Doug McCauley on Ecosystem Services

Claire and I interviewed ecologist Doug McCauley to talk about how to value ecosystems.  Should we value them based on the ecological services they provide?  If natural systems are economically useful and valuable in their natural state, we might have a better chance at preserving them.  Can we conserve nature by putting a dollar value on it?

Have a listen.

Here are my takeaways from the conversation:

  • If we as individuals find nature to be valuable for non-economic reasons, we should expect our political discourse to refer explicitly to such values too.
  • We can avoid framing the discussion in terms of intrinsic vs. extrinsic values by focusing instead on nature’s non-economic value to us.  Conservation can be valuable to us for non-economic reasons: it is aesthetically important, we enjoy being in it, it links us to the past, to other species, etc.
  • Conserving the natural environment has historical value. We too often forget that the built environment is a very recent one.  We’ve lived in it for only a sliver of our evolutionary history. By conserving natural areas, we preserve a link to the past.  History can be empowering.  By remembering that the way things are is not the way they’ve always been – and therefore not the way they must be in the future – we remember that we have the power to change the present.  This environment that we find ourselves in isn’t necessarily “the best of all possible worlds.”  It’s one possible world among many.

Claire says:

  • The best way to ensure that our society values nature and wildspaces for their intrinsic, aesthetic, or joy-making possibilities is to imbue our youth through education and real experience in the outdoors. While this may seem like a simple idea, it is a necessary element that needs to find a place in our current academic community.

Audio Interview: Katie McShane

Matt Luedtke and I talked to professor Katie McShane on nature’s intrinsic value and how that abstract philosophical discussion might impact our love for nature. We also discussed whether ecosystems can be healthy or sick literally, or if that’s only a metaphor like the health of the economy.

Background music from composer Chris Zabriskie.

Check out the previous posts on Professor McShane’s work here, here and here, and please comment or share your thoughts below.

Thanks for listening!

The Holy Grail in Environmental Ethics


“To hear those who would know tell the tale,” writes Katie McShane, “in the early days of environmental ethics,” intrinsic value was “the holy grail.  Everybody wanted to find a theory on which it would turn out that nature had intrinsic value…”

(SPOILER ALERT: the story ends in disappointment.)

But Katie McShane salvages a happy-ish ending in her article “Why Environmental Ethics Shouldn’t Give Up on Intrinsic Value.”  It’s a helpful introduction to the issue of intrinsic value.  It also presents a nuanced view of how we can fit intrinsic value into a field that no longer quests after its glimmering gold.

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Love for Nature and Anthropocentrism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of feelings in environmental ethics.  Do we need to love nature to be good stewards of the Earth?  What if you don’t even like being outside?  Can you still be an environmentalist?  Can you still act ethically with respect to the environment?

Fortunately, philosopher Katie McShane has answered all of these questions in a short, easy-to-read paper.

Just kidding.  But I have stumbled upon her writing, and it’s good: clear and understandable.  I think I like it too because she is defending some of the older strands in environmental ethics, such as the search for nature’s intrinsic value. This is what got me into environmental philosophy in the first place, and when I learned, just a few weeks ago, that environmental philosophers had abandoned this topic – nay, threw up their hands in exasperation and defeat – I was disheartened because I had really wanted to understand it.  So finding McShane’s voice calling us back to our roots (with, of course, her own criticisms and novel ideas), well, it struck a chord.

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