Discussion Paper

The Environmental Turn in Natural Resource Economics: John Krutilla and "Conservation Reconsidered"

Jul 1, 2016 | H. Spencer Banzhaf

Summary

Environmentalism in the United States historically has been divided into two camps: conservation and preservation. A pioneer in environmental economics, John Krutilla helped define the field by accounting for the concerns of each side.

Key Findings

  • The nineteenth century roots of environmentalism were divided between conservationist (or utilitarian) and preservationist (or spiritual and aesthetic) impulses, represented respectively by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir.
  • Pinchot advocated conservation of natural resources to be used for human purposes; Muir advocated protection from humans, for nature’s own sake.
  • In the first half of the twentieth century, economics was firmly on Pinchot’s side of that schism. As an environmental ethic evolved, scientists including Aldo Leopold framed the problem as a tension between economics and the environment.
  • More than anyone, RFF economist John Krutilla reframed the problem in terms of opportunity costs. Thus, the values of Muir and his followers were just as "economic" as Pinchot's: development came at the cost of preservation.
  • Thus, Krutilla redefined the problem of "economics versus the environment," pushing the field toward a new "economics of the environment."

Abstract

Environmentalism in the United States historically has been divided into its utilitarian and preservationist impulses, represented by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, respectively. Pinchot advocated conservation of natural resources to be used for human purposes; Muir advocated protection from humans, for nature’s own sake. In the first half of the twentieth century, natural resource economics was firmly on Pinchot's side of that schism. That position began to change as the postwar environmental movement gained momentum. In particular, John Krutilla, an economist at Resources for the Future, pushed economics to the point where it could embrace Muir’s vision as well as Pinchot’s. Krutilla argued that if humans preferred a preserved state to a developed one, then such preferences were every bit as "economic"—either way, opportunity costs exist and economic choices must be made.