Ecology

PERC Enviropreneur Institute (PEI) Alum Jeremy Gingerich talks about the importance of open landscapes and how the skills from PEI will help him achieve his goals.
G. Tracy Mehan III
I just returned to Virginia, from Montana, where I had the privilege to serve as one of PERC’s Lone Mountain Fellows and participate in a colloquium co-sponsored by PERC and the Liberty Fund, Inc.
It’s a conservation debate that’s as fiery as it gets: Will a legal rhino horn trade save rhinos? Michael 't Sas-Rolfes believes a well-regulated trade is the right answer, and here's why.
Shawn Regan, Brennan Jorgensen
As part of PERC’s recent Lone Mountain Forum, “Reconciling Economics and Ecology: The Foundation of Environmental Optimism,” PERC board member Gerry Ohrstrom sat down with science writer Matt Ridley to discuss what these two disciplines might learn from one another. Watch a short video of the interview above, read the full interview below (lightly edited for clarity), or listen to the podcast [approx. 7 mins]. For more PERC Q&As, visit the series archive.Q: Ecology is about preserving resources while economics is about exploiting them. How does one reconcile these two disciplines? A: In a way, I think they are both about emergent properties. Ecology is about the spontaneous order that appears in the world through the interaction of different species — the pattern that you see. And economics is about the same thing in society. So they are both bottom-up fields for me. They’re both about how order emerges from the interaction of individuals.Q: Are you suggesting economics could learn something from Charles Darwin and ecology could learn something from Adam Smith? A: This is one of my crusades, actually. As someone who was an ecologist and nowadays writes a lot about economics, I am fascinated by the parallels. Charles Darwin read Adam Smith, so there is sort of an ancestral connection between the two fields. And there is a lot going on in evolutionary biology and ecology that is very parallel to what is occurring in economics and vice versa. People like F.A. Hayek knew this and went across to evolution to pinch ideas, so I think there is a very fruitful dialogue between ecology and economics.Q: You are the author most recently of a book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolved. If prosperity continues to evolve aren’t we ultimately going to run out of resources? A: I don’t think so because I think that the amount of resources we have depends upon our ingenuity. In other words, the more prosperous we get, the more frugal we get in our use of resources. Land is a good example: We use less and less land to produce the same amount of food because we’re getting better at it. We’re applying fertilizer or irrigation or whatever it is. The same is true for the amount of steel in a bridge; it is a lot lower than it was 20 years ago, etc.So actually we are shrinking the amount of resources we need to run society at the same time that we are growing them, because there are more of us and we’re becoming more prosperous. I actually think the richer we get in this century, the more comfortable the resource position is going to be because we’re going to be better at recycling, better at finding resources, and better at using them frugally.Q: That is somewhat counterintuitive. The more we use, the more we’re going to have, the more frugal we’re going to be, and the wealthier we are going to be. A: Until now, the problem has been called the Jevons Paradox, which says that the cheaper you make energy, the more people will use it. And that’s true with a lot of resources. But there is evidence that the Jevons Paradox is reaching its limits with some resources. Land is a good example, again. We are actually reforesting land all over the world, we’re taking land out of farming all over the world, because even though there are more of us every year, and even though more of us want to eat chickens and pigs and all these land intensive forms of food, we still, even with this profligacy, can’t keep up with our increasing efficiency, our productivity. So actually we taking land out of agriculture and turning it back to nature reserves. And as the population growth rate falls in this century, I think that process will accelerate.
Terry Anderson
As part of the Lone Mountain Forum, "Reconciling Economics and Ecology," PERC President Terry Anderson sat down with noted ecologist Daniel Botkin to discuss the conference and the need for a dynamic approach to the study of markets and nature. 
Terry Anderson
As part of PERC's Lone Mountain Forum, "Reconciling Economics and Ecology," PERC President Terry Anderson sat down with Daniel Botkin to discuss what economics and ecology can learn from each other. 
As part of PERC's Lone Mountain Forum, "Reconciling Economics and Ecology," Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo discuss their new book The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mysteries of Easter Island. The bottom line: local problems call for local solutions.
Steven F. Hayward
As part of PERC's Lone Mountain Forum, "Reconciling Economics and Ecology," PERC Board Member Steven Hayward sits down with author Charles Mann to revisit contemporary understandings of the pre-Columbian world.
Laura Huggins, Shawn Regan
The science writer who is "turning the conservation movement upside down" calls for an end to notions of pristine nature.
Roger Meiners, Andrew Morriss
In this PERC Policy Series, Roger E. Meiners and Andrew P. Morriss argue that Rachel Carson's red flag was raised too high.
Our Q&A series continues this week with Bruce Pardy, a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Pardy has written extensively on matters of environmental law and governance, including ecosystem management, environmental assessment, civil and regulatory liability, climate change, and water law. He has taught at law schools around the common-law world, including Canada, the United States, and New Zealand.Professor Pardy is a 2011 PERC Julian Simon Fellow. He is currently writing a book called A Natural Law of Systems: Ecosystems, Markets, and the Meaning of Liberty.Q: What is legal instrumentalism? How does it differ from the rule of law?A: Legal instrumentalism is based upon the premise that the role of government is to solve specific problems by specific means. It is a “hands-on” way to govern. As the label suggests, legal instrumentalism says that law is important only as an instrument to achieve the “right” result. In other words, law is a means to an end, or a tool for the social good. The problem, of course, is that, like beauty, the right result lies in the eyes of beholder, and differs from person to person. Down that route lies the tyranny of the arbitrary rule of persons. The premise of the rule of law is that government decision-makers are not free to do as they think best because they are bound by generally applicable, abstract rules that bind governments as well as citizens. Brian Tamanaha of Washington University Law School has aptly pointed out that instrumentalism and the rule of law are the two core ideas of the American legal system, but in certain crucial respects they conflict. Although governments today widely claim to believe in the rule of law, their behavior is predominantly instrumentalist in nature.Q: Thomas Aquinas proposed another category: natural law. What is natural law and what are some difficulties that arise in its application? Conversely, what occurs in the absence of natural law?A: The premise of natural law is that there are objective moral truths that apply to all human beings upon which laws should be based. Natural law purports to contain inherent, substantive limits on what legislatures and judges can do, because it is a “higher” law, based upon universal and immutable moral principles, whose purpose is to reflect what is good for human beings. The problem is that the many volumes of moral reasoning produced by philosophers and legal theorists over the centuries illustrate the opposite truth: moral standards are personal, arbitrary, subjective, and cannot be proven to be otherwise. Since natural law claims to be based upon moral absolutes rather than public opinion, it is not sufficient to establish their validity by pointing to majority opinion or public consensus. The agreement of a majority of people about moral absolutes simply means that they agree, not that the moral absolutes that they believe in are, in fact, absolute. Twenty years hence public opinion may have shifted, but by definition moral absolutes never do. If the real criterion is majority opinion, then the principle of basing laws upon universal morality is a fiction. But in the absence of natural law, law is a vacuum, able to be filled by whomever is powerful enough to take the reins. What is needed is an objective, non-arbitrary set of principles on which law can be based.Q: What do ecosystems and markets have in common?A: Markets and ecosystems run themselves.  These systems are not just collections of things, like widgets or frogs, but consist of elements interacting in a complex web of relationships and patterns that together amount to phenomena different from the sum of their parts. They operate according to their own immutable characteristics and rules, and share important features. They are organic and evolutionary, changing through time, rather than existing in a fixed or static state. They arise spontaneously, and their fundamental rules have not been created or invented by human beings, and cannot be changed by government design. All participants are equally subject to their forces; systems do not play favorites.Q: In your paper, “The Hand is Invisible, Nature Knows Best, and Justice is Blind” [PDF], you write that, “Human action can affect the outcome of system processes, but it cannot change the nature of those processes.” Does this eliminate the need for laws that apply to markets and ecosystems?A: The immutability of ecosystems and markets does not mean that there cannot or should not be laws that apply to them. Calling these systems “immutable” does not mean that they are impervious to external forces, but only that their internal principles are independent of state regulation, moral argument, or personal preference. Their protection is not a mandate to be performed “in the public interest.” It is not because someone has deemed them to be socially valuable that the law should provide for their operation. These systems exist. People live within them, because they cannot do otherwise, and depend on them for survival. They follow their own rules, because they can do nothing else. They cannot be manipulated or changed to behave differently, and efforts to do so are misguided. Instead, legal rules and principles need to account for the manner in which they operate. 

Features

G. Tracy Mehan III
The wilderness illusion and environmental realism
Ronald Bailey
Assessing humans' role in nature and the reality of wilderness
Matt Ridley
Paradoxically, economics has done more for nature than ecology has.
Daniel Botkin
Ideology and politics too often get in the way

Web Exclusives

Shawn Regan
That there are moose in Yellowstone today tells us something about nature and our role in it.

Columns

Terry Anderson
“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” —Eric Hoffer

FME in Action

Wendy Purnell
Maritime industry protects marine mammals.
Wendy Purnell
Conservation program pays farmers to create habitat on demand.