Benjamin Hale
  Associate Professor, Philosophy and Environmental Studies
Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Community
Office SEEC S238A
Campus Box 488
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0488


Nonrenewable Resources and the Inevitability of Outcomes
Paper in progress

Many argue that environmental degradation, particularly of the noxious pollutant and carbon emissions variety, eventuates from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma.[1] Others suggest that it arises not due to a dilemma as such, but that it is the result of a problem in the perception of harms, or because the costs are so widely distributed, even across multiple generations.[2] Still others have argued that we can gain a handle on the issue if we assume transitive preferences, as with the case of the problem of the self-torturer.[3] These are all helpful, but I believe incomplete, characterizations of the problem. I argue in this paper that many environmental problems are best understood as temporally inevitable, at least from the standpoint of moral theory. Namely, I reason that many environmental problems, particularly related to energy production, are characterized by the consumption of nonrenewable resources, and not by the extent to which benefits versus costs play out. Where this is the case, such problems can be framed as headed toward an inevitable outcome: resource exhaustion. This, I argue, has implications for the ethical framework appropriate to addressing nonrenewable resource consumption and the subsequent harms from emissions.

To understand the significance of this claim, it may help to be more concrete. It is estimated that there are at least one trillion barrels of recoverable oil remaining in the earth.[4] Conservatively, if these barrels are consumed, approximately 115 billion tons of carbon will be released. Generally, policy analysts and resource economists understand this as a problem for emissions: the more carbon in the atmosphere, the worse off we all are. The n-prisoner’s dilemma captures this dynamic, since each individual contributes only negligibly to the problem, whilst they benefit tremendously from consumption.[5] The prisoner’s dilemma helps explain how so many consumers can continue to take action contrary to the collective, as well as their own self-, interest. Equivalently, the problem of the self-torturer helps explain how large-scale collectives of individuals can maintain transitive interests but nevertheless act in such a way that these interests are undermined.

But the ineluctable fact is that the barrels of oil in the ground are nonrenewable, and so long as there are individuals with technologies that demand oil, and so long as it is cost-effective to extract this oil, the oil will be consumed and the carbon will be released. Almost nothing can stop this. The ethical and political problem associated with emissions is therefore not a simple matter of whether and how to persuade or coerce individual actors to reduce their emissions. At the end of some determinate time period, one trillion barrels of oil will be consumed and 115 billion tons of carbon will be released. Acknowledging this, it becomes clear that both the individual and the collective actor must make a very different decision than is typically thought—not whether to seek a cooperative agreement about how much petroleum to use, but how fast to use it up. Unfortunately, this question is masked by most (but not all) consequentialist characterizations of the carbon emissions dilemma. Whether it will be used in ten years or in fifty years, all of the oil in the ground will eventually be converted into carbon, sulfur, and other noxious pollutants.

By evaluating the problem of carbon emissions from the front-end—that is, as a problem of the renewability of the resource—and not from the end of the tailpipe—that is, as a problem of the harm caused by consumption—we not only uncover an alternative story for why individuals or communities might continue consumption—independently of transitive or intransitive preferences they can act rationally by understanding the consequences of their action as a done deal—but we are in a better position to offer a rationale for tempering action. The appropriate course of action is the action that is governed by a principle of conservation, not by a standard that seeks to reduce harms.

In this paper, I forge this anti-consequentialist case. I argue on non-psychological grounds that one can reason about nonrenewable energy consumption in a way that completely avoids the prisoner’s dilemma often employed to describe the emissions problem. My argument proceeds by examining concrete instances of nonrenewable, but not necessarily natural, resources—specifically by examining several variant scenarios of a communally held brandy storeroom. I explain that in most of these scenarios, each individual community member can assume only that, over the long term, the brandy will eventually be consumed entirely by the community. Whether the community bands together to protect their common resource or each individual acts self-interestedly, the outcome will be the same. Put differently, at both the individual level, where interests are understood as intransitive, and at the collective level, where interests are understood as transitive, the inevitability of the outcome changes the logic that underwrites and motivates the action. As a result, the moral reasoning that addresses the logic must be altered as well.

I therefore seek not only to offer a better model or characterization of this intractable environmental problem, but more importantly, to offer a better ethical rationale for attending to it. Moreover, my argument applies to a wide range of nonrenewable resources: land, hardrock, gold, and so on. The critical conclusion of this paper is therefore that consequentialist arguments for environmental action fail, or at least are insufficient, and that non-consequentialist arguments prevail. Correspondingly, I consider several possible non-consequentialist reasons to curtail one’s actions and find that a deontologically grounded principle of conservation offers the most persuasive moral imperative.

1. Hardin, G. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (1968): 1243-1248.

2. Gardiner, Stephen M. “The Real Tragedy of the Commons.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30:4 (2002): 387-416.

3. Andreou, Chrisoula. “Environmental Damage and the Puzzle of the Self-Torturer.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 34:1 (2006): 95-108.

4. This figure does not include heavier oils locked in sand or shale, or oil left behind due to inefficiencies in drilling and pumping. Once it becomes feasible to extract oil from these deposits, the amount of oil may double or triple. The important point, however, is not how much oil there is, but that there is a finite, nonrenewable amount of this oil.

5. Hardin, R. “Collective Action as an Agreeable n-Prisoners’ Dilemma.” Behavioral Science. 16 (September, 1971): 472-481.