Environmental Conservation

A Legitimate Concern of Intergenerational Justice

In recent decades, as the number of people on earth and in certain areas has increased, aspiration to conserve natural and traditional man-made environments have grown in most countries.

Environmental Conservation is concerned with safeguarding environmental amenities and natural resources with regard to the interests of present and future generations.

It relates to prosperity Opens in new window, equity, security Opens in new window and inter-generational justice and is a legitimate concern for moral discourse and public policy.

Numerous social critics have claimed environmental conservation as a fundamental human value and hence a basic goal of policy, which should be considered equal to, or more important than, individual freedom Opens in new window or prosperity, for example.

At one level, this demand can be understood as a reaction to numerous changes in the wake of the unprecedented economic growthOpens in new window over the past two generations, to the exhaustion of known or easily-accessible stocks of natural resources or the accumulation of hard-to-digest residues from growing production and consumption activities, namely polluting effluents, waste, and congestion.

The growth of production and consumption has created external costs, that is, burdens on third parties, and has led to the exhaustion of previously free goods, such as clean water in certain locations.

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However, the growing demand for conservation also seems to reflect Romantic resistance to continuing, even accelerating changes which challenge the individual’s capacity to adjust; in a way, conservation also reflects aspirations to fewer challenges for adjustment and greater security (Kasper, 2007).

Some observers have even concluded that economic growth Opens in new window cannot continue, because it runs into limits set by the natural and productive soils, clean air and water, indeed that rising and spreading prosperity has to be stopped in the interest of saving the planet. Modern growth is driven by carbon-based power, so that it is seen by many to increase global temperatures (anthropogenic global warming). This argument is based on the logic of physics, which says that matter is finite and cannot be ‘mined’ for human use forever.

This closed-system logic is based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes economic growth. Growth is open-ended, which means that the economic system is opened up continually by innovative knowledge.

Rising living standards, as reflected in rising real per-capita incomes, do of course require that physical molecules are relocated and transformed. But the more important aspect of economic growth is that physical matter, when relocated and combined in certain ways, is given a higher value by humans.

Thus, the iron taken from the ground is valued much more highly when converted into a knife, and the grain of sand, once converted with energy into a silicon wafer, has increased enormously in value.

National products grow not so much because natural resources are taken from the ground, but because they are valued much more highly once transformed.

Besides, modern economic growth is becoming much less dependent on the extraction of natural resources, because many resources are now recycled and because overall demand is shifting to services which frequently use few natural resources.

The computer age is making abundant silicon a key raw material. This is why a survey of long-term social trends and possible resource and environmental bottlenecks by a panel of 64 leading scientists concluded that there was no unmanageable natural resource constant on economic growth (Simon, 1995). The assertion that possible climate warning is caused by recent industrial and transport activity also remains contentious and problematic (for example, Kasper, 2007; Carter, 2010).

Concerns with the natural environment often arise when someone’s economic activity imposes costs on others that cannot be easily measured and compensated (externalities).

Other environmental concerns address the interests of future generations:

How can we ensure that future generations have the freedom to develop without facing sudden, harsh and unmanageable resource bottlenecks or the collapse of the natural system in which they live?

This relates environmental issues to security Opens in new window and inter-generational justice. After all, it would be unjust to leave a devastated environment to future generations. It is certainly appropriate to include the likely interests of future generations in some way among our fundamental values and to ask how they can best be looked after.

Environmental conservation is therefore a legitimate fundamental concern, but it must be weighed against all other aspirations, such as individual freedom, justice, security and material welfare (Bennett, 2012).

To abandon all fundamental aspirations for the sake of environmental conservation amounts to the abandoning reason in the shaping of community life and public policy (Taverne, 2005).

Moreover, even if one were to place environmental goals above all others, it is not valid for political organizations with environmental and scientific pretentions to selectively pick data that supports a certain, pre-determined point of view and to use biased scientific research to score points in public policy.

Giving absolute priority to environmental conservation—as many of the affluent in affluent economies, many international and national officials and many media writers now do—would indeed seem to be one of the biggest threats to freedom Opens in new window, and the prosperity Opens in new window that has come with it, since the threats of Soviet dominance has evaporated (Kasper, 2007; Klaus, 2008).

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