Bottom Lines and the Earth's Future


MAY 2007



For those of us who live in market economy cultures, such as the United States, we have long become accustomed to “bottom lines,” the economic or business bottom line in particular. The bottom line for the economy and business is profitability, usually by economic growth. Failure to grow or be profitable means trouble, if not going out of business altogether. 

What we often fail to realize is that the economic bottom line as the ultimate standard by which we humans live and judge our success is a matter of philosophic, moral, cultural, indeed pragmatic choice. There is nothing inevitable, let alone economically inevitable, about it. There have been and are other bottom lines which human communities have chosen for the ultimate standard by which they live and judge themselves, with more or less rigor and compromise. Communists states or countries were (are) dominantly motivated by social justice, solidarity, equality, or community well-being as a whole. Some religious communities, past and present, judge their conduct on how well their individual and communal lives are conducive to individual salvation, getting their community members or communicants into heaven and an eternal afterlife. One can readily imagine some individuals and communities ultimately committed to beauty, the divine right of kings, the flourishing of God’s nature, or some other ultimate value that has historically presented itself to the human imagination. (By “ultimate value,” I here mean a humanly important value underived, and underivable, from some other important value. It “stands alone,” though we are moved by many such ultimate values (freedom, equality, justice, security, etc.), which in some circumstances are compatible with one another, but in other circumstances clash. Thus the complexity of our value laden lives, personal, civic, political. 

I want to fasten upon the tendency of these ultimate values as standards or “bottom lines” to totalize themselves and to grow into full fledged worldviews by which we live. We become dominately homo economicus, communicus, or theologicus. All other values or ultimates are to be sacrificed, or adjusted, to the dominant value, the ultimate standard or bottom line. Witness the hegemonic tendency of our reigning economic bottom line and worldview. Things tend to get judged by, or reduced to, their monetary or economic value, even if such valuation seems awkward, if not ludicrous or downright nihilistic (eclipsing the characteristic significance of other values). Think of art, communal events, family life, and nature, including our innumerable interactions with nature. How significant are they to us, how much are they worth? A great deal. But how much are they worth to us in monetary or economic terms? Despite some economists’ efforts at “shadow pricing,” reducing non-economic values to monetary terms (which may have limited legitimate uses, for example, ecosystem services), the question and the effort often strikes us as absurd. For example, is my stream fishing for native wild brook trout worth $99.99 to me, not a penny more? We actually find this absurdity and embarrassment begrudgingly recognized at the center of the market economy’s own armor. As the television commercial goes, “Some things are priceless (a father playing with his son; a mother giving birth to a daughter; hiking through mountains or forests; kicking a winning field goal in a football game, and more); for the rest, there is MasterCard (or is it Visa?).” 

I do not bring up these philosophic musings idly. Something very interesting is beginning to happen in our lives which should capture the attention of those centrally interested in the environment, conservation, and the multiple “ultimate” values of both humans and nature. The economic market, private capital, and their bottom line and worldview have recently discovered the environment, if not nature in its fullness. There is money (profits) to be made in cleaning up the environment, green technologies, wetlands mitigation, capping and trading greenhouse gas emissions, producing new biofuels and other sources of clean energy (wind, solar, hydro), and more. All this is fine and good given the proper natural, social, and political contexts. But beware the creeping economic bottom line and worldview. Unless critically checked, it knows no limits. It is inherently a “totalizer,” a Leviathan, sweeping away all that lies in its path. 

If you doubt the cogency of this warning, let me give you a few examples, culled from meetings attended over the last year. One such meeting explicitly addressed the issue of market solutions to environmental problems. One session concerned rapid climate change (global warming) and greenhouse gas emissions. No one seriously doubted the problem, but all the talk was about regional and global caps on emissions and trades of pollution credits, a great way for prudent and innovative companies and investors to make money at the expense of less nimble or responsible industries or companies. In over an hour of presentations and discussions, nature or moral responsibilities to the present and future of humans and nature (which will be mightily affected by climate change and global warming) were never mentioned. The philosopher-ethicist in me boiled over, and I questioned this oversight. A woman panelist from a market oriented NGO looked me straight in the eye and claimed that of course she was morally concerned about people starving around the world. End of response. I, my question, and nature were stonewalled, apparently not worth serious consideration. Was the woman tone deaf to nature and ultimate moral responsibilities? 

Things only got worse. In a session on scarce water resources, what I perhaps unfairly call Mickey Marketeers were bolstered by Private Property Righters, especially a panelist who championed private water rights and market trades, with or without caps on water use. Again the conservationist-philosopher in me boiled up and over. I asked the panelist to consider a hypothetical situation. Imagine T. Boone Pickens on his ranch in Texas selling his water to the highest bidder in California. What would happen to the rest of the creatures and the ecosystems on his ranch? The panelist glibly laughed and said that the imagined scenario was not so far fetched. (Pickens apparently had contemplated such a move.) Perhaps, the panelist responded, we should restrict the sale of water to those living or operating in regional watersheds. What kind of answer was that? How would that help nature on Pickens’ ranch? 

Another example. There is an effort to reclaim flood plains and restore wetlands along the Illinois River, a boon to wildlife, as well as a proposed natural solution to a serious human problem, polluted (toxically contaminated and nutrient overloaded) water coming down river from Chicago and its surroundings. Here, according to a major proponent of wetland restoration, is a terrific opportunity. Municipal authorities in Chicago are mandated to clean up their water, an enormously expensive proposition if water filtration plants must be built. But if the municipality of Chicago would pay farmers to return their flood-plain agricultural fields to wetlands, which would presumably naturally filter the water, there would be an irresistibly attractive win-win situation: more money for struggling farmers, less expense for Chicago and surrounding municipalities. What could be more simple, straight-forward, and attractive? But only, we were told, if we adequately paid the farmers, who would without hesitation convert to wetland managers. Perhaps. But would this solution truly be naturally viable? Would it really solve Chicago’s water pollution problems? More pointedly, would it be culturally acceptable or viable for the farmers and farming communities, whose cultural and personal identities have long included plowing Midwestern prairie soils? Do (or can) people so readily make such abrupt cultural shifts? The wetland proponent, a friend and a lover of nature – for example, he is enamored with beavers, a passion I do not share – just blinked and smiled at my “naïve” question. “The farmers want money. (Of course, they do.) That will take care of the problem.” Will it? Or does my friend suffer from economic bottom line and worldview creep? We will see. 

One final example of economic bottom linism in service of environmental problems. The Center for Humans and Nature, along with the Heinz Center (Washington, D.C.), recently co-sponsored a conference in Charleston and the Lowcountry of South Carolina on climate change and rising sea tides. As the name implies, the Lowcountry, perhaps inevitably, will suffer human and natural disasters spawned by climate change and global warming, arguably the long-term moral and civic challenge of our times. Indeed, the conference was about what we could do proactively to mitigate future human and natural disasters and suffering. We quickly learned that the looming crisis was already being recognized, if not adequately addressed. A spokeswoman representing the perspective of insurance companies was miffed by fuzzy talk of “oughts” and “shoulds” that she was hearing at the meeting. People will be moved to action only when they get hit, not in their consciences, but in their pocket books. Insurance companies will come to the rescue. Insurance rates for homes and businesses along the vulnerable South Carolina coast are already doubling or tripling, if insurance coverage is attainable at all. People, perhaps sooner than later, will quit ¬¬¬barrier islands, beach properties, coastal marshlands, and other places where, by nature’s standards, they should not be living. Private markets, the insurance industry in particular, can and will do what public defenders of the human and natural common good – moral and civic “do-gooders” – cannot. Indeed, this intelligent and accomplished woman felt rather awkward even being at the meeting. She did not consider herself an environmentalist, which presumably implies being soft headed and weak hearted, rather then realistic and hard-nosed. Perhaps, in coming to the meeting, she felt it her duty to straighten us out. Whatever, here was economic bottom linism, with its attendant worldview and philosophical anthropology, in all its unequivocal, if not shameless, robustness. Some of us in the audience, given the magnitude and the complexity of the problem that we were considering, were dumbfounded and rendered speechless. Are we really going to privatize, and marketize, the earthly commons (ecospheric nature, including ourselves)? 

For the moment, I want to rest my case for the reality and threats of creeping bottom linism of the economic variety. Its proponents notwithstanding, it is not adequately going to help us face, articulate, and act upon our long term moral and civic responsibilities to the human and natural future. It gives us a too pinched and distorted view or simplified edition of human and natural reality. But given its present cultural and political dominance, what can we do? What alternatives do we have? 

I have a modest suggestion, but which is bold enough. What if we try to engage the bottom liners on their home turf and beat them at their own game? As mentioned earlier, the choice of a bottom line is a philosophic, moral, and cultural decision, with no implication of inevitability. At least as a thought experiment, why not change the bottom line, the norm and standard by which we measure our activities and enterprises? What if we take earthly life or Nature Alive – to use Whitehead’s happy term, which he opposed to Nature Dead of Newton and modern physicalism and materialism – to be our bottom line, our guiding norm and standard? How might things look then?

For most of us, this move would constitute a decided shift in worldview: a moral, cultural, and philosophic sea change not easily effected. However, we need not start from scratch. There have been philosophic, scientific, and other cultural explorers at the task since the early Presocratics, if not before – the Heraclituses, Aristotles, Spinozas, Whiteheads, Hans Jonases, Aldo Leopolds, Boris Pasternaks, among innumerable others. Despite their many differences, they were all enamored by the character, values, and significance of living nature, Nature Alive, including our humanly organic selves and cultural communities. 

This is not the place to explore the several versions and worldview visions of Nature Alive, but we can briefly reflect upon themes discussed earlier in conjunction with the economic bottom line. We can see how things would look differently and perhaps more adequately. 

First of all, we would turn our primary attention not to the human economic realm, but to Nature Alive, including its inherent significance, values, and goodness. We would attend carefully to natural history: to geological, evolutionary, ecological, ecospheric time and becoming. We would try to understand, the best we can, how things biotic and abiotic are complexly interconnected and interactive. We could talk about soils and water as living systems; Soils Alive; Water Alive. We would consider with care how human communities and rest of earthly nature are dynamically and historically interwoven: how we fit, and ought to fit, into nature. We would note carefully the diverse ways that we interact with nature and the equally diverse experiences and values that arise or are disclosed in these interactions. We would readily discover – along with the Whiteheads, Jonases, Leopolds, and Pasternaks – that Nature Alive is Nature Valuable, Significant, and Good, the locus of ultimate moral and civic responsibilities. 

Nature Alive would emphatically emerge, directly or indirectly, as an important, if not our most important, bottom line, standard, and norm – an ultimate among ultimates, if you will. We would not ask which natural resources are profitable or unprofitable to our economies. We would ask how we could carry out our economic and other humanly cultural activities so as not seriously to harm or degrade natural processes and historical achievements (genomes; individual organisms; populations, communities, and species of organisms; ecosystems and landscapes; and indeed the ecosphere) upon which we ourselves, in so many ways, utterly depend. We would ask how we could realize social justice and other moral and cultural imperatives and goals (education, art, religion, recreation, etc.) without impairing the ongoing viability and resilience of Nature Alive. Indeed, we would have ongoingly to discover what truly constitutes the ongoing viability of nature and human communities. No dogmatists allowed in this bottom line. 

Note other salutary aspects of this new bottom line and its attendant worldview. Remember the economists’ shadow pricing, their attempts to reduce our activities and value or valuable experiences to the lingua franca of monetary or economic value. Given this new philosophic context, we can re-ask all the questions. How much do we value our children and our family lives; hiking over or skiing down mountains; time spent fishing in rivers and streams for wild trout and salmon; artistic activity and going to museums and concerts? This list goes on endlessly. We can say that we value them a great deal, some perhaps more than others. But we decidedly do not need “to price them out.” We can make priority decisions, both individually and collectively, without having to resort to numerical, let alone monetary, weighting. We do it all the time. We have been historically equipped by nature and culture to make such judgments among diverse values and value experiences – not always easily or without conflicts – but we do, and thus can, make such judgments. Many things are priceless. Perhaps the rest can be left to our credit cards. But this commercial slogan has a very different valence and meaning under the umbrella of the Nature Alive worldview and bottom line. 

What if we put this Nature Alive worldview and bottom line before our Mickey Marketeers, Private Property Righters, and Economic Bottom Liners? In all honesty and moral seriousness, how would they respond? How should they respond? As we have intimated, we humans live by many, perhaps innumerable, ultimate values, Nature Alive being only one, though by its inherent, internal complexity and comprehensiveness, it may have pride of place as an ultimate of ultimates. Nevertheless, it may well be that there is no one bottom line (standard, norm) adequate for discerning our ultimate responsibilities to humans and earthly nature. We may have to exercise an art of nimbly jumping back and forth between important, but different (including economic) bottom lines and attendant worldviews to make mature and informed moral, civic, and practical judgments. Such is the pluralism, the many-sided values and needs of human and natural life. Yet, contra current practice, we always should take seriously Nature Alive, its bottom line and worldview. Perhaps this is the only way that we can straighten out our heads and truly become responsible “plain citizens of the Land,” as Aldo Leopold would put it.