CBA. In its equal potential for destroying natural values rather than preserving them, the justifying grounds of "CBA-challenged community stuff" does not differ from "economic value". Norton, it seems, replaces the radical subjective relativism with an equally radical community or cultural relativism.

Essentially, what Norton has to say is that, in addition to satisfying individual preferences (which are above justification), we must satisfy community preferences (which are also above justification). Some economically justified stuff we sustain on the grounds that enough people just want it or want the stuff that it helps to make. Other (CBA-challenged) stuff we sustain just because the community decides to do so. Or not: With no identifiable or recognizable standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of community decisions, they have no more firm moral foundation than individual preferences.

Furthermore, just as individuals in the economic model make decisions and form preferences in isolation and without coordination with others (except in and via market transactions), communities too make their decisions isolated from other communities – pretty much guaranteeing a patchwork of policies bearing on the natural world. With the patches defined by political boundaries that bear no significant relation to natural boundaries, that in itself guarantees the transformation of nature systems into political artifacts.

The interest in Norton's view hinges entirely on how convincingly he draws a boundary between the individual goods that comprise economic welfare, and the additional, "CBA-challenged stuff" that, he wishes to convince us, qualifies for sustainability. But it is difficult to pin down Norton's understanding of this boundary, which seems to depend on distinguishing the community whose preferences are expressed in "CBA-challenged goods" from some group of the community's individuals whose preferences ultimately prevail within it. Sometimes, it seems as though Norton leans on an unexplicated reification of "the community". This is reminiscent of how ecologists once reified the notion of an "ecological community" as a kind of independently existing organic entity – a view that most ecologists have entirely abandoned. Other times, he speaks of "communal goods" – the commons or the sorts of goods that are jointly owned by community members:
What holds all [purely economic approaches] together … is methodological individualism, the view that the good must be an aggregation of, or a funciton of, individual goods. Countering this, I have recommended that some noneconomic obligations to the future be considered communal goods. We have these obligations because, as members of a community and a culture, we benefit from sacrifices and investments made by members of prior generations. These benefits include economic goods, but they are not reducible to such because they also include the political and cultural practices that give meaning and continuity to the culture. These practices and sensibilities form a kind of moral and cultural capital … considered an essential foundation of econoomic life.
(Norton, p. 338, emphasis in the original)
It is unclear how to interpret this in a way that helps Norton fly clear of "economic value". Much in that passage abets suspicion that he does collapse all value into economics after all – despite his protestations to the contrary. Talk about “moral and cultural capital” really does sound like economics. (How about trading some of your moral capital for that nice BMW?)
What discount rate might Norton apply to them? And whatever these special forms of “capital” really are, their real importance, apparently, is to ground “economic life”. But this seems like the tail wagging the dog. What is really important, after all is said and done, are the "economic values" to be found in a fine "economic life".

Insofar as Norton's views do collapse into a modest variant of welfare economics, it shares economics' "fixed firmament" framework of values. At some points, Norton appears ready to burst out of the "fixed firmament" universe, speaking of a community's decision to keep around some "CBA-challenged community stuff" as a "performative act" in the sense that J.L. Austin gave to it (Norton, p. 334). But in the end, it seems that he never really pulls away from a fundamentally economic view of sustainability. Early on, in Chapter 1 (p. 30 ff.), he speaks with complete comfort about trading off one wetland for another in a way indistinguishable from advocates of economic strong sustainability. His "CBA-challenged community stuff" is just another, fixed stockpile of fungible items, sitting alongside or maybe on top of the items in the pile of fungible items that contribute to economic welfare, that may be kept around – or not – as a community prefers.

Norton does makes another argument that one might think is geared towards connecting "CBA-challenged community stuff" with nature, speaking of a community's respect for the past (Norton, p. 339). But he offers no help in understanding how this is the basis of a moral obligation, and to whom the obligation is due. He offers no theory, let alone a justified theory, of how we can wrong the interests of persons who do not (because they no longer) exist. But more crucially, he also provides no help in defining a normative standard that a community may apply to determine when such respect is due, and when not on these specific grounds. For surely, something is not worth sustaining merely because it came from the past. That would be far too inclusive – of essentially our entire inheritance. Qualifying eligible "CBA-challenged community stuff" by its role in defining a community's culture does not suffice, either. Cultural continuity cannot be regarded as an unchallenged trump card. There must be a way to critically reevaluate a community's view of value, to be able to recognize old ways of understanding value as flawed in the light of new knowledge and new conditions, and to be able to abandon them. But Norton gives us nothing like that; only his procedural Darwinism.

3.2 O'Neill and "narratives"

John O'Neill, Alan Holland, and Andrew Light, in Chapter 11 of their book, Environmental Values, Routledge, 2008, make two worthwhile suggestions. The first suggestion has to do with abandoning a future-regarding ethic based on preferences and replacing it with one based on needs. Preferences are intentional. In economic theory, they unconditionally create economic goods. An individual's desire for something makes it an economic good – even if it will certainly lead to that individual's destruction and whether or not the individual is aware of that. Needs, on the other hand do not rely on beliefs that may be mistaken. Even if they are regarded as "merely" instrumental to an individual's flourishing, they are essential for that flourishing by virtue of being needs. Finally, because they are essential, they cannot be traded for something else.

So, the thought is, we can formulate an objectively verifiable list of basic needs – an "objective basic needs list" – then surely we have some morally solid grounds for claiming that the ability to satisfy the needs on that list should be sustained. But the question of what is required to satisfy basic needs remains. That is, we need to get from an objective basic needs list to an objective basic goods list. At this point, we return to exactly the point where Reiman's discussion falls short. As we have argued, it seems that it would be possible to satisfy basic human needs in even a grossly defiled vestige of the natural world.

If our list is expanded to include not just basic needs, but other goods that, one may argue, promote human flourishing, we still face the problem of getting from the needs list to a goods list. The same sorts of obstacles present themselves. For it seems even these non-essential goods – aesthetic experience, relationships with an "other", etc. – can be satisfied in ways outside of any human relationship with the natural world. This severely limits the force of any normative value of naturally supplied versions of these goods. (For an insightful discussion of this, see Ronald Sandler, Character and Environment, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 43-52.)

Perhaps sustainability and sustainable practices are precisely those practices that ensure the continuation of the human species. Perhaps we have an obligation to make our species beat the odds and persist beyond the average 10 million year run of most organisms on this planet. On this view, sustaining humanity is a good and whatever we can do towards that end is likewise good. Sustainability, then, is a kind of species-regarding prudence, a kind of forward-looking rationality for H. sapiens sapiens. But closer examination shows that this view proffers only a rephrased basic goods argument for preserving the natural world. It has force only insofar as artifactual alternatives for natural goods do not exist. Like any basic goods argument, it cannot militate against the wanton wasting of nature and the environment when human technology nevertheless provides goods that meets the basic needs. (See Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency, MIT Press, 2005, Chapter 2, for a worthwhile explication of "ecological rationality".)

That leaves O'Neill et al.'s second suggestion which attempts a clean break from piles of stuff and lists of goods. It has to do with "narrative" – the stories of how places came to be the way they are, and taking this into account in deciding how to extend these stories (hi-stories) into the future. As evidence for a narrative component to value O'Neill et al. present a couple of stories (about couples) that, they claim, we tend to evaluate differently because of their different sequences of events, despite their common and tragic outcome (O'Neill, et al., pp. 196-197). Couple A has a preponderantly wonderful relationship – right up to a falling out just before their tragic and unexpected deaths. Couple B has a preponderantly unsatisfying relationship – right up to a reconciliation just before their tragic and unexpected deaths. Consequentialists, taking the integral of well-being over time, would say that couple A led the better life. O'Neill et al. presume that we would unhesitatingly object to that conclusion and prefer the life of couple B. But it is hard not to feel that these stories manipulate our sentiments, Hollywood-style, in a way that has little to do with the real issue.

It is undoubtedly true that sometimes, continuity and the embedding of it in a satisfying story has value. But that gains us little if we don't have any guidelines or understanding of what kind of continuity is good or what kind of story is good to tell. It is a long way from the observation that there might be some value in a continuous narrative, to the claim that some particular tradition should be continued. The narrative for our time that would be most satisfyingly seamless would be the one in which we continued to rapidly transform the planet into something unrecognizable from its previous natural history, devoid of anything that was not obviously a human construction. One might respond that conditions may arise that require reevaluation of traditional ways of thinking and behaving; some reevaluations may call for abrupt discontinuities; and that in these cases, the satisfying narrative would be, "and then, we suddenly realized we were behaving in a way that was so morally reprehensible that we immediately stopped." But having now left continuity aside, it is hard to understand how "being in a satisfying narrative" is the value-conferring element.

4 The Dynamics of Value, Paternalism, and the Future of Natural Value

In this discussion, we decline to join the failed attempts to jump straight to a characterization of our obligations to future persons. We have seen other attempts at this fall short, pulled down, in part, by questionable views of the nature of future value. So we will rest content with suggesting some kind of metaphysics of morals – one that may help us better understand moral relationships with the future and we hope, help us begin to understand how natural value might figure into these relationships.

4.1 Retroactive blame

Let us start with one more false start, albeit one that provides a clue to a better start. Some thinkers have suggested that we should sustain whatever goods they think we should sustain because future persons, realizing their deprivation, would revile us for that deprivation. It is an argument from a premise of culpability to the moral obligation which, if unfulfilled, makes us culpable. This argument is a forward-looking counterpart of Norton's previously mentioned argument that, in not sustaining what was bequeathed us by our predecessors, we disrespect them. The new, forward-looking proposal does not share with Norton's the problem of requiring a theory of how we can wrong the interests of persons that no longer exist. Though of course it still faces the challenges of all forward-looking theories of value. In this case, the theory is betrayed by its basic underlying premise.

Let us think explicitly about sustaining the natural state of at least some part of our world, versus destroying every last vestige of it. Suppose that we destroy every last vestige of wild (in the Wilderness Act sense of "untrammeled") nature. Perhaps we write a history of how our destructive acts were a key instrument in alleviating human suffering at the time (whether true or not). Perhaps we also say that we acted to create the rich complement of goods that we did pass on to future generations. What evidence do we have that we would be reviled for our actions? All the evidence seems to militate for the contrary view.

Children are almost totally accepting of whatever environment they encounter. For them, that is just the way things are. With basic needs met, they flourish without the slightest sense of deprivation. Children have no access – not just physically and in their experience, but emotionally – to a perspective that lets them evaluate their environment in a comparative, counterfactual, or critical way. In the absence of challenge, an evaluatively impotent child becomes an evaluatively impotent adult. There is little room for doubt that this remove from a critical view would only become greater with each succeeding generation. Members of a generation only a short way down the chain would have no basis for feeling wronged. They would therefore have no basis for blaming us (as opposed to us blaming us) if we, even in a knowing and systematic way, destroyed a kind of natural world that, as a result, would be totally outside their direct experience. These persons would have nothing but historical accounts to represent the natural world to them. There would be nothing that viscerally involves them. If they had any negative feeling about its absence, how could it be anything more than the kind of casual nostalgia that one might have about not having witnessed Hannibal crossing the Alps? There is no real sense of loss in this, no sense of being cheated out of something that one has a right to. And without a real feeling of loss, a shrug of the shoulders seems more likely – and more appropriate – than an accusation of moral reprehensibility. Moreover, it is likely that, by means of destroying natural goods or (more likely) by simply pursuing other goals with relative unconcern about their nature-altering effects, we will create many "goods" that we bequeath to these future persons. These (artifactual) goods would be present in their lives. They would barely
be able to imagine their lives without them. Future persons would directly benefit from those goods, and they would be aware of that. For those goods, future persons would be grateful to us.

So in the span of a small number of generations, we would be thanked, not reviled for destroying the natural world as we now understand it. Of course, future persons would not characterize our behavior that way – in terms of destruction. Unable to recognize goods that accrue to living in a world with long-gone natural systems, they would characterize our behavior in terms of
creation – the creation and passing on of the goods that are actually present in their life. Contrary to the claims of some…, future generations would feel an enormous sense of community with us who so assiduously created the world that they know and love. This is an extraordinarily sad truth, which makes it hard to accept. But it is also a sobering truth that can tell us something important about future value, the value of nature, and how both are part of a
bequest to the future.

4.2 Another interpretation

There is another way of analyzing the retroactive blame argument that sheds more light on why it is misguided. The argument relies on this hidden premise: We should avoid doing things that would garner blame, and (by extension) try to do things that would garner praise and elicit gratefulness. In the context of concurrently respiring moral agents, there is something to the presumption that perceived culpability implies a moral wrong. (Here we are not worried about whether aversion to blame and desire for praise should be the bases from which we act or refrain from acting. Nor are we worried about whether or not the blame or praise is justified or merited.) Contemporaneous persons have some common sense of what values are possible in a human life. In the domain of natural value, they can understand that its very possibility derives from shared environments in a shared world – one in which there is some vestige of nature that may have value beyond its ever-diminishing contribution to the basis of biological existence. There is a commonly recognizable domain of value possibilities that gives meaning to an assessment of blame on those who act so as to diminish or eliminate values in that shared domain.

But as we have observed, the conditions of a shared kind of environment that give meaning to assessing this kind of blame do not necessarily occur for persons in generations at even a modest remove from each other. In particular, the world may change so as to destroy the bases for a large range of natural values which thereby become unavailable and even essentially inconceivable, to future persons. In a world devoid of the bases of natural value, in which therefore there is not even the possibility of an interest in nature or natural systems (aside from any remaining contribution to biological existence), there is not the possibility of blame. If we bequeath future persons a world devoid of anything that could be soberly characterized as "nature" or "natural", but instead, a vast array of Delgado buttons, then the world of electrostimulated phenomena will comprise the universe of goods for all.

But there's more involved in the intergenerational loss of value than a difference or discontinuity in environmental conditions that form the bases of values and thereby the possibility of interests of a certain kind. This is not just a matter of the circumstance that, in the absence of any bases for values, the values cannot survive. Put more crudely, the survival of natural value into the future is not just a matter of leaving behind the right kind of intact natural "stuff" to which natural value may attach. In addition to this and quite independently of it, what we do to enhance, promote, and teach values by weaving them into the fabric of our enduring political, social, and moral institutions influences and even manipulates the interests of future persons, whether or not that is our aim. What preferences future persons have and wish to satisfy, what matters to them, what things missing in their lives constitute a deprivation for them, what avenues and possibilities they have for flourishing (and not just perhaps mistakenly perceiving that they are flourishing) – all these hinge on what institutions and systems of valuing we hand down to them. (Norton brushes up against something like this, for example in the above-mentioned passage about performative acts. But he offers no explanation of what might make a performative act worthy, other than that a community, whose authority derives from the bare fact that it it has not (yet) disintegrated, decided to perform it. The community, with equal "justification", could perform an act that recognizes natural value, or that banishes it from consideration. In any case, Norton quickly returns to talking about just perpetuating more (CBA-challenged) stuff.)

Is this what economists refer to as "opportunity cost"? No! We are here dealing with something entirely outside the scope of the economic framework. Economic opportunity costs have to do with the lost investment opportunity involved in producing or consuming one chunk of stuff rather than another chunk of stuff whose potential in satisfying the investor's preferences is thereby foregone. It stays at the economic level of "stuff" that is valued in the one and only way that economics recognizes – namely, the satisfaction of preferences that are unconditionally presumed valuable. In contrast, our discussion has to do with what domains of value are, and are not possible. It has to do with how we might structure our social, political, and moral institutions to make possible and encourage the expansion of some domains of value while discouraging or precluding others. It has to do with our commitments to certain domains of value that we express through these institutions.

This is to suggest a metaphysics of morals, not some set of moral values that inhabit a world in which the meta-ethical questions that define the possibilities for value in human lives are not already answered and fixed. Our discussion cuts at a level above such considerations as the intergenerational trade-offs, distance, and typology-of-effects that concern Norton (p. 321 ff.). Because we are concerned to understand what values we should propagate into the future, these considerations are as relevant in considering the question of whether to preserve any vestige of the natural world as they are to the question of whether or not to preserve the Bill of Rights. In such cases, benefit cost analysis (BCA) is irrelevant and inappropriate. (See "A Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Bill of Rights ... and beyond, tip-off is that we do not ask, in just some one case where we perceive the cost of upholding the First Amendment to be very high, whether we should violate it. Rather, we recognize that a range of values that would not be possible without the Bill of Rights opens up as the result of our institutional commitment to it – including the commitment to not make exceptions. It is critical that it be the kind of commitment that precludes BCA evaluation.

As with all such commitments, we agree to constrain some behavior that, in complete isolation may appear acceptable. We agree to permit other behavior that, in complete isolation, may appear unacceptable. We do both these things in exchange for granting us all the chance to enrich our lives by broadening the ways in which they can be made valuable. We broaden the possibilities for human flourishing.

This kind of view cuts completely free of the "fixed value firmament" of the economic world (among others) to embrace an understanding of domains of value that are not "just there". Rather they are highly dynamic. Moreover, we wield many of the forces that shape them, exerted through choices to shape and perpetuate them through our persistent s
ocial, moral, political, and cultural institutions; or alternatively, to doom them to oblivion.

Embracing this dynamic and agent-influenced aspect of value also largely dissolves the problem of ignorance as it is customarily characterized. The major dilemma no longer is a matter of not having a sufficiently clear crystal ball, as unknown and unknowable forces work unknown and unknowable ways on the preferences or other interests of future persons or the values they hold. Rather, it is a matter of our choosing how we wish to influence these preferences, interests, values. This is a formidable moral question. But it is not a question that can be resolved by simply having a clearer view of the future.

In a fundamental respect, our moral question – the question of whether or not to promote and propagate certain domains of value into the future – is no different from every other moral question, which must be addressed by humans from a human condition that always includes "factors that are unknowable, unpredictable, or uncontrollable at the time of action" (Sandler, p. 96). Such factors may conspire to make a right-seeming decision or action wrong, though it seemed right at the time. But in another fundamental respect, our moral question differs from the ordinary ones because it is "one level up". It is a meta-ethical question, a question for the theory of moral theory, whether or not to propagate a moral sensibility that we know can enrich human lives, which knowledge rests only on knowing what sort of creatures human beings are and what sort of place they inhabit.

But isn't this some kind of paternalism? Norton touches on this charge (pp. 328-329), but his treatment of it falls short for the same reasons, cited in the preceding section, that his addition of a stockpile of "CBA-challenged stuff" to standard economists' efficient or CBA-justified stuff falls short. If this is paternalism, it cannot be paternalism in any normal sense of this term. By embedding certain values in our institutions, we are not doing anything against the will of future persons. These persons do not yet exist, nor yet have a will. We cannot make contact with them; we cannot poll their interests. The very picture implied by imagining such a poll – of future persons popping into existence, deciding on their own that they like different things from us, and informing us of this across a chasm of time – necessarily requires sliding back into the "fixed firmament" universe in which the values are again floating "out there", as if in a timeless shopping mall, with no apparent causal or any other kind of history, and in which different consumers (some yet unborn) can stop and make their value selections.

The propagation into the future of values that we know can be an important component of a rich and flourishing human life is, we believe, not usefully understood as a meddling with future persons' interests that is paternalistic in some extended sense. It is better understood as a Non-Identity Problem concerning the identity of values that parallels Parfit's Non-Identity Problem concerning the identity of particular persons. As Reiman shows convincingly, we cannot deleteriously affect a future person's interests by substantially determining whether or not that particular person comes to exist. Just so, we cannot deleteriously affect a future person's interests by substantially determining whether or not that particular interest can or cannot exist.

4.3 Towards a simpler understanding of future-regarding value

Painting the context of future values with these brushstrokes suggests a simpler understanding of their foundation. We need not understand a choice about sustaining natural values as a generation-spanning moral relationship that concerns the respect that we currently respiring humans owe past persons who might have (intentionally or unwittingly) preserved them for us. Nor need we understand such a choice as a matter of respect for the given, fixed, or foreknown interests that we project onto future persons. Insofar as it is a relationship, it is not primarily with the past nor the future, but between us and the natural world. Now.

This also does not require that we ascribe some "intrinsic value" to nature that thereby demands our moral concern. This metaphysics of morals is yet another "fixed firmament" view involving a domain of values "out there" waiting for proper human recognition. That "fixed firmament" view happens to be more sympathetic to nature than the ones more customarily espoused in public discourse. But in ignoring the dynamic quality of value and our influence on it, this account of value risks the limitations and restrictions of all "fixed firmament" accounts.

Instead, to find natural "goods" and to justify natural value, I suggest starting with a complete break from the fixed firmament and then proceeding in two steps.

4.3.1 Focusing on virtues (here, now)

A suggested first step is to focus on the virtues, for us currently respiring humans, of having a relationship with the natural world that is respectful of something that we humans had no hand in creating but that was created by the same natural processes that created us, that is beneficent, that is informed by its actually felt and experienced presence, and that derives characteristic enjoyment in cohabiting a world with these things, not as a master of them.

Of course, we cannot just assert that these are virtues. We need to justify them, and this may initially seem problematic. These virtues cannot be justified as serving the end of the survival of an individual person who might have them, or even as serving the survival of the human species. As we have seen, the existence of anything resembling a natural place or natural system is largely if not entirely dispensable in achieving these ends. These virtues cannot be justified as serving the end of some kind of individual agents' flourishing beyond basic survival because an individual's flourishing is consistent with at least a slow deterioration of the natural world during the agent's lifetime and some dramatic deterioration or even total destruction of it afterwards. Appeals to postmortem flourishing are not at all convincing. Nor can we appeal to the good functioning of human social groups. For while deteriorating natural conditions may impose major hardships as the result of the changing conditions, there seems to be no convincing reason to regard this as anything but a struggle with change – a struggle that will diminish and largely vanish as conditions stabilize in a totally artifactual world. (For an articulate expansion of this point, see Sandler, pp. 43-48, though I dissent from his conclusion that significant sustainability requires an appeal to non-eudaimonistic ends.) However, there seems little doubt that such virtues do provide for its possessor a certain kind of knowledge – about herself as a naturally (as opposed to supernaturally) evolved organism and its place in natural history. And there seems to be little doubt that, in part because this particular kind of knowledge of the agent-in-natural-historical-context, it gives a kind of meaning to that agent's life that would not otherwise be available.

The first step in understanding the dynamics of value is to stake a claim on natural value that is grounded in current human relationships with the natural world. This includes what we have just described
the meaning it confers on the life of a person as agent-in-natural-historical-context. It contrasts with a person who has literally built a wall that severs her from this context and the meaning it confers. This is not in any obvious way future-regarding. And while rooted in history and in that respect past-regarding, it has nothing to do with fulfilling an obligation to past generations.

4.3.2 The respects in which natural value is future-regarding (after all)

The second step is to recognize that natural value is future-regarding after all – albeit in two less obvious ways. The first forward-looking aspect has to do with what is involved in the attitudes of passive beneficence and of respect towards the natural world. Leaving something alone is at the core of the considerateness and nonmaleficence involved in passive beneficence. The strength of the claim of this virtue on us should increase with the degree to which the object is delicately poised and therefore transformed into something quite different for which these attitudes have less or little meaning. Many ecologists characterize such a transformation as "harming the natural object". I characterize it as "harming the possibility of a human excellence that is tied to a certain relationship to the natural world".

Respect requires a form of engagement whose first premise is that what is respected has value without imposing change that derives from any desire to transform it into something else. Therefore, these two virtues – of passive beneficence and respect with respect to the natural world – implicitly define a sustaining attitude and relationship with it. They entail that the appropriate way for a virtuous agent to respond to the natural world is, as much as possible, to self-consciously refrain from imposing her will on it or otherwise interfering with it. That, it seems to us, is a kind of sustainability that has real meaning and bite. The valuable contribution of modern ecological science to this understanding has been to make us aware of, and bring into focus just how profoundly meddling, deep-reaching, and transforming, and therefore destructive of these values human activities have been. Perhaps because this understanding is so recent, and perhaps because it is not so obvious to the casual or provincial or city-sequestered observer, most citizens remain largely unaware.

We need to be wary of inclinations to slide from the kind of passive beneficence that is a core environmental virtue to any of the many kinds of active beneficence that are founded on a vain and uncritical illusion of our capabilities to interfere beneficently, and bolstered by the good feeling that attaches to our having "done something". For example, we might think it beneficial to expand the range of healthy ecosystems. But this suggestion can be understood in at least some ways that rule it out as an unconditional good. If the expansion is a matter of clearing out human-constructed artifacts and obstacles or (better) refraining from building them in the first place, then this is beneficial, but hard to understand as interference. This seems not so much interference as much as removing interference or constraints. On the other hand, if the expansion is a matter of constructing a new wetland “over there, where we’re not inclined to build condos”, then we have an ill-disguised human artifact with a natural value that is severely limited and given false weight by the unknowing inability of many to distinguish it from an undisturbed wetland. At the very least, this would be an act of nescient disrespect for natural value in some way similar to a transgenic modification project aimed at increasing biodiversity.

Another example, worthy of independent exploration, is the lately faddish bureaucratic incarnation of interference called "adaptive management", which features centrally in Norton's mighty tome. This is a methodology that explicitly recognizes our profound ignorance of what we are interfering with and what may result from our interference. Yet it throws caution (and any coherent version of the Precautionary Principle) to the winds, urging us to "manage" natural systems by first, imposing on them the boundaries defined by social and political institutions, and then performing short-term, local experiments on them. When we create a mess, the presumption is that we can just scrub it clean and repeat the procedure. Norton's version is especially disconcerting for explicitly deriving its justification from its view of nature as a collection of resources for a community's survival. On this view, the deleterious effects of adaptive management practices on natural systems are just collateral damage
– not a matter of concern so long as sufficient resources remain to ensure the community's survival.

I would say that adaptive management is an example of a nature-regarding vice. It is especially pernicious because it operates with a high degree of self-awareness of the factors that make it a vice. At the same time, it operates with seeming unawareness of two things
how vainglorious it is to think that we can, through short-term trial-and-error experiments, "manage" nature into an improved state; and of how much real damage we can do in the process.

That brings us to the second way in which nature-regarding virtues become future-regarding. Whereas the first way derives from the particular qualities of nature-regarding virtues, the second derives from the nature of virtue in general. It is that, for any justified virtue, one appropriate response to the virtue itself is to act and behave in ways that sustain the possibility that other persons, now or any time in the future, may be virtuous in this way – that they have some opportunity to have this sort of excellence in their life. This is one level up from the normal bases of response from a virtuous agent. A wild wetland, a wild forest, a wild mountain, a wild glacier properly elicits a response that includes behavior that refrains from intruding and thereby sustains these remarkable works of nature. These are bases for a virtuous agent's respectful, passively beneficent, and sustaining response to them. But up one level, there is no more appropriate response to an agent's self-awareness of how a virtue contributes to her flourishing than to behave in ways that promote and sustain the possibility that any other agent may also come to have that virtue.