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Climate Change, Natural Aesthetics, and the Danger of Adapted Preferences

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Handbook of Philosophy of Climate Change

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This chapter explores reasons to doubt the defensibility of the “weak theory of sustainability” that informs and justifies the use of cost-benefit analysis by environmental regulators. As the argument reveals, inasmuch as the weak theory equates what is sustainable with what sustains the satisfaction of human preferences, it has the surprising philosophical wherewithal to make climate-changing activities sustainable, at least in principle. This would be so if human ingenuity made possible the replacement of ecosystem services with technological alternatives. And it would be particularly so if the aesthetic goods that derive from nature – goods which are resistant to quantification – are excluded from environmental cost-benefit analyses. But it is also true if those aesthetic goods are reduced to mere human preferences that can be measured through indirect market-based means, for aesthetic preferences are remarkably adaptive.

Inasmuch as people can be expected to come to appreciate landscapes degraded by climate change, those who defend a weak theory of sustainability can expect that climate change will not long be at odds with what people find aesthetically pleasing. However, as the growing literature on “nature-deficit disorder” suggests, while aesthetic preferences may be elastic, aesthetic needs are not. As climate change progressively strips us of nature’s goods, we will lose the ability to meet crucial aesthetic needs. The irony is clear: As our aesthetic preferences bend towards the acceptance of ecological loss, we will predictably lose our preferences for meeting our own enduring aesthetic needs. We can thus expect climate change to cause us to prefer what we do not need and to need what we do not prefer. And this implies that climate change is the reductio ad absurdum of the weak theory of sustainability that dominates contemporary environmental regulation.

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Correspondence to Heidi M. Hurd .

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Moore, G.K.J., Hurd, H.M. (2023). Climate Change, Natural Aesthetics, and the Danger of Adapted Preferences. In: Pellegrino, G., Di Paola, M. (eds) Handbook of Philosophy of Climate Change. Handbooks in Philosophy. Springer, Cham.

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