Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology


Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology. Norton, B. 2003. Cambridge University Press, New York. 554 pp. $30.00 (paperback). ISBN 0–521–0078–x.

Bryan Norton is a leading proponent of environmental pragmatism, and this volume collects 27 of his recent essays (some with coauthors) reflecting this outlook. The majority of the essays have appeared elsewhere, but in a wide range of outlets, so it is welcome to have them drawn together into a well-organized volume. Norton's work is genuinely interdisciplinary—the breadth and depth of this collection are impressive. More impressive still are the coherent overall proposals for environmental policy and sustainability that Norton is able to draw from his multidisciplinary work.

The essays are grouped into six sections, each of which focuses on a particular discipline, addressing the issue of sustainability through the lens of the discipline and Norton's own philosophical pragmatism. Further, within each section the papers are arranged in chronological order, illuminating the evolution and growth of Norton's thought in these areas.

Norton's particular interest is in guiding environmental policy with an eye toward sustainability. He characterizes sustainability in terms of preserving underlying, long-term, landscape-scale ecological processes. Sustaining such processes will preserve a range of valuable options for future generations of humans. Norton does not embrace intrinsic values in nature—roughly, the claim that aspects of nature have value regardless of any human valuing—but does not flatly reject such values. He instead argues that such appeals to intrinsic value will have little weight in most policy discussions and are difficult to verify or support. Even among those who embrace such values, there is a great deal of disagreement over what, exactly, has intrinsic value.

Further, Norton presents strong arguments showing that if we properly treat human values and concerns for future generations, including our desires for certain opportunities to exist for future generations, then we will arrive at policies that would be (nearly) identical to those we would arrive at if we were to posit intrinsic values in nature. For example, if we desire future generations to have the opportunity to appreciate hunting, then this will encourage policies to protect ecosystems just as much as any appeal to intrinsic value for ecosystem processes. Norton refers to this proposal as “the convergence hypothesis,” and, if correct, it could serve as a bridge between the differing conceptions of sustainability embraced by mainstream economists and by environmentalists. We could maintain a focus on human values (satisfying economists), while moving beyond narrow construals of such to include aesthetic, spiritual, and other values (satisfying environmentalists).

With respect to environmental policy formation, Norton argues for a two-phased approach. In the “reflective” phase we examine social values, with extensive interaction between scientists, policymakers, and the public to help bring out and refine these values, and confront the particular issue at hand. In this phase, we can determine which particular policy criteria best apply in a case, given our articulated social values, and the scale and nature of the changes in natural systems that are at stake. Roughly, if long-term processes are likely to be affected, an emphasis will be placed on conservation. For options with short-term, local impacts, traditional economic assessment or policy criteria will likely be chosen. In the “action” phase, the particular criteria chosen in the reflective phase are applied to the case at hand. Norton stresses that these phases will be iterated; there is not simply a one-time collection of public opinion followed by implementation of a set program. Rather, there will be an ongoing cycle of policy formation and implementation as the results of an action phase are assessed in a reflective phase, (possibly) reshaping social values and weightings, in turn leading to new action policies, and so on.

Norton's two-tiered approach to policy meshes with an embrace of both adaptive environmental management techniques and hierarchy theory with respect to understanding natural systems. Adaptive management, with its emphasis on ongoing experimentation, will help generate better understanding of particular natural systems, which can then inform future policy formation. Hierarchy theory suggests that smaller, more dynamic subsystems will be embedded within larger, more stable systems. Protection of these larger systems constitutes the target of sustainability, whereas the management of more dynamic susbsystems will typically be guided by traditional economic policy criteria.

Norton argues that conservation biologists should see themselves as engaged in a normative science, akin to medicine, rather than claiming a value-free science. This is not to reject objectivity or to have scientists simply imposing their personal preferences. The medicine analogy works well here: scientists play a key role in determining what constitutes health in humans and the effective means for achieving such health. Conservation biologists can play a similar role in determining ecosystem health or integrity (though Norton does not tie conservation biologists to these particular concepts). They can thus provide useful information to policymakers and the public, rather than merely giving unhelpful, uninterpreted bits of data.

Norton makes significant contributions to several issues beyond central policy proposals. For example, he argues that Aldo Leopold was an anthropocentrist with respect to environmental policy and that his land ethic was intended as a pragmatic policy guide, not a moral proposal. He presents a set of insightful critiques of several key assumptions made by mainstream economists, and he articulates reasons that “place-based” values should be central to environmental policy making, with the implications that local concerns should be given a prominent place in deliberations and that generic “solutions” imposed from above that ignore local contexts will typically fail.

My review has only scratched the surface of Norton's thorough, thoughtful work. There are some points with which some will disagree—for example, it could be argued that Norton is unduly pessimistic about the role of appeals to intrinsic value in policy formation. Still, he argues forcefully for his views, placing a heavy burden on those who would reject his proposals. More broadly, this is an important work that truly transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. This is the first volume in the Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology series that focuses on the philosophy of conservation biology, and it will certainly come to be seen as a seminal work in this emerging field.