Thursday, October 28, 2010

The "Social Reality" of "Negative Actions"

In his paper “Concept and Theory Formation in the Social Sciences,” Alfred Schutz makes several compelling points regarding what he calls dimensions of “social reality” that are not taken into consideration by positivist thinking.  The one that interests me the most is the following:

Moreover, the concept of human action in terms of common-sense thinking and of the social sciences includes what may be called “negative actions,” i.e., intentional refraining from acting, which, of course, escapes sensory observation.  Not top sell certain merchandise at a given price is doubtless as economic an action as to sell it.

From this point of view, it may be a promising sign that the World Bank has decided to recognize not only the legitimacy but also the economic value of such “negative actions.”  Granted, this may simply be a matter of accepting the conclusions of a recent report by the UN-backed project on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).  As BBC News put it in a story filed this morning, the report observed “that the natural world's economic value, in terms of its provision of clean water, good-quality soil, pollination and other services, was largely neglected by policymakers because it was ‘invisible’.”  As a result, actions in the interest of “economic development” tend not to be evaluated on the basis of any negative impact on the criteria addressed by TEEB, which means that there are no grounds to establish that not to act may have greater long-term economic consequences that acting.

While this is a promising point of view, there remains the problem of the World Bank trying to reduce the assessment of all projects to the “right value equation.”  For example consider the following statement from Norway’s Environment Minister Erik Solheim:

The full costs of negative impacts on ecosystems must be covered by those who receive a benefit from destroying it.

As we used to say at MIT, “I suppose;” but this idea of covering costs carries the rather distasteful connotation that has been attached to “carbon credits” in the past or the more general efforts to develop a “calculus of social value.”  The problem with such an objective (and positivist) stance is that it tends to carry the implicit message that it is all right for one party to pursue a self interest that is detrimental to others as long as the others are compensated according to such a calculus that all parties are willing to accept.  The fallacy with this reasoning is that it denies the possibility that the planet, itself, may have “interests,” regardless of whether or not any individuals speak up for those interests.

One might say that the real problem is that human nature is not up to the task of the stewardship of the well-being of the environment.  This is not to imply that it ever was up to that task;  but the consequences are greater now than they were when, for example, vast tracts of natural land were destroyed in the interest of building the Panama Canal.  It is almost as if realistic thinking about environmental consequences requires a reversion to an atavism that recognized “Mother Nature” as an agent participating in the affairs of human beings.  The atheist in me is uneasy about such a solution, but I am hard pressed to come up with a better idea!

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