Postdoctoral Fellow in Economic and Environmental Ethics at University of Gothenburg

GothenburgBy Mark D. White

Thanks to Christian Munthe, we have a fantastic announcement for postdocs in economic and environmental ethics at the University of Gothenburg. From the posting:

The University of Gothenburg tackles society’s challenges with diverse knowledge. 56 000 students and 6 600 employees make the university a large and inspiring place to work and study. Strong research and attractive study programmes attract scientists and students from around the world. With new knowledge and new perspectives, the University contributes to a better future.

The University of Gothenburg is looking to hire one or more 2-year post docs in the intersection of economic and environmental ethics. Economic ethics is the application of moral or political philosophy to critical issues in business organizations or the economic system. Environmental ethics is the application of moral or political philosophy to critical issues in the relationship between humans and non-human environmental systems. The research area should be understood broadly so as to include subtopics like business ethics, the political philosophy of financial markets, ethics of commodification, ethics of climate change, ethics of biodiversity, environmental philosophy and the philosophy of (environmental) economics. Any applications related to these subfields are welcome.

Potential research questions in these fields include the following:

    • What moral duties, if any, do commercial firms have to mitigate climate change?
    • Do consumers have a duty to invest in sustainable firms?
    • Is sustainability an irreducible moral value?
    • Can environmental values (such as biodiversity) be expressed in monetary terms?
    • Do advantaged nations have duties to promote sustainability in vulnerable nations?
    • Is the state justified in coercing financial markets towards sustainability?

The post doc will join the Financial Ethics Research Group which consists of philosophers and economists dedicated to ethical and political issues raised by the financial system (in the broadest sense). More specifically, the post doc will be connected to the research program Sustainable Finance Lab, which is a collaboration between several Swedish universities that is funded by Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency. Additional funding is due to the University of Gothenburg, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra).

More details are available here.

Survey on the Ethics of "Environmental Markets" in Journal of Political Philosophy

J pol philBy Mark D. White

In the latest issue of the Journal of Political Philosophy (30/1, March  2022) is an open-access survey article by Stijn Neuteleers (Open University, The Netherlands) titled "Trading Nature: When Are Environmental Markets (Un)desirable?"

From the introduction:

This article will discuss two new environmental markets in particular: carbon markets and biodiversity offsetting. It has an applied and a general goal. The applied goal is straightforward: examining the respective moral desirability of these two markets. The broader goal is to use these two cases to review the main arguments for and against environmental markets and to offer more nuance in the debate. The cases are chosen in order to show that the positions at each end of the spectrum—that all new environmental markets are morally acceptable and that none of them is—are untenable. (p. 118)

In the conclusion, Neuteleers making an excellent point that applies to much more than environmental justice:

Sometimes nature has a value that cannot or should not be captured by market instruments. This special value can be either moral—for instance, the extreme rarity of certain species or ecosystems—or more socio-cultural—people can attach strong meanings to such nature (relational values). For instance, if families have worked in a certain natural environment for decades, these surroundings become part of their identity. Losing such a place can be a significant loss, at both an individual and a community level. In such cases, impersonal market norms conflict with the ‘personal’ nature of the goods at stake—here, nature becomes, in a sense, a ‘personal good’.

How should we deal with such special value? If nature is extremely valuable, either for ecological or socio-cultural reasons, it should be left untouched and not open for compensation. Regulations can take care of this, markets cannot. Nonetheless, sometimes destruction of nature can be unavoidable or acceptable. If so, the policy instrument should still recognize the special value nature has; the loss should be framed as a wrong rather than as a transaction. Such framing cannot be provided by the market. (p. 136)

Or by mainstream economics, for that matter (as seen as the discussion of crime in law and economics, for instance).

Concluding the "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium (LPE Project)

Lpe projectBy Mark D. White

The final two posts at the "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium at the LPE Project are more practical, focusing on the impact of CBA techniques in health care and the environment. (Kudos to the LPE Project for this fascinating and provocative collection of essays.)

In "The 'Value of a Statistical Life': Reflections from the Pandemic," Mark Silverman (Franklin & Marshall College) questions the validity of the concept of willingness-to-pay (WTP) on which most CBA calculations are based, especially insofar as they are taken to reflect risk-reward trade-offs, which are at the center of policymaking during the pandemic. He identifies two specific problems in particular:

The first is specific to the notion of worker rates of substitution between income and risk. In the pandemic-induced recession of 2020, with a restricted range of job opportunities, and little publicly provided material support, newly-acknowledged “essential” workers had little choice to but to accept increasingly risky jobs with little or no hazard pay. In fact, the worse the bargaining position for workers, the less they will “value” their lives – lest they risk their livelihood.

The second criticism focuses on the endogeneity of the underlying preferences. Even assuming away the question of worker bargaining power, we are still left with the question of whether, as a matter of policy, our social willingness to pay for mortality risk should be defined exclusively in terms of agents’ WTP as revealed by the market.

In "The Shaky Legal and Policy Foundations of Cost-Benefit Orthodoxy in Environmental Law," Amy Sinden (Temple University) surveys the numerous difficulties with using CBA to screen environmental policies, given the difficulty of quantifying (or monetizing) environmental improvements. Sinden lays out the implications of this failure:

If important benefits are left out of the equation the vast majority of the time, then CBA operates at best as an informal screening tool, telling us, if we’re lucky, whether the benefits of a regulation in a rough sense exceed the costs. (When you’re not so lucky and your partial benefits estimate comes out lower than your cost estimate, it doesn’t tell you much of anything.) 

Once demoted from a formal optimization tool to a rough screening tool, CBA loses its normative pedigree in welfare economics and joins the ranks of the other perhaps less theoretically beguiling but highly pragmatic cost screening tools that Congress has so often relied on in crafting our environmental statutes. These are the scrappy, street-smart tools of regulatory decision-making, like feasibility analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, and multi-factor balancing—tools that arguably make up for in pure pragmatic effectiveness what they lack in theoretical elegance. Once your goal is no longer to reach the mythical state of economic efficiency, but rather to ensure that costs are not in some general sense unreasonable, these other tools may actually get you there more quickly, easily, and—dare I say—efficiently

She concludes that, rather than doubling down on CBA, the federal government should defer to individual agencies, who

should decide how to most appropriately account for costs and benefits by choosing among the wide array of tools available. This choice should be tailored to the particular context in which the rulemaking arises, giving particular attention to the feasibility of quantifying and monetizing relevant costs and benefits, along with the agency’s statutory mandates.

Fleurbaey and Leppanen on expanding social welfare analysis to other species (in Journal of Bioeconomics)

J of bioeconomicsBy Mark D. White

There are ambitious papers and then there are ambitious papers. In the latest issue of the Journal of Bioeconomics (23/3, October 2021) is "Toward a Theory of Ecosystem Well-Being" by Marc Fleurbaey (Paris School of Economics) and Christy Leppanen (University of Tennessee), an open-access article that rejects the current human-centered (or anthropocentric) approach to welfare economics and environmental economics, and proposes, in its place, a more inclusive measure of social welfare that includes all living organisms on Earth, effectively bringing animal ethics into the domain of environmental economics.

Social welfare analysis is therefore in urgent need to shed its century-old anthropocentrism. This paper examines the scope of the reform that this move would require. The key question is whether the concepts of social welfare analysis need a complete overhaul, or can be extended. Indeed, the main task of social welfare analysis is to trade-off the interests of various members of the population under consideration. Comparing how well-off different human beings are is actually not so simple (Fleurbaey & Hammond, 2004), and has led many economists to despair that it was even possible to do on a rational, non-arbitrary basis. Different human beings differ in their abilities, needs, and goals in life, so that comparing their situations in terms of success or advantage is far from obvious. But various methods have been designed to perform that delicate task. (p. 258)

One interesting aspect of their project that stands out to me is their acknowledgment of the difficulty of measuring and comparing welfare within the human species, which they use to argue that incorporating more species into the picture does not add much more complexity.

Comparing individuals from different species is admittedly more difficult because differences in abilities, needs and goals are even larger and more profound. But it remains to be seen within this context whether inter-species comparisons are of a different nature than intra-species comparisons. This is the question we study in this paper. To do so, we review the main approaches to interpersonal comparisons that have been imagined in welfare analysis for human beings, and examine if they can be extended to comparisons across species as well. (pp. 258-59)

Fleurbaey and Leppanen preview the rest of the paper at the end of their introduction:

The next section introduces to the structure of the type of social welfare analysis that is the workhorse of this paper. In particular, it explains why in this paper we focus on the problem of well-being comparisons among individual organisms from different species and largely leave aside the problem of the evaluation of the distribution of well-being as well as questions of population sizes. In Sects. 2–5, we examine four approaches to the measurement of advantage or well-being: command over resources, hedonic well-being, objective list methods, and preference-based methods. These are the prominent methods in current social welfare analysis (Adler, 2019; Adler & Fleurbaey, 2016). In Sect. 6, we scrutinize the important issue of rescaling the measures of functionings for species with different abilities, such as longevity. This problem raises an apparent dilemma which is quite important, and echoes similar difficulties appearing among human beings with unequal capacities or with disabilities. (pp. 260-61)

Symposium on Livermore and Revesz's Reviving Rationality at Yale Journal of Regulation

Reviving-RationalityBy Mark D. White

There must be something in the water... a symposium began recently at the Notice & Comment Blog of the Yale Journal of Regulation on Michael Livermore and Richard Revesz's book Reviving Rationality: Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health (Oxford, 2021).

From Christopher Walker's introduction:

Reviving Rationality is the sequel to Livermore and Revesz’s seminal 2008 book Retaking Rationality, which advances a powerful call for progressives to embrace cost-benefit analysis—or at least to take their seat at the table in regulatory policymaking that involves cost-benefit analysis. Retaking Rationality framed much of the debate on regulatory policymaking and centralized White House review of regulations during the Obama Administration.

Reviving Rationality picks up where Retaking Rationality ends, focusing on the process and quality of regulatory policymaking in the Trump Administration. Livermore and Revesz’s bottom line is, unsurprisingly, scathing of the Trump Administration’s approach, with in-depth case studies from a broad range of regulatory actions over the last four years. But Reviving Rationality is also hopeful and optimistic in how it charts the path forward for how the Biden Administration can rebuild the guardrails for economic analysis and revive rationality in regulatory policymaking.

The contributions so far include:

"Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health," by Timothy Brennan

"Why this is still an important book after the 2020 elections," by E. Donald Elliott

"Cost as the Ultimate Regulatory Restraint," by Jonathan H. Adler (previewed here at The Volokh Conspiracy)

Has neoclassical economics led to ecological disaster?

Mark D. White Dr Barker

Here's an interesting and provocative talk, upcoming at the University of Greenwich on March 6, 2013 (register your place here):

"How Neoclassical Economic Thinking Has Led to Ecological Disaster?"

We are facing several crises at once: the near collapse of the world banking system in 2008 (and its consequences), the loss of biodiversity (the fifth extinction), world-wide pollution of land, water and air, and apparently escalating climate change. I shall discuss how neoclassical thought has justified the actions and behaviours that have led to these crises. Traditional economics (i.e. neoclassical use of calculus, network and game theory) has an emphasis on individual utility, rationality and market equilibrium. This approach with the use of market discount rates, the lack of reflexivity, the conversion of altruism into money, and the absurd separation of issues of equality from those of economic growth and welfare, has turned people into commodities (in the theory), played down our love of nature, and coarsened those who teach it. The greed and self-serving behaviour of the global banks, and the clients they advise, demonstrates the end result of worship of so-called free markets and pursuit of deregulation to achieve more profits.

About the speaker:

Dr Barker is the Chairman of Cambridge Econometrics, having founded the company in 1985. He is also Senior Departmental Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (4CMR), Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Economic Systems Research, the International Journal of Climate Strategies and Management, the International Journal of Global Warming, and the Scientific Advisory Board of the World Wide Views on Global Warming. He was a member of the Scientific Committee of the Climate Change Congress, Copenhagen, March 2009, and was on the Writing Team of the Synthesis Report of the Congress. He received the Distinguished Guest Lecturer Medal for 2008 from the Royal Society for Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry Group.

He was a Co-ordinating Lead Author (CLA) for the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report, 2007, for the chapter on cross-sectoral mitigation. Previously he was CLA in the Third Assessment Report, 2001, taking responsibility for the chapter on the effects of greenhouse gas mitigation policies on the global energy industries. He was a member of the core writing team for the Synthesis Report Climate Change 2001. He contributed to the IPCC's Scoping Meeting for the Fifth Assessment Report, held in Venice 13-17 July, 2009.

From 2000 he instigated and worked on projects building a global E3 model (E3MG) with initial emphasis on modelling the E3 structures of China and Japan. Since 2004 he has been working as member of a UK Tyndall Centre project to develop E3MG as a 20-region world model, designed to analyse GHG mitigation policies under endogenous technological change. He is now leading the research of a team in 4CMR developing and using E3MG for studies of the decarbonisation of the global economy, funded by the Three Guineas Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Trusts. In the 1990s he was appointed the Project Co-ordinator of the pan-European project developing and applying the E3 model for Europe (E3ME), partly funded by the European Commission, analysing energy and fiscal policies including the equity effects of environmental fiscal reform. Previously he was Principal Investigator on projects funded under the ESRC’s Global Environmental Change Programme ‘Developing an E3 model of the UK economy’ and ‘Greenhouse gas abatement through fiscal policy’; the independent evaluators rated the outcome of the first of these projects as an outstanding contribution to knowledge. He worked with Professor Sir Richard Stone, the Nobel Laureate, in the Department of Applied Economics, becoming the Director of the Cambridge Growth Project 1983-87, a team of 8-10 economists that originally developed the (MDM) structural model of the British Economy.

John Muir and the Environmental Ethic

Jonathan B. Wight

The environmental ethic is a complex philosophy that can be arrived at from utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics approaches. Environmentalism is a pluralistic ethical concept.

Donald Worster's wonderful biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2008) gets at the multi-faceted concepts involved. The book is an exciting romp through the 19th century and early 20th century. It starts in Scotland where Muir was born in 1838 and takes the reader across the seas to the New World and Wisconsin where his parents migrated when he was a young boy.

The family attempted to scrapple out a farm and Muir worked hard labor. He was an inventor, however, and escaped the farm for jobs in factories creating innovations for lumber mills run by steam engines.

His wandering spirit eventually set him on the road, and he walked and walked and walked…and walked some more. He nearly died numerous times of diseases, accidents, and adventures. His bright blue eyes and open heart endeared him to many who nursed him back to health. He carried the strong Scottish egalitarian streak, and carried on conversations with just about anyone, from field hands to presidents.

Muir believed that nature is essential for the wholeness and unfolding of the human spirit. We are drawn to nature like a moth to flame. Instead of fighting it, we need to embrace it. Muir devoted much of his life to writing about the intersection and harmony of humans and nature. Yet on many levels humans have raped nature for short run gains and the tragedy of the commons is a constant theme of the book.

Muir was not opposed to cost/benefit calculations and he saw nature as a necessary source of materials for human prosperity. Yet he decried an ethic of wanton destruction as he witnessed numerous times in the Alaskan gold rush. Thousands of animals were slaughtered for their tusks and the food left to rot. Running throughout the book is Muir's insistence that nature and animals deserve respect for their intrinsic existence qualities. A virtuous person refines his or her character in nature.

Muir was instrumental in preserving and creating Yosemite National Park and others. The book is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the roots of environmental ethics in American culture. One of Muir's great failures was not being able to fight off the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which flooded a canyon nearly as beautiful as Yosemite to feed San Francisco's water demands. San Franciscans will vote this fall on whether to restore the valley to its pristine state.

[Thanks to Jack Fiedler for providing this book.]

Call for Papers: Valuing Lives

Mark D. White

The NYU Center for Bioethics, in conjunction with the NYU Program in Environmental Studies, is hosting a conference named "Valuing Lives: A Conference on Ethics in Health and the Environment." From the call:

Various policy issues in environmental and health-related matters force policymakers to trade human lives against other values. We welcome original, unpublished papers from philosophers, economists and legal scholars that address whether and how this can be done in a morally acceptable manner. Possible topics include, but are not limited to: commensurability of human life and environmental values; compensation for harms to health; polling, public deliberation, and the appeal to expertise in evaluative matters; prioritizing the life and health of the young and the poorly-off; discounting future lives; saving identifiable lives vs. saving statistical lives; the precautionary principle; the human dignity objection to measuring the value of human life.

Submissions should not exceed 4000 words and must be prepared for blind review. Send the paper, a 150 word abstract and a separate document with your identifying information to Amanda Anjum ([email protected]). Submission deadline is November 1, 2010. Notification of acceptance will be sent by December 15. For further information, contact Ben Sachs ([email protected]) or go to the conference website at http://bioethics.as.nyu.edu/object/Bioethics.valuinglives.