Valuing Nature? Economics, Ethics and the Environment, a volume edited by J.B. Foster has made a profound impact on me as an ecological economist and a photographer. In this brilliant collection of essays the leading sustainability thinkers present the philosophical issues inherent in the neoclassical environmental economics dominant at university departments today.
Dismounting the supremacy of GDP-maximizing thinking of environmental economics, the book presents a series of compelling arguments in support of a more holistic, complex systems – oriented thinking about ecosystems. Starting with an important philosophical premise of incommensurability of values, defined by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as a property of ‘lacking a common measure’, or instances when ‘comparisons that can be made, but not cardinally’ (Zalta, 2007).
The book features milestone articles by Robin Grove-White ‘The environmental valuation controversy: observations on its recent history and significance’; Russel Keat ‘Values and preferences in neoclassical environmental economics’; Geoffrey Hodgson ‘Economics, environmental policy and the transcendence of utilitarianism’; Mark Peacock ‘Rationality an social norms’; John O’Neil ‘Value pluralism, incommensurability and institutions’; Simon Bilsborough ‘Pricing the countryside’; Jeremy R. Cox ‘The relations between preservation value and existence value’; Alan Holland ‘Substitutability: or why strong sustainability is weak and absurdly strong sustainability is not absurd’; Brian Wynne ‘Methodology and institutions: value as seen from the risk field’; Johnathan Aldred ‘Existence value: moral commitments and in-kind valuation’; Clive Spash ‘Environmental management without environmental valuation?’; Andrew Stirling ‘Multi-criteria mapping: mitigating the problems of environmental valuation?’; Michael Jacobs ‘Environmental valuation, deliberative democracy and public decision-making insitutions’ and John Foster ‘Environment and creative value’.
The reader is facing a clear realization that one of the causes of the current environmental crisis is in a wide-spread application of cost-benefit analysis, which simply lumps together incommensurable dimensions of real-world projects or decisions. A possible alternative is to use multi-criteria methodolies that more openly acknowledge the issues of incommensurability and do not allow thoughtless aggregation of incomparable phenomena such as social, economic or environmental characteristics.
Thus, speaking about ecosystems and ecosystem services, I am arguing for the use of multi-dimensional approaches that could treat the multitude of ecosystem services, including the oxygen production, provision of water and food, fiber and pharmaceuticals as well as carbon sequestration, air purification and waste treatment and last but not least, the social dimensions of inspiration, sense of place, social interactions, spiritual and religious values and so on.
The book is a fascinating and highly interdisciplinary text, which could be an important reading for policy makers, environmental practitioners as well as cultural theorists. This book has inspired me greatly to conduct the analytical work for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and later UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-On Phase research and undoubtedly determined the focus of my new photobook devoted to the ecosystems, where I am trying to explain very complex taxonomy of ecosystem services with the help of visual language of photography.
The book could be found on Amazon: Foster (1997) Valuing Nature?
Foster J.B, ed. (1997) Valuing Nature?: Economics, Ethics and Environment, Routledge
Edward N. Zalta (2007) Incommensurable Values, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-incommensurable/#ValInc