Reconciling Economics and Ecology

G. Tracy Mehan offers an insight into the PERC Lone Mountain Forum: “Reconciling Economics and Ecology: The Foundation of Environmental Optimism,” currently being held at the PERC University Campus in Bozeman, Montana.

By Tracy Mehan

We are into the second session on “Reconciling Economics and Ecology,” under the guiding hand of the estimable Terry Anderson with a phalanx of experts and commentators from many disciplines. At this stage attempting any kind of synthesis would be presumptuous at best. The discussions have been informative, wide-ranging and heartfelt on the convergence and divergence of economic and ecological thinking.

The discussion on whether or not human beings are part of nature was truly stimulating if inconclusive. I recall the novelist Walker Percy’s observation that the scientist can know or understand everything but the scientist. Similarly, human beings can be both a problem and a solution to the challenges of reconciling economic growth and ecological function.

The noted writer, Matt Ridley, made what may be the one observation with which most attendees, including yours truly, might concur: both economist and ecologists, at least the right thinking ones, no longer believe in equilibria in either realm and view both systems as being dynamic, not chaotic, systems.

The conversation continues.

Update: Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, led the forum in a spirited discussion on ecology and future policy directions.  She emphasized the challenge of managing ecosystems in the face of uncertainty in a dynamic world including globalization and a changing climate.

Emma highlighted adaptive management as key along with the recognition that historic baselines no longer occupy any “moral high ground.”  She raised the question as to whether or not regulators will be as adaptive as the changing ecosystem demands which would challenge regulated property owners as well.  She also raised concerns as to whether or not “everyone gets a vote, not just every dollar” and that future generations count, too.  She expressed her bias for longer time scales in ecosystem management which drew many questions as to why this should be normative.

Many other participants raised issues of politically managed ecosystems versus private choice and management.  There was also lively debate over whether costs should be involuntarily imposed on property owners and taxpayers to involuntarily protect endangered species.

Emma expressed her agreement with the idea that richer is generally greener and that would actually impel us toward actions for the benefit of future generations which will be both.

This gives you just a taste of what was a very important discussion and debate over future policy directions.  Emma generally defended collective or community action against a preference of others for individual and voluntary actions or contractual approaches.

More to come.

Update #2: Earlier this week, Steven Hayward sat down with Charles C. Mann to discuss his work on pre-Columbian societies:

G. Tracy Mehan, III, was Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2001–2003. He is a consultant in Arlington, VA, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.


  1. Terry Anderson says:

    When Emma’s insights regarding the lack of an historic baseline for environmental preservation are coupled with the work of other forum participants (e.g. Ridley, Mann, Botkin, and Lipo/Hunt), we are forced to confront the question of how we decide what to conserve and how to conserve it.
    PERC forums such as this one provide a venue where alternative processes for making these choices are critically analyzed. Unsurprisingly, I come down on the side of markets underpinned by property rights and the rule of law. Although not all participants necessarily are as convinced as I of the efficacy of free market environmentalism, the open exchange of ideas at PERC fosters the evolution of ideas and is the essence of freedom.
    Thanks to everyone who contributed.

    • David C. Rose says:

      Terry is right, of course, but “how we decide what to conserve and how to conserve it” requires an answer to an antecedent question if we are to get the right answer. The antecedent question is this: why do we think it necessary and proper to conserve? Much of the cross-talk between people who understand how a free market system works and leftists (who are leftists because they don’t) comes from these different premises.

  2. terry anderson says:

    Indeed, when I wrote the word “conserve,” I anticipated such a response, and it is appropriate. Perhaps I simply should have said “whether and how to use our natural resources to serve human demands.” I doubt the “leftists” as you describe them will like the last three words, but, as the discussion at the forum pointed out, ultimately humans make the decisions for–or might I say stand for–trees

  3. Dave Hartig says:

    After reading the summaries from The Lone Mountain Forum, I get the sense that divergent opinions really stem from the premises held by individuals, e.g. What is the true nature of the relationship between man and our environment? Personally, I reconcile the two with the idea that; Because the natural environment and its resources serve our needs (economic and spiritual) so well, it creates a moral obligation to conserve.
    The discussion gets difficult when we are faced with the challenge of placing economic value on “quality of life” resources that defy objective valuation. The only solution that I can see falls to the idea of private property rights, wherein a person is free to place their own economic value on that which is theirs, thereby minimizing the tragedy of the commons.