Buried in Bedrock: The Question of Value in Conventional and Alternative Energy


When many people think about energy, they think in relatively simple terms about "good" sources of energy and "bad" sources of energy. As we saw in the last episode, good and bad are value claims, often associated with norms. But here we really need to think a bit more deeply about value.


Consider, for a moment, a basic distinction between different kinds of value. Some values are "intrinsic" to things in the world, and some values are "extrinsic" to them. When someone claims that something has intrinsic value, they are suggesting that there is a primary value "in the thing itself" or "for its own sake." So lots of people may argue about the value of an artwork, or a life, or a mountain scene, much like our time in Zion National Monument. When someone claims that something has extrinsic value, they are suggesting that the value of the thing rests elsewhere, perhaps in its use to us or in its appeal to others. So, for instance, some people might say that there is no intrinsic value in Zion itself, but that all of the value of the park rests in the happiness or pleasure that it gives to all of the visitors who come to it every year.

This is particularly tricky when we talk about energy sources, because in many ways we are talking about trading off things that quite clearly only have extrinsic or instrumental value for things that may (or may not) have intrinsic value. Nobody claims that a lump of coal has any value whatsoever, for instance. It is only valuable once it's been mined out of the earth.

Comparable, Commensurable, and Incommensurable

But these aren't the only problems we encounter when we talk about value in the environmental realm. Since we're talking primarily about how to act with regard to the environment, we need to rely on our values to give us direction. Depending on who you talk to, you'll get different perspectives on how to weigh these values against one another, or whether, in fact, they can be weighed at all. In ethics, this relates to the commensurability of values. Many environmental economists, for instance, hold a very wide view about the comparability and commensurability of values. So, for instance, they may believe that in order to determine whether we should spend another dollar on a loaf of bread, we just need to stack up all of our other preferences and determine how much we really want or need that bread. But some philosophers are quite skeptical that this can be done with all goods. They'll point out, for instance, that while it may make sense to compare loaves of bread with other commodities like applies and oranges, we can't so easily shift over to think about an education or a visit to grandmother's house in monetary or value terms.