CONFERENCE REPORT – On Values in Nature (May 2, 2005)

Submitted by Christopher Schlottmann, New York University

On May 2, 2005, Princeton’s Center for Human Values, together with the Princeton Environmental Institute, and Council of the Humanities, sponsored a workshop entitled “Values in Nature: The Role of Ethics in Environmental Policy.” It was a gathering of remarkably impressive and competent thinkers, whose expertise spanned the fields of environmental ethics, environmental aesthetics , environmental literature, environmental policy, environmental history, and environmental sciences, in addition to a number of participants whose specialty falls outside of the traditional environmental community. This latter quality made it especially stimulating, and the conversations were open-minded and oriented towards practical policies, all while maintaining a high level of theoretical discussion.

Having celebrities present always stimulates conversation. The final panel, “When Values Conflict,” was overshadowed by environmentalism’s newest movers and shakers, Michael Shellenberger and Tod Nordhaus. Skepticism and praise for their “Death of Environmentalism” paper dominated the Q&A session. Obviously, an entire conference could be devoted to their debates. The only downside was that the papers of other panel members – Michael Toman, Michael MacCracken, Stephen Gardiner – tackled the ethical dimensions of environmental policy quite directly and rigorously, yet failed to enter the conversation.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s premise is that environmentalists have “framed” their cause incorrectly. People don’t respond well to this: “If the frame and the facts conflict, people often reject the facts.” Therefore, environmentalists should frame their cause within the American mythology of aspiration. Of course, environmentalism’s failings cannot be solved by simply advertising differently, but reframing might be the best strategy to achieve political goals.

Selling the idea of a “frame” also seems to entail committing to one, and the conversation remained narrowly focused. Important questions that deserved serious answers were left hanging: Why not appeal to American’s sense of fairness instead of aspiration? Is marketing an environmental policy prudent and ethical, or should we instead work on educating for informed decision-making? Does it matter if the myth of aspiration doesn’t apply to most Americans?

Too much of a good conversation is of course a good thing, but the “Death of Environmentalism” paper is only one of many ideas currently making its rounds that should incite reflection. Gardiner’s caution about the remarkable ethical challenges of GCC – a “perfect storm” of the convergence of the 3 problems of: global scale (incl. dispersion of agency, inadequate institutional scales), temporal scale (including intergenerational ethics), and theoretical concerns (incl. scientific uncertainty, potential persons, non-human animals) – seems like a much more daunting long-term challenge than how to “sell” environmentalism. Determining what our obstacles are, and what moral aims we have, is at least as important as how to get people to behave in accordance with those aims (assuming that this latter goal isn’t morally problematic itself). Environmental ethics is not a justification for present environmentalism, and keeping the purposes of each distinct would help to establish the best environmental policies. Both the ethics community and Shellenberger and Nordhaus want to reform how we determine environmental policy goals, but seem to use distinct means. Are we even aiming at the right goal? If so, are we using the proper means that will ensure long-term sustainability? This is the conversation that we should be having. Further, educators and political theorists should have a vitally important voice in this dialog.  Their voice might replace the urgent goal of winning a policy or election with the longterm project of encouraging democratic engagement and critical thinking. Even better, perhaps a reconciliation of these two goals is possible.

Grist’s extensive series on “The Death of Environmentalism ” is available at: