The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and The Environment.

AuthorRussell, Clifford S.
PositionBook review

The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and The Environment, 2nd edition, by Mark Sagoff. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press. 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-521-68713-3. 266 pages. Index.

The first edition of this book was published in 1988. In the intervening two decades, much has changed--the nature of the world's most prominent environmental concerns, the national and international politics of attempting to come to grips with these concerns, the universe of relevant national laws and international treaties, the operations and even philosophies of environmental groups, the techniques available to environmental economists and the set of policy prescriptions they have made that are taken seriously, even the thinking and writing style of the author. The new volume is a collection of 10 essays, somewhat loosely connected through two major and several minor themes, but all thoughtful, well written and rich with citations to a broad range of literatures.

The most important theme, in my opinion, is the contention that society's environmental problems less and less involve (relatively) straightforward externalities and easily identified public goods and bads. Rather they involve choices between fundamental ways of viewing and interacting with the natural world, in the large sense of global systems and the huge number and variety of species that inhabit those systems. Decisions in these contexts, in Sagoff's view, define both existing societies and the futures of all societies and are inescapably exercises in moral choice. These choices require deliberation by citizens, calling on their citizen, or public, rather than their consumer, or private, preferences. Most notably and contentiously, at least for economists, essentially the entire tool kit of modern welfare economics is, in this decision context, irrelevant at best and morally bankrupt at worst. Thus, the carefully nurtured techniques of benefit estimation, and the basic notion that willingness to pay (WTP) can be taken both for individuals, and as a sum for collectives, as a measure of "well-offness" are not just useless but distorting and even dangerous.

The other large theme running through about half the essays is that of the origins of an American environmental ethic, especially in thought of early Protestant New England, and its later development in the works of thinkers (and doers) such as Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. Related to this development, perhaps a natural continuation...

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