Signed in as:
Signed in as:
“If I gave you greater than market value for your daughter, would you sell her to me?”
Jokingly, my colleague was trying to make a point to a developer, who could not understand why a First Nations community was unwilling to sell its land to them. The developer’s offer far exceeded what the cash-strapped community could receive for the land on an open market, so he was frustrated.
But just as he would certainly never sell his daughter, the community was unwilling to sell its land for the construction of a dam. That unwillingness said something about both the developer’s and the community’s core values that were simply not up for negotiation.
How would you define your own core values? What traditions and experiences would you never want to lose? What would you never be willing to sell? Does your willingness-to-pay say something about what you value or do your ethics reflect more than monetary preference?
Let’s consider these questions in light of the proposal to build an extension of the East-West Arterial on Grand Cayman, from Woodland Drive, through the southern perimeter of the Central Mangrove Wetland, to just beyond the Frank Sound intersection. As with many decisions in life, there are both positive and negative elements to the development. But perhaps most importantly, the choice of whether to construct a new road says something about your core life values, and about the type of lifestyle and future you envision for yourself and your community.
Some decades ago, Walt Disney Enterprises presented a proposal to the US Forest Service, offering to build a ski resort in Mineral King Valley near California’s Sequoia National Park. A complex of motels, restaurants, ski lifts, and other infrastructure was to support 14,000 visitors daily to the valley.
Environmental groups, such as Sierra Club, opposed the proposal, arguing that the aesthetic and ecological value of the existing wilderness deserved to be protected.
But the Forest Service countered that greater benefit would accrue to more people under the Walt Disney plan than under the preservationists’ option. Not only would the 14,000 daily visitors outnumber the small number of hikers and campers to the park, but skiers were willing to pay more to access the site. Any cost-benefit scenario, argued the Forest Service, showed greater value in developing a ski resort over maintaining the wilderness.
This form of reasoning drives many development proposals. When someone tells you that you should weigh costs and benefits to maximize the overall good, they are drawing from utilitarianism – one of the most prevalent forms of moral reasoning in western, capitalist societies today. “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong” argued the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham.
And this was just what the Forest Service perceived their role to be, as they examined the economic benefits of a ski resort over preservation of hiking trails and a wilderness ecosystem.
Proponents of the East-West Arterial on Grand Cayman will similarly draw upon such forms of moral reasoning. When former Premier Alden McLaughlin talked about “striking a balance between development and the needs of our environment,” like the US Forest Service, he was implicitly arguing in favour of a utilitarian scale that would seek to balance economic benefits and ecological costs of the project.
Critics point to several problems with such utilitarian reasoning. One issue relates to what exactly is being measured. As mentioned earlier, the focus is often on economics and efficiency. But the fact is that monetary assets are not the only thing that many of us value. Some things, like our families and ways of life, are simply not for sale.
Cost-benefit analysis attempts to reduce all value to numbers and quantifiable currency (Fn1). But, more and more, arguments are made that social and ecological values must also be part of any decision-making calculus. For example, a four-year assessment by 82 leading scientists, approved by representatives of 139 countries, has led to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Ipbes), that urges us to properly value things that are arguably priceless, such as the spiritual, cultural, and emotional values that nature provides to humans. “There has been a dominant way of taking decisions based on things that look more simple, super-quantitative, and more scientific,” says Uni Pascual, who co-chaired the assessment, “and we’re saying: ‘No, that’s not good science.’ There are a lot of social sciences and humanities and other knowledge systems, that can also tell us how to do things.”
To better appreciate such diverse knowledge systems, it is important to include local communities in the stakeholder engagement process throughout project development. Yet, the UN report found that the way that stakeholders valued nature was considered in only 2% of studies. This is a big loss, according to assessment co-chair, Patrician Balvanera. She argues that “the evidence shows that if, from the onset, local values are taken into consideration, people will feel part of the project and will be more onboard with whatever was agreed…This entails redefining ‘development’ and ‘good quality of life’ and recognizing the multiple ways people relate to each other and to the natural world.”
Can ecosystem services and loss of natural capital of the Central Mangrove Wetland really be reduced to economic measures? The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Scoping Opinion, prepared by the Environmental Assessment Board, points out that mangroves are a protected species, and are “among the world’s most productive ecosystems, producing organic carbon…and contributing significantly to the global carbon cycle.” Locally, the wetlands produce moisture in the atmosphere that is pushed westward and falls as rain in the central and western parts of the island. What is the monetary worth of such services, and what kind of judgment calls lie behind that assessment?
A 2017 report, entitled “The Economics of Enhancing the Marine Protected Areas of the Cayman Islands,” argues that the supply of ecosystem services from coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses, and beaches provides a total value to residents, the tourism industry, private business, and the broader community, of at least US$179M (CI $147M) a year. That said, it is not only the economic assessment that is important here, but such services contribute to the overall wellbeing of society in social, cultural, and ecological terms as well.
In Canada, my home country, we struggle to properly assess the value of trees, particularly in cities. The current Guide for Plant Appraisal does not adequately address the environmental benefits, according to many forestry and biology experts. Certainly, in larger urban centres, such as Toronto, there has been some work that assesses the structural value of its urban forest at about $7 billion, with carbon storage value assessed at $25 million. That is in addition to the $28.m million in ecological services offered by urban forests, such as energy savings, pollution mitigation and carbon sequestration. One strategy that municipalities are using in developing such claims emerges from the use of a software system called i-Tree.
But even so, i-Tree leaves much out of the picture. “We also have things like public health,” argues Cecil Konijnendikj, a professor of urban forestry at UBC, who feels that even i-Tree doesn’t do sufficient justice to complex ecological benefits. “We have things like biodiversity. Aesthetics. And those aspects are often much more difficult to quantify.”
The fact is that judgment calls are part of every decision, even the decision of what specifically should be quantified or measured. Is enhanced tourism more valuable than the health of the groundwater recharge or stable climate conditions? Are socially sustainable alternatives to construction of a central highway being considered, from improved public transit, new ferry systems, modified work schedules, cycle-friendly routes to incentives for carpooling? What is our timeframe in conducting an analysis of costs and benefits? Longer term, are we compromising our quality of life by accepting poor development choices and reduced climate resiliency?
If one is to engage in a utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits of the East-West Arterial Road extension, it is vital that both short-term and long-term factors enter the equation. It is also vital that any scientific model ensures that “soft” benefits, such as the ecological function and aesthetic value of natural resources, are not excluded by decision makers as they seek to evaluate what actually constitutes “the greater good.” The 2021 Environmental Survey by Amplify Cayman reports that 99% of respondents valued the protection of the Central Mangrove Wetlands. How does that conclusion square with the construction of a road and the direct removal of 174 acres of terrestrial habitat?
Some believe that today, the destruction of such an important wetland is wrong in principle, no matter how much economic value or optimization of transportation efficiencies a new road will provide. When you hear people arguing in favour of government responsibilities or duties, or the rights of citizens (or even rights of animals or rivers, which, in some places, are now legally protected), you should know that a very different, non-utilitarian, principlist form of moral reasoning is driving the conversation. Providing an emergency route is arguably a duty of government. On the other hand, some argue that developing a climate change policy or national development plan for the Cayman Islands is also an obligation of government. In such a scenario, primary duties to protect human and/or ecological health, for instance, are seen to trump any utilitarian efficiency calculus. Why? Because it’s simply a matter of moral obligation of governments and a right of citizens to expect that certain moral principles be followed, no matter what kind of economic benefits accrue to a select majority.
The question to ask yourself is whether there are any rights, duties, or obligations that you would apply in most cases, and if they affect the decision as to whether the building of the arterial is morally justified. If so, are certain principles more important drivers of decision making than a simple utilitarian calculation of quantifiable costs and benefits? A Canadian group argued exactly that in a public demonstration: “I don’t think that any of us are against development,” they explained, “but what’s the critical part of all of this? At the end of the day, it’s a wetland. And the surrounding area should not be developed because that feeds into the wetland.” For these citizens, the moral duty of wetland preservation trumps any utilitarian calculus. The same sort of sentiment drove the resolution of the case discussed earlier, of the Mineral Valley ski resort proposal, when ultimately, the land was annexed to the Sequoia National Park. It remains an intact wilderness area to this day.
To help inform decision making around the East-West Arterial Extension Road on Grand Cayman, an Environmental Impact Assessment Scoping Opinion has been prepared by a sub-committee of the National Conservation Council.
On the one hand, the document identifies legitimate, central objectives for the new road, including serving as an important emergency route, possibly reducing some travel times, enhancing access and connectivity amongst communities, and facilitating utilities expansion and future stormwater management systems.
On the other hand, the potential environmental and social impacts of construction are severe and wide-ranging. “The Central Mangrove Wetland,” the Scoping Opinion reports, “is one of the largest intact contiguous mangrove wetlands in the Caribbean,” serving a “fundamental role in the water flow system of the Cayman Islands.” The wetland’s ecosystem services are “numerous and critical to the health of Grand Cayman and its residents.” Possible social costs of building the highway include increased risk of flooding in residential areas. Potential ecological costs include the damming of water to the south of the wetlands, which would disrupt their hydrological regime and degrade the Central Mangrove Wetland, as well as the unique, pristine, Mastic Reserve and Meagre Bay Pond. The impacts on biodiversity and terrestrial ecology of the area promise to be significant.
You may wonder why this environmental damage should matter to you, particularly if you see the new road as holding the promise of less traffic congestion and new economic development opportunities.
Environmental ethicists want you to remember that the natural environment is not some “thing” out there, separate from and less important than your own well-being. As climate change scientists increasingly point out, environmental health is a necessary condition of human health. Our long-term well-being depends upon the ecological context within which we are all situated. Some ethicists urge us to remember that moral good should be understood not simply in narrow, human-centred terms. Instead, we should see how our own well-being is intimately linked to the health and integrity of the environment that sustains us. Humans simply cannot be in good health by living in an unhealthy environment.
In that regard, any Environmental Impact Assessment should include a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) as well. And “health” should be expanded to include not only human health but the health of the habitat upon which our overall well-being depends (fn2). In recent years, increasing attention is being paid to health and well-being as part of the EA process, beyond simple chemical exposures in risk assessments. The potential for HIA and the need to advance overall health and well-being of both humans and the environment, are now acknowledged internationally.
In assessing the value of a new arterial network, Caymanian's should ask themselves how such a road will impact more than just the obvious costs (pollution) and benefits (e.g., reduced traffic and economic opportunities.) DOE Director, Gina Ebanks-Petrie suggests, “as a country, we have to try to plan more holistically.” The fact is that a road is never just a road, but it defines the kind of human settlement that emerges over time, and the environmental and health effects that it enacts.
Novelist and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, had it right when he distinguished between a road that one blindly builds, and a “path” that is “a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.” It is “the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets, it goes around.” Berry’s point is that insightful building of any human settlement respects what is already in place, ensuring that what is valuable is only preserved or enhanced. It does more than focus on one set of benefits, ignoring the complexity of impacts that will inevitably follow construction.
The question to ask is whether the arterial promises to reflect life-affirming values of the local communities and culture, preserving overall well-being into the future, or will it be just another road leading to developments that disrupt ecological and human health and impose a range of costs that no longer reflect what you value most in life.
(1). Insurance companies do exactly that when they place higher monetary value on the life of a productive wage earner over an older, infirm individual, for example.
(2). See, for instance, Lindsay McCallum, Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Chris Ollson, “An adaptable Health Impact Assessment (HIA) framework for assessing health within Environmental Assessment (EA): Canadian Context, International Application”, an Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. November 6, 2017,
Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy,University of Toronto.
Dean Emeritus, Faculty of Environment,Simon Fraser University, Canada.
Dr. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic is an author and private consultant, whose long-standing career focuses on how values and perceptions affect public policy, planning and environmental decision making. Ingrid currently resides in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Ingrid has published 9 books and reports, over 100 professional articles and given over 150 public lectures and conference presentations.