The life of environmental law since 1970 has been less epiphany than economics. The design, implementation, and interpretation of environmental statutes have been deeply affected by two related trends: use of market-based regulatory instruments, such as tradable emissions permits, and the rise of cost-benefit analysis as (at least) extremely weighty in choosing the goals of environmental policy. Legal scholarship has helped to power these trends with criticism of inflexible and cost-insensitive instruments and ambitious attempts to assess environmental regulation within a larger cost-benefit framework. These developments have been controversial: critics in Congress, the environmental movement, and the legal academy have charged that these economic approaches obscure or violate the distinctive value of the natural world and inhibit the future growth of environmental values.
These questions are basic. Do prices flatten moral distinctions? Does cost-benefit analysis foster an instrumental view of the natural world? Those who helped create the forms of environmental imagination that this paper discusses had, at various times, sharply differing views of these questions. Nature and economics have been co-evolving for centuries, so that an idea of one has often implied an idea of the other, and arguments about each are often, at base, arguments about both.
The same Thomas Morton of Merry-Mount who so agitated the early Massachusetts Puritans with his free-and-easy attitude to the Indians and his just-maybe pagan festivals was also through and through a Renaissance businessman, a merchant type familiar from Shakespeare. He opened his New English Canaan, an account of the new world and a score-settling with his erstwhile Puritan neighbors, with a verse description of North America as “a faire virgin, longing to be sped/And meet her lover in a Nuptiall bed/… most fortunate/When most enjoyed.” When men left the continent unimproved by “art and industry,” her “fruitfull wombe” let its products fail “like a glorious tombe/… in darck obscurity.” As the industrious English rushed to “enjoy” her, though, they would bring into the light these “Admired things … The worth of which, in each particuler, Who list to know, this abstract will declare.”
It is a vivid and unsettling poem. Its euphemisms (“most fortunate/When most enjoyed”) bring us fairly close to the pleasures of the bed. The coupling of “wombe” and “tombe” casts the pre-contact continent in macabre tones: not teeming with life, but failing to produce it despite potential, a fallow desolation. This dense cluster of hortatory, erotic, and gynecological images is not here for its own sake. It is the frontispiece to a ledger of commodities, an “abstract” that will set out “the worth of … each.”
Morton’s “abstract” can seem on first reading to be just a vivid bestiary. He describes “Squirils of three sorts, very different in shap and condition,” the gray, the red, and “a little flying Squirrill, with batlike winges, which hee spreads when hee jumps from tree to tree, and does no harme.” The bear is an innocent creature, frightening only to “some effeminate person who conceaved of more danger in them [than] there is cause,” although “the Beare is a tyrant at a Lobster.” The wolf, which sometimes hunts “puppy dogg[s]” to feed its whelps, is a “discommodity” in North America as in other “Countries of Christendome,” the “Salvages [a spelling that reminds the reader that savage means people of the forest] treasure its hide and will trade 40 beaver skins for the pelt of a black wolf, which makes it “worthy [of] the title of a commodity.”
The reader soon realizes that “commodity,” meaning both that which is useful and that which can be sold, is the key to Morton’s discussion. Though he promises a description of the “bewty of the Country” and does give a cursory, admiring account of “her naturall indowements,” here, as with the bride of the poetic epigraph, the emphasis is on the fruitful enjoyment that comes from “employ[ing] her.” His account of trees ends by observing that American musk roses produces a better rosewater than their English cousins and that sassafras “doe[s] perfume the airs” in spring, but his focus is on the uses, and markets, for oak, ash, beech, walnut, chestnut, maple, birch, and evergreens. (The last were especially essential for navigation, from masts to sealing pitch.) The “curious bird to see, called a hunning bird, no bigger than a great Beetle,” won Morton’s admiration for its “glosse like silke … of a chaingable colour,” but was the last bird mentioned after the many edible kinds whose abundance he trumpeted. The “beasts,” too, he addressed in order of usefulness, beginning with deer and moose, reliable sources of meat and the latter showing promise as a harnessed draft-animal (striking thought!) for the new world.
All these edible things are commodities in the sense that they are useful: they will keep colonists alive, like the North American salad greens whose “maskuline vertue” Morton pauses to admire. The heart of his analysis of “commodity,” though, is market value, which has a double-headed currency: English money on the one hand and beaver skins on the other. The latter are “the best marchantable commodity,” fetching 10 shillings a pound when Morton wrote, and he provided the value of many other skins in terms of beaver pelts: between two and four to a deer hide, and, as mentioned, 40 for the skin of a wolf. Because the otter’s market was in England, and not in the Indian trade, it was instead priced in cash, at “3 or 4 Angels of gold.”
Two things are striking about Morton’s “abstract” of American commodities. For one, it is a bestiary for an extractive colony, much more than for a settler colony. There is no discussion of the fertility of the soil, and the plants that interest Morton, besides trees, are the wild “Potthearbes and other herbes for Sallets,” not gardened greens. Usefulness, commodity, refers to those things that traders can live on during their sojourns in America, and to what they can sell on the home market. Second, there is a vivacity, a sensual interest in the continent and its life, that coexists easily with Morton’s list of uses and prices. He is Falstaff and Prospero, a colonial master and a voluptuary with time to wonder at the “hunning-bird,” though not to the neglect of his account-books.
As we have seen in the earlier chapter on North America as a garden, “commodity” came to be the central value of the American land in the eyes of its conquerors and settlers. What developed here was not Morton’s extractive vision, but an agrarian one. Instead of stripping the wealth of a teeming continent, westward settlers transformed it by turning forests and prairies into fields and wood-lots. The key institution in this movement was private property: by ensuring the settler the fruits of his labor, property turned the mobs of Eastern cities and the second (through eighth) sons of New England into a volunteer army dedicated to clearing, planting, and harvesting. From Thomas Jefferson and James Wilson forward to Horace Greeley and William Gilpin, Americans called westward settlement the key to the country’s free, republican (later democratic) character; a nation of self-reliant landowners could be equal and free as no large country had ever been. Early in the nineteenth century, a West full of small farmers was to save the United States from the hierarchical land ownership of the Old World, where peasants and serfs labored in legal and economic bondage to great landlords. It was also to save North Americans from cities, riot-prone and malarial. By the later decades of the century, the frontier was cast as salvation from class conflict: Europe might split into the warring camps of capital and labor, Abraham Lincoln argued in 1859, but widespread property-holding meant that Americans were both owners and laborers, and could expect to circulate among economic roles (generally upward) through their lives. The owner-laborer also became a new ideal of democratic personality: thinking and working, he united the head and the hands in a way that both landlord agriculture and industrial capitalism prevented. In North America, a person could be whole in his work, thanks to the wealth and size of the continent – or so many argued.
Against this backdrop, one sees more clearly the radicalism of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dissent, and that of the Transcendentalists and fellow-travelers who joined their domestic exile into an alternative American identity. Thoreau’s Walden opens with a long chapter (over 60 pages in a standard-sized edition) on “Economy,” which contains no glimpse of the author’s experimental sojourn in Walden woods. (That comes later in the book.) Much of “Economy” is a polemical satire that aims to reverse the standard American idea about economics and freedom, not once but twice – first by portraying labor and land-ownership as a form of enslavement, then by insisting that the “economy” that should concern Americans is a mental and spiritual sort. Thoreau calls his respectable Concord neighbors, those who own farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools, “serfs of the soil” and envisions
many a poor immortal soul … well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
There are two thoughts here. First, the husbandry that American rhetoric called an emblem of freedom and source of honor did not deserve the praise. The culture of hard work appealed to dignity and the sense of responsibility, but in reality it offered submission to “an economical and moral tyrant.”  The American condition, Thoreau claimed in an echo of Rousseau, was to “be born free but not to live free.” Second, the great cost of the American fixation on labor and commerce was in squandered potential: it distracted an entire people from “the true problems of life,” self-cultivation and the cultivation of experience. Thoreau urged his reader not to be “a slave-driver of yourself.” This, much more than any theory of man’s exploitation of man, was the heart of his complaint and his vision of emancipation.
Thoreau proposed two changes in the idea of “economy,” to wrest that word away from the “business” that he called “more opposed to poetry, to philosophy … to life itself,” than anything else in the world. One change was to redefine the idea of wealth, from the market value of possession to the richness of experience. In an extended riff on the idea of real-estate speculation, and so on the question of what one would hope to gain by ownership, Thoreau remarked, “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw [during a walk], having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm.” He described the poet who conjured in language land he never owned – as Thoreau never owned his little plot near the Concord-Lincoln line – as possessing it in a higher sense, having “fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.” The image of stripping the land, used to describe a way of seeing that leaves it physically untouched, is high irony, intended to transform the reader’s sense of what it might mean to be rich. Wealth was not in getting but in being, and getting was the worst kind of distraction – especially since Americans had confused it with freedom and dignity.
Thoreau also proposed to redefine the personal virtue that is an older meaning of “economy”: diligent labor and self-mastery, as in the small disciplines of “home economics.” Thoreau would have changed this virtue from a technique of acquisition to a practice of awareness. He filled his chapter on “Economy” with balance sheets of income and expenditure from his stay at Walden – our first introduction to the two years he spent there, since the pond itself does not appear until the second chapter, and then in a roundabout way. He did not neglect a two-cent watermelon, 22 cents worth of dried apples, or a dime-sack of sweet potatoes, set against $13.34 earned by day labor. The profit-and-loss tables appear again in “The Bean-Field,” Thoreau’s chapter on cultivating beans and potatoes, from which he calculates “a pecuniary profit … of $8.71½.”
All of this is to be taken ironically. Thoreau elsewhere noted indignantly, “I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents,” and he concluded “The Bean-Field” by declaring that, if he planted again, he would leave the crop to birds and wild animals, rejoicing in weeds and giving nature its way. The use of “pecuniary” to specify the kind of profit that he took from his farming is significant, because this is the kind of “profit” that Thoreau urged Americans to value less. When he notes, “Nothing was given me of which I have not rendered some account,” the reader may take that as assurance that no undocumented watermelon found its way into Thoreau’s cabin, or, alternatively, as paraphrasing the purpose of the entire book: to take account of, measure and record most exactingly the author’s transactions with the world. Some of these must be material, but many will be perceptions, thoughts, experiences – the substance of the poet’s property claim on the farmer’s estate. If wealth is in awareness, attention, then maybe the American can transform his “economy,” the discipline of his self-enslavement, into a discipline of self-emancipation. Thoreau expressed precisely this thought in a journal entry wondering at the heroic self-discipline of a local farmer who arose before dawn every day for decades to labor in the cold. Such a man should be an ascetic teacher, Thoreau proposed: the same energy and concentration rededicated to spiritual innovation could found a new age of humanity.
This is not to say that Thoreau had no interest in the physical use of nature. For his call to consciousness to be more than idle, he had to be right when he wrote that “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.” Americans’ labors served “a seeming fate commonly called necessity,”and to identify “the true necessaries and means of life” was not only an ironic literary device; it was what one had to do to give spiritual advice without becoming fatuous. It is to Thoreau’s credit as a serious American thinker that he assumed no caste division between laborers and poets, and so insisted, “if getting a living is not [inviting and glorious] then living is not.” For a philosophical way of life to be worth recommending, it must be possible for a whole people to adopt it, not just notionally but in concrete practice. So he declared,
It is pertinent to ask if Plato got his living in a better way or more successfully than his contemporaries – or did he succumb to the difficulties of life like other men? Did he seem to prevail over some of them merely by indifference, or by assuming grand airs? or find it easier to live, because his aunt remembered him in her will?
These were the questions Thoreau had to answer on his own account to qualify Walden as a philosophical polemic for Americans.
Thoreau, then, proposed quite a different version of “economy” with nature than either Thomas Morton or the nineteenth-century Americans who celebrated frontier settlement. For Thoreau, the basic relationship to seek with nature was a meditative one – to have one’s own thoughts distilled in the analogies and symbols that the mind discerned in things carefully observed. To dissolve the natural world into money would destroy the living places that could prompt insight, but even more basically it would discourage the search for insight in a living world. “As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!” Thoreau exclaimed, having demonstrated at the length the other kinds of “interest” one could take in a woods – in the sense of being fascinated by it, but also in the sense of having something at stake in it.
As discussed in an earlier chapter, this idea made sense if nature were full of signs, meanings, and relations akin to the organizing concerns of the human mind. What did that view of nature invite in the way of a new view of “economy?” On the one hand, “the economy,” the system of transactions and wealth-production, should be understood as a practice of attention and storehouse of experience – an altogether different thought from the dominant view of Thoreau’s time, or any later time. On the other hand, the virtue of “economy,” the discipline of husbanding resources, should turn from penny-pinching to the conferral and preservation of attention that was Thoreau’s main concern. This may have been the sense of the word that Emerson had in mind when he wrote in a journal entry, “The transcendental is an economy also” – also something to be husbanded, preserved, and increased. Wealth, at its root, is weal, well-being, and Thoreau’s argument is that to live well it is necessary to reconsider what counts as “wealth” and what as poverty.
Famously, economy comes from oikos, Greek for household, and it shares this root with ecology, a nineteenth-century neologism coined by the German natural historian, Ernst Haeckel. Economy in Thoreau’s sense is homemaking, and the stakes of his discussion is what kind of home people will make of the earth. The logic of his argument is that what a people counts as wealth is inseparable from the kind of home it makes. As Thoreau puts it in “Economy,” “if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.” An economy, then, is at once a form of material activity and a form of consciousness. The physical practices that make up an economy are practical expressions of what those who live in that economy value, that is, regard as wealth, that is, regard as well-being and so worth living by and toward. At the same time, those practices shape consciousness: they induct people into the habits that become identities, the “seeming necessity” that they come to regard as fate. In this mutually shaping cycle between the individual mind and the common world, Thoreau famously claimed we could insert freedom only through the mind, the undetermined thought. As long as neither changed, each implied the other, and, imagining both to be natural, no one would ask whether – or how – it might all be different.
Thoreau’s idea had a long pedigree. That the world was a household whose design told us how to live in it, so that social and political order should share basic features with natural order, was central to the medieval idea that analogies among the various “kingdoms” of creation expressed a common, underlying significance. Hierarchy and order, upheaval and anarchy, showed up in the harmony of the stars and the disruption a comet foretold, in the dominance of the eagle over the skies and the lion (earlier, in northern Europe, the bear) over land beasts. The “natural theologians” such as Henry More and, especially, John Ray, who set out to reconstruct this comprehensive order in response to threats from revolution and the Epicurean skepticism of Hobbes and others, gave the idea of natural harmony a more distinctly “economic” cast. They emphasized the complex scheme of mutual advantage that made every life form valuable to every other, rather than a straightforward hierarchy of species. The order they praised was thus full of paradoxes and surprising benefits, such as the vindication of “pests.” It also concentrated on relatively low-built, material benefits: although everything in creation bent ultimately toward salvation, the natural order worked largely to sustain its parts, rather than directly to a higher glory. Theirs was an account of nature for commoners as much as for kings, though nothing in it tended to displace kings.
In both respects, the natural theologians’ picture of the world had affinities with the theory of market economies that came into full force in the later eighteenth century, most famously in Adam Smith. That theory, too, focused on the material and social benefits that self-interested individuals pursued, rather than any more elevated purpose, and described order as arising in paradoxical and non-obvious ways from that pursuit. Smith, like his contemporary and great influence, David Hume, described morality, including political philosophy, as arising from certain emotions and habits of thought in human nature, rather than from a transcendent order. Because they rejected the idea that the natural world disclosed divine or other moral design – that how things are shows how they should be – it is easy to miss how much their theory of social order, or economy, has in common with an earlier, explicitly theological approach to social order. They distilled into human nature all the propensity to mutually advantageous harmony that had previously been rooted in a theory of nature itself, with human nature a continuous part of the larger fabric. As we have seen, in the American setting the affinity between a theory of nature and a market-oriented theory of the economy was more explicit and longer lived, largely because the idea of an open continent to the West was so important to the political economy in which figures like James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson expressed their vision of the United States.
Thoreau was writing in the America this idea had helped to create, where the cornerstones of public philosophy included the dignity of labor, nature’s need to be fruitfully cultivated, and an image of national destiny in which westward development would extend both liberty and wealth. In Walden and essays like “Life Without Principle,” he insisted that this way of thinking shut out the highest things: the dignity of reflection and contemplation, the value of nature as a contemplative object and source of insight, and an image of national destiny that focused on freedom of the mind as a necessary condition of political and social liberty. Making good on this second set of ideas, he argued, would require building a different kind of house in the world, both in our minds and in our work.
Thoreau insisted on taking seriously that the American economy was a mode of relating to the natural world as well as to one another. Moving across the continent, Americans would shape nature in answer to how they had learned to imagine it, and would become the kinds of selves they already supposed themselves to be. What they valued, they would make and become. This was the national significance of Thoreau’s adage that reality answers faithfully and invariably to our conceptions of it. An economy implied ideas both about good human lives and about the natural world, a connection that had been vivid in the natural theologians but suppressed in their Scottish Enlightenment successors. The right shape of an economy, though, could not simply be reckoned from the blueprint of the world. Instead, it was a matter of choosing. In that choice, what Americans valued, how they related to one another, and what they made of the natural world were unavoidably tied together.
As the nineteenth century grew older, this idea – that Americans would make their economy and remake themselves, all at once – became less a conceit about the power of vision over material things (as it arguably was for the Transcendentalist Thoreau, although he was subtle and unruly enough to overrun that simple classification). It became palpable that Americans would remake the whole continent, and much sooner than the first visionaries of Manifest Destiny had supposed. The wilderness’s longing to become an orderly landscape of fertile farms, that article of early American faith and public rhetoric, did not avert ecological catastrophes such as small farmers’ move into the semi-arid Great Plains in the 1880s. West of the hundredth meridian, hardy settlement was no substitute for large-scale landscape engineering like the irrigation projects that became a federal preoccupation after unaided pioneers mainly failed to fertilize the desert. Landscape-making choices would be unavoidable, on a regional scale that added up, fairly quickly, to a continental scale. In the face of these choices, as well as the prospect of exhausting essential resources, Progressive reformers like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot made their case for a strong national government that could manage the interwoven problems of natural and social systems – from forestry to public health and antitrust – and build a more mature civic culture in the process.
Progressive reformers saw the natural world as valuable in service to human interests: they were not interested in the “occult intelligence with the vegetable” [check quote] that attracted Emerson and which Thoreau explored in far greater depth than his elder and landlord. Many Progressives did embrace a broad idea of the interests the natural world could serve, including psychological respite from workaday life. The aesthetic ideas of beauty and sublimity came to be parts of a public-health program in the hands of parks advocates such as Frederick Law Olmsted. They also introduced an idea that would be central to later environmental economics: that although individual economic decisions can add up to considerable harm and unfairness, meaning laissez-faire is unsound policy, regulation can make the economy a “machine that runs of itself,” producing the right mix of values more or less automatically as long as expert judgment guides the rules that shape the system. No one expressed this idea more confidently than Theodore Roosevelt, when he insisetd that a regulatory program of “national efficiency” would shape the economy to reward each person in proportion to his or her contribution to the public good, no more and no less.
The Progressives’ contemporary and Roosevelt’s sometime camping companion, John Muir, saw these questions somewhat differently. Muir followed Thoreau in contrasting two forms of consciousness: the elevated awareness of the person in communion with nature and the flattened, dulled mind of the laborer in the lowlands. (For Muir, morally and psychologically flattening labor was generally that of the lowlands, though he also condescended to shepherds and shingle-cutters who brought their economically minded attitudes to his highlands.) It bespeaks the limits of Muir’s thought that he did not find a way to write about the activity that took up his middle decades: operating a produce farm outside San Francisco, which served the city’s markets via a rail spur. Muir penned no answer to Thoreau’s ironic essay on hoeing the bean-field at Walden, nor did he put his account books to the literary uses that Thoreau’s served. His nature was a counterpoint to the anti-aesthetic, anti-spiritual “busyness” that Thoreau had decried, but it was also a selective exception to the accepted fact that busyness would dominate most of life and most of the American landscape. The large share of the natural world that Americans had dedicated to agriculture, let alone for the (more or less) regulated industries and cities that preoccupied Progressive reformers, had no voice in Muir’s writing. Muir’s vision of the natural world, for all its aesthetic and spiritual appeal, lent itself so easily to tourism because the nature he praised was an exception, a geographic carve-out from the progress of development, to be enjoyed in the few weeks a year dedicated to vacation.
[The most interesting moment here is a sharp break in how “economics” was cast in the mainstream environmental movement. Amid the rise of ecological interdependence in the 1960s and 1970s, “economics” went from being an assumed part of the movement’s argumentative repertoire to playing the role of nemesis, portrayed as embodying the instrumentalism and obsessive wealth-maximization that the new environmentalists defined themselves against. There was also, however, a counter-current in which environmentalists imagined an allegedly very different, “ecological” economics. Today we live in a sometimes fractious mélange of the three perspectives, with the third recently in the ascendant.]
The Sierra Club in the 1950s and 1960s was an uncritical and mostly upbeat participant in the cost-benefit politics of the public-lands agencies, and regarded the economics discipline as an ally whose rigor helped the Club to refute spurious claims that dams, roads, and logging sales would greatly serve the public welfare. During the dispute over damming Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, the Bulletin ran photo-spreads of the landscape along the Utah-Colorado border, but its article-length arguments tended to emphasize that alternative developments could achieve the same power and water benefits at lower cost. Fourteen years later, in 1968, the Club was instructing its member on the “Uses and Abuses of Highway Benefit-Cost Analysis,” a technical primer on discount rates, secondary benefits, and the assumed useful life of a road project, intended to enable activists to comment intelligently on agency decisions. The tone of the piece is in no way critical of the cost-benefit procedure, but notes that development interests may try to inflate the benefits totals, a reason for Club members to be numerate. A year later, a similar piece invoked the authority of “economists” and “nearly every resource economist” to argue that sophisticated cost-benefit analysis cut against large dam projects. The argument, then, was within cost-benefit analysis, not in contrast to it.
The Bulletin even contended that cost-benefit analysis could integrate beauty. This came in connection with the establishment of the “aesthetic injury” basis of federal standing in the dispute over a proposed Consolidated Edison power plant at the Hudson Valley’s Storm King Mountain: “The [Club] attorneys’ position has been that that scenic beauty can be objectively analyzed and degrees of scenic beauty can be stated.” Indeed, as the Club’s underlying brief argued, “There … are standards and experts, and natural beauty can be the subject of analysis, with sufficient definiteness to distinguish that which is worthy of protection” in relation to economic costs and benefits.
This style of argument was not simply a product of the Club’s status as a mature interest group in public-lands politics. Club leaders made very similar arguments in the first decade of the twentieth century, in their storied losing fight against San Francisco’s damming Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley for a municipal water supply. And, as their arguments supposed he would, Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield considered “the standpoint of [Hetch Hetchy’s] scenic effects, natural wonders, and health and pleasure” in the statutorily mandated public-interest analysis that accompanied his approval of the proposed dam. The premise of all of these arguments is that cost-benefit analysis is a flexible, forceful means of specifying competing considerations and establishing an authoritative public interest. It is not the enemy of beauty or wonder, but the way those aesthetic values are translated into public policy. The problem was not that decisions came through calculation, but that persons and groups that lacked sensitivity to natural beauty would exclude it the public-interest calculus, in favor of a purely material view of welfare – hence the Club’s assertion that the “moral and physical welfare of a nation is not dependent alone on bread and water” and its founders’ contempt for “gain-seekers” who could see in a landscape only potential income. In both the faith in calculation and the embrace of interests beyond concern for one’s own material welfare, the Club was of a piece with the progressive political culture in which it matured and found a vehicle for the values of romantic epiphany.
Something changed, however, with the language of ecological interdependence. Essays calling for “a religion” of ecology and “extraordinary commitment to an entirely new way of life” cast “exploit[ation]” of nature and “limitless expansion of the economy” as their nemeses. Soon the nemeses were gathered in “economics.” Bulletin contributors asserted, “We are told that we must have growth because economists insist upon it” and argued that “the displacement of spiritual goals by the drive to accumulate wealth has its origins in the belief that man is separate from nature and is its master.” Economics had been cast as the embodiment of the relentless focus on the instrumental value of nature that the new environmentalists, with their language of humility and interdependence, understood themselves to be defying. Economics became, in a peculiar sense, the opposite of ecology. This opposition was sounded in movement literature, but it had roots in more systematic arguments about the consequences of an ecological perspective. Lynton K. Caldwell, the most important intellectual architect of the National Environmental Policy Act, argued in 1970 that “two major ways of looking at the world have characterized man’s attitude … the first may be termed economic, the second ecological.” The first he described as embracing a simple ethic: “to make nature serve man’s material needs.” Ecology, by contrast, adjusted human purposes and values in recognition of the continuity and interdependence of life.
The language of ecological interdependence may have required an antithesis: its affirmations were vague enough that a focusing negation was a great rhetorical help. Moreover, there was symmetry in the scope of the theories. Economists’ study of choice under constraint and ecologists’ exploration of interdependence both implicate all human interactions with “resources.” This shared comprehensiveness might have invited the sense that the two were struggling over the same world.
All the same, the opposition was also contingent and, as we have seen, a switch from an earlier attitude. Nonetheless, identifying “economics” with instrumental mastery over nature and obtuseness to non-monetary values became reflexive for many environmentalists, who called environmental benefits “a qualitative advance that is to be enjoyed, not measured.”
At the same time, the attitudes of progressive management never disappeared. Those attitudes powerfully influenced neo-progressive scholars and such post-1970 groups as the Environmental Defense Fund, noted for its early and controversial embrace of tradable emissions permits. The encounter between economics and ecological interdependence also produced a second, very different result from the initial casting of the two as opposites. This was a sort of eco-utopian economics, the ideal of a market-style system whose pricing would reflect ecologically complete information, building complex and systemic costs and benefits into the structure of every production and consumption choice. Anticipated already in Caldwell’s acknowledgment that his opposed standpoints might converge “if all relevant factors were considered,” this idea emerged in popular polemics in the 1990s and today is a conventional, if hard-to-specify, endpoint in evocations of environmental goals.
Because this idea is so central to the ambitions of environmental law and policy today, understanding both its appeal and its limitations is important. The touchstone is an economy without unpriced environmental externalities, that is, in which every environmental effect of any action is expressed in money terms as a cost or a reward of any action. Buy gasoline for your car, or burn coal in your power plant, and pay a carbon fee that captures the effect of carbon emissions on climate change. On the plus side, farm in a way that preserves topsoil or wetlands, which support soil fertility and clean waterways, and receive a reward, whether through a tax credit or by selling someone else permission to do the environmental harm that you have avoided. Such pricing would plainly affect consumer decisions, driving down use of, say, fossil fuels and encouraging more environmentally friendly alternatives. Ultimately more important is that it would change all levels of economic activity. Research in alternative energies, or in technology to preserve soil in large-scale agriculture, would also increase because of increased demand for such technologies. The whole economy would tilt in an environmentally friendly direction. A green hue would tinge every decision.
It is conventional to disparage subsidies to favored industries as inefficient and invitations to political corruption. The argument for the “ecological pricing” under discussion here is that it would not be a subsidy on top of a working market, but rather a correction of a market failure – that is, the failure of the economy to take account of the many harms and benefits that arise from environmental externalities. It would not depart from the market, but perfect it. In its utopian ideal, it would harmonize the ecological effects of human activity with the rewards and penalties of the economy.
It is unsurprising that this idea developed in recent decades. Since the perception of a global ecological crisis arose in the 1960’s, environmental challenges have inspired utopian responses. One of the major inspirations for utopian thought is the perception that the present order is untenable , but that its basic logic is so entrenched that a whole new order is necessary to repair it. The analysis of environmental destruction as arising out of the ordinary activity of modern life, especially the pursuit of economic growth as the measure of progress, produced this kind of grim prognosis. Ordinary life, in its most innocent and humane goals – comfort, security, progress – came to seem covertly bent on self-immolation. Utopias arise from the sense that the present world is making itself impossible, and that there must be a bridge to another, even if we have not found it yet.
The idea of the perfect market is the last utopia (or maybe one of the last two, since historian Samuel Moyn has given the same title to the goals of the international human-rights movement). Other utopias, such as communism, have promised to reconcile the basic and mutually contradictory features of human life – in the case of communism, freedom and interdependence. Freedom is rooted in our power to make choices, and, more deeply, in our having desires, goals, images of the lives we wish to lead, which make the power of choice precious to us. Interdependence is rooted in two inescapable facts. We live in a world of finite resources, which we need for pursuing our plans and visions of life. Many of the things we need, whether fuel, fresh water, or just a room of one’s own, cannot serve two people at once, so my using these things to live my life interferes with your doing the same. At the same time, we need one another in living our lives. Whether for labor, knowledge, or affection, there is precious little we can accomplish alone, and much of what is precious, we cannot have alone at all. But these “human resources” – a rather brutal term – are finite, too; past a point, your helping me means you cannot help someone else, and so we all spend our hours and energy making some people’s visions of life real, while others’ remain only empty wishes.
In its simplest form, the communist utopia imagined dissolving the first part of problem of interdependence, and, with it, part of the second. In time, technology would produce enough wealth that, in effect, there would be no competition for material resources. There would be enough to go around. The political transformation of communism would seize this material possibility by ending private ownership of economically critical resources, meaning the owner of a factory, or a new technology or wireless network, could not use the power of ownership to extract fees or wage-labor from others. Instead, everyone would have free access to the plentiful things of the world. They would still, of course, need to persuade one another to help make their projects real, but they could no longer do it by snapping their fingers and hiring help. With economic power equalized and wealth abundant, they would have to use human persuasion – appeals to love, enthusiasm, the pleasure of creative activity or play. Not every vision of life would come true, of course, but the forces that ordered our interdependence would be as compatible as possible with our freedom.
As a general vision, market utopianism is ironically similar in its broad outlines, though much more modest in what it offers. It promises that our interdependence and our freedom can find harmony in a libertarian economy of informed and voluntary choices: when all consequences of a decision are included in its price, autonomous choice will impose no arbitrary burdens on others. Instead, the prices that channel market decisions will provide a neutral architecture in which individual actions take place. The resources we need will still be scarce, but we will determine who gets what by giving it to the one who is willing (and able) to pay most for it, at a price that takes into account all effects on others. One marked difference is that market utopianism assumes resources will always be scarce enough that we will have to compete for them, and so aims at perfecting, by its lights, the way that economic order distributes resources. Another is that market utopianism begins by assuming unequal wealth and economic power, and proceeds on that basis. From a more radical standpoint, then, market utopianism works out some of the kinks in a highly unequal system, in which the solution to interdependence pushes down the freedom of the poor and unlucky and elevates that of the wealthy. From this perspective, market utopianism is something of a distraction from the more pressing question of whether we can share out freedom more equally.
Be that as it may, environmental market utopianism is a cousin of the general market-utopian approach. It promises to reconcile our need and appetite for the world’s resources with the earth’s finitude and fragility. Again, it would do this through an economy of informed and free choice, this time enhanced by ecologically correct pricing. On the one hand, this utopia would look just about like the world we actually inhabit. On the other hand, it would be basically different. Everything would have a price – incorporating its environmental effect – and nothing would be free but what is environmentally cost-neutral.
There is a special affinity between environmental regulation and this market vision. The neo-classical economics that gained so much influence in the last decades of the twentieth century bases its support for markets over regulation in good part on the complexity of the social world. The information that is relevant to economic choices is too diverse and widely dispersed for any central decision-maker to know it all, and the great virtue of markets is that they gather this information through as many small, locally informed decisions as there are human actions in a day. When you compare copper tile with a terra cotta alternative, the price tag summarizes a huge amount of information: new uses for copper in industrial processes may have increased orders from factories in China, a recession have reduced consumer purchases from those factories in Europe, and political instability in copper-producing countries created worry that supplies may be reduced next year. You don’t need to know any of this: the higher price of copper “tells” you everything you need to know, and coordinates your use of it with everyone else’s.
This image of social life resembles the picture of the natural world that ecology introduced. Recall that the progressive managers of the nineteenth century saw nature, and social life generally, as complex enough to need extensive regulation, but simple and consistent enough that expert managers could govern it effectively. Ecology revealed that these managers had considered far too few of the many forces and life-forms that flowed through any ecosystem. One example is the way pollution refuses to respect geographic or other boundaries, flowing instead across jurisdictions and from air to water to soil and flesh. Another comes from forestry, which was a touchstone for progressive reformers. They saw, and created, a radically simplified woodland, stripped down to a few commercial species, neglecting of the many other species that might be driven out by a management regimen devoted to economically sustainable harvests. Sometimes this simplifying approach to forest management undermined even the economic goals, because commercial species turned out to depend on non-commercial resources and processes that progressives had ignored. Even when their scheme worked on its own terms, though, it left out a great deal of the life, soil, and water flows that form a forest ecosystem.
The ecological revolution, coinciding with the neoclassical revolution in economics, came as an invitation to recast environmental regulation as an ecological market, which could gather and respond to the complex, dispersed facts of the natural world through millions of individual choices, pivoting around prices. This goal married the traditional managerial goal of regulating at the scale of the problem to the neo-classical technique of relying on dispersed and adequately informed personal decisions over centralized judgments.
The ideal of an ecological economy is also an outgrowth of the other major economics-based development in environmental regulation, which is cost-benefit analysis. As we have seen, this technique of assigning money values to the harms and benefits of proposed actions was well established as an administrative technique by the early twentieth century, and advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club engaged wholeheartedly in it. In the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly ambitious, aiming at ever-broader accounting of harms and benefits in a pervasively regulated economy. It also took on a different ideological valence, as it was a favorite tool of critics of the new environmental laws, while many environmentalists attacked it for artificially rendering ecological values into prices in order to trade them off against profit and growth. The response, of course, was that the tradeoffs were unavoidable and cost-benefit analysis only made them explicit, much as ecological insight had earlier brought hidden environmental harms into the light.
Whether one saw it as desecration or as simple rationality, the upshot of cost-benefit analysis was that everything has a price, expressed in the tradeoffs that come with choosing it over something else, and, in principle, expressible as a money equivalent. Past a certain point, the idea of counting every cost and benefit and acting on the basis of this total accounting becomes a kind of mania or hubris – just the sort that that drove neo-classical skepticism about central regulation. Cost-benefit technique can aim at comprehensiveness without falling into madness, though, if it guides decisions at the architectural level rather than the individual one, building a context that informs whole classes of decisions, rather than dictating choice after choice. Ecological pricing is just such an architectural strategy of regulation.
The ideal of the ecological economy, then, combines the most influential developments in environmental economics and economics-based policy with the persistent utopian sense that our economic order is unsustainably out of alignment with ecological limits and needs a basically new direction.
The appeal to neutrality that is part of the basic idea of ecological economics is a clue to its flaw. It cannot deliver what it promises. It cannot rescue decision-makers from political and cultural conflict over environmental value. Part of the reason for this lies in the unavoidable limits of the technique. A scheme of ecological economics depends on “getting the prices right” so that economic penalties and rewards can attach to decisions. This judgment about the right price may be direct, in setting explicit costs, or it may be indirect, as in setting a maximum level of total carbon emissions, which will then be distributed by individuals’ buying and selling permission to emit. Either way, there is no avoiding the choice about the price, which is equivalent to a choice about the level of the priced activity. Where ordinary economic activity produces prices “automatically” – think of the rise and fall of gasoline costs with summer demand, the growth of Chinese car use, and political vicissitudes in the Middle East – it is precisely the point of much of much ecological regulation to assign prices to activity that the existing economy “prices” as free.
But how to decide what the prices should be? Conventional approaches either ask people what a given environmental amenity is worth to them (“contingent valuation”) or look for ways that markets implicitly price the unpriced good, such as real-estate premiums for property near scenic land (“shadow pricing”). But choosing one technique over another, or asking the question in a certain way, is unavoidably a political judgment with serious consequences for how environmental values are then priced. So is a judgment about, say, the level of greenhouse gases to authorize. These judgments necessarily include how to value goods that can never have “objective” prices, including public goods such as atmospheric stability or the preservation of ecosystems. These can be broken in, in part, into readily priced costs and benefits, and these provide the favorite examples of neo-classical ecological economists: for instance, water filtration by wetlands is easily compared to the cost a municipal system. But there is always an important remainder, which consists of the questions that have engaged environmental lawmaking all along: what value to assign collectively to one state of the natural world rather than another. Prices are products of this choice, translations of it into market terms, and they cannot precede and guide it.
There is an even more basic reason that prices cannot do all that they seem to promise. Even as far as price-like individual preferences for environmental goods are discernible, and so can serve as reference-points for price-setting, they are not objective or authoritative. This is because they are themselves, in important ways, the products of previous policy judgments. People learn to value nature by interacting with the world in which they are born and grow up. When that world includes national parks and other public lands, intact forests and charismatic species, these become treasures. Otherwise, like the giant ground sloth and dire wolf of ancient North America, they fade into wistful half-memories. What we value is a product of decisions to preserve some things and give up others, and our decisions will shape the values of those who come afterward. Our preferences, or values, whichever one prefers to call them, do not stand outside political judgment to tutor it in objectivity. In making a world, we also contribute to making those who live in it. This is not necessarily a welcome burden, but it is not optional.
Any assignment of value to environmental goods also depends on ethical judgments about how to weigh the interests of other people. The most prominent example of this fact concerns future generations. Much of environmental policy-making is a choice among futures. Cost-benefit analysis of decisions whose effects extend across many decades must consider effects on people not yet born at the time of the decision. No way of doing this analysis gives those future interests the same weight as interests affected at the time of the decision or soon after. This discounting of future interests began as an accounting convention in decisions about present expenditure and investment, where it is assumed that, at a given rate of return, a dollar of value in the future is equivalent to the smaller amount that would have to be invested today to reach a dollar’s value at the future time that we want to compare. Discounting persists for a variety of ethical and practical reasons, all of them subject to debate, which others have explored thoroughly. The point I want to make is that there is no uncontroversial way of weighting future interests in nature, and whatever weight we assign will affect which parts of the natural world count as worth preserving and which parts turn out to have a priced “benefit” below whatever other interest is competing with them.
In making decisions for the future, attempting to set prices involves unavoidable speculation about what future people will value in nature and decisions about how to measure and weigh those values. All of these judgments, in turn, shape the world in which future people will come to value nature. There is no way out of making judgments about nature’s value, nor out of making the world that will make future values. The idea that “getting the prices right” can give us a neutral compass for environmental policy is therefore a fantasy. There are many useful, even invaluable applications of cost-benefit analysis, but they cannot replace political judgment about which values to pursue.
Nonetheless, there is something right in the thought that, in an age of ecological complexity, there is no “outside” of the economy. Everything that people make and consume, sell and buy, has effects that ripple throughout the world. The carbon economy, only the most prominent examples, affects coastal cities and remote wilderness areas, the climate of mountain plateaus and the acidity of the oceans. All these things are linked and, in some formal sense, traded off against one another. Everything economic is also ecological, and everything ecological is also economic. The contrast that mattered so much to Thoreau and other Romantics, between the economy on the one hand and nature on the other, cannot stand.
The mistake is imagining that the consequences of this insight flow in one direction only, so that we can take account of it by giving everything a price in some objectively “economic” fashion. The impossibility of neutral prices shows that the change flows in the other direction, too. If there is no aesthetic and spiritual nature above and apart from the economy, then, conversely, there is no economy that is brutishly independent of the aesthetic and spiritual considerations instinct in nature. If economic decisions are inextricably linked to the future shape and makeup of all the world, then the way we shape the economy must make room for the values we identify with nature. The mistake was imagining that, when economics and nature merged in ecology, the resulting system could be guided in a merely technical way. Instead, the challenge is to find a way of integrating the technical considerations of conventional economic analysis with the aesthetic and spiritual values that enter ecology through the old idea of nature. This is all the harder because those values have always been in dispute: they were formed through conflict and remain in conflict today. Nonetheless, there is no way out of choices of value, and no better resource for grappling with them than our cacophonous inheritance of aesthetic and spiritual commitments.
Environmental economics cannot supplant environmental ethics. Ecology does not mean the end of Thoreau’s ambition to spiritualize nature, but a new beginning for his aim of making economic life ethical, tying it explicitly to our ideas of how best to live in this one natural world. What on earth this can mean is the topic of the next chapters, on ethics and law.
 The New English Canaan 114 (ed. Charles Francis Adams, 1883) (1637).
 [Material from Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness?]
 Walden 5
 Walden 7. [I think this is actually LWP, as in next cite.]
 Life Without Principle, 364-65.
 Walden 10.
 Walden 7.
 Life Without Principle, 350.
 Walden 68.
 Walden 40-50.
 Walden 134-35.
 Walden at 137.
 Walden 58.
 Walden 5.
 LWP 354.
 LWP 355.
 [Find this journal entry.]
 Walden 25.
 See For the Defense of Dinosaur – An Outline, Sierra Club Bulletin, Feb. 1954, at 3-9; Counterproposal to Save a Park and Money, id. at 11.
 Dennis R. Neuzil, Uses and Abuses of Highway Benefit-Cost Analysis, Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan. 1968, 16-21.
 See Alan Carlin, A Question of Value, Sierra Club Bulletin, Aug. 1969, at 5-7 (calling into question “certain ‘secondary benefits’ (which economists regard as largely imaginary)” and calling dam development “exactly the opposite direction from that advocated by nearly every resource economist not associated with the public works interests, who has examined the subject”).
 David Sive, Natural Beauty and the Law, Sierra Club Bulletin, May 1968, at18.
 See The Hetch-Hetchy Water Project (report of a committee of the Sierra Club), Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan. 1908, at 264-65 (arguing against the development on the grounds that proper development of the valley for recreation would better serve the public interest in enjoying its beauty, while damming would be needlessly expensive and create negative externalities for other park uses); William Colby, Letter to Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, id. at 264-68 (same).
 Decision of the Secretary of the Interior re. Application for Lake Eleanor and Hetch-Hetchy Valley Reservoir Sites (May 11, 1908).
 Sierra Club letter to Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, supra n. __.
 John Muir, The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan. 1908 at 211, 217.
 Elizabeth Rogers, Protest! supra n. __, at 11, 20.
 Connie Flatboe, Environmental Teach-In, supra n. __ at 15 (calling for “an ecological transformation to … a stable economy”).
 Philip S. Berry, Editorial, On the White House Meeting, Sierra Club Bulletin, Apr. 1970, at 2 (detailing fundamental disagreement with President Nixon during a White House meeting).
 Dan Luten, Progress Against Growth, Sierra Club Bulletin, June 1972, at 23.
 Robert Cahn, Sustainable Hope, the Humanistic Promise (reviewing Lester R. Brown’s Building a Sustainable Society), Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan.-Feb. 1982, at 131, 132.
 Lynton K. Caldwell, Environment: A Challenge for Modern Society 237 (1970) (emphasis original).
 See id. at 238.
 Richard H. Ellerhorst, Cost-Benefit Analysis and Our Environment, Letter, N.Y. Times, July 23, 1978, at E18 (criticizing cost-benefit analysis as a tool of industry). See also Mark Green, The Faked Case Against Regulation, Wash. Post, Jan. 21, 1979, at C1 (referring to the “immeasurable benefits” of environmental regulation and denying their quantifiability).
 Caldwell, Environment at 238.
 See, e.g., James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability 89-106 (on reconciling market operations with ecological principles); Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, & L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999) (arguing at book-length that ecological insights complete rather than refute capitalism’s goal of efficient increase in wealth); Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (1993) (same).