Reviewed by Matthias van Maasakkers, MIT

Douglas Kysar exposes a critical flaw in the dominant environmental law and policy paradigm of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis.

Regulating from Nowhere: Environmental Law and the Search for Objectivity, by Douglas Kysar, Yale University Press, 336pp

Cost-benefit analysis has become virtually inescapable in environmental decision-making. Yet, as Douglas Kysar points out in this nuanced yet profound critique of that method and the narrow assumptions of welfare maximization it is based upon, there are plausible alternative frameworks to inform decision-making in the environmental realm. This book moves beyond mounting ethical, theoretical and practical arguments to show the shortcomings of cost-benefit analysis, although it probably is the most detailed and sustained development of those arguments since Mark Sagoff’s The Economy of the Earth.

The book is most effective when describing the ways in which precaution is not only a viable alternative, it is also already embedded in many environmental laws and activities in the United States and elsewhere. In the appendix, a draft Environmental Possibilities Act is included, showing Kysar’s commitment and ability to translate precautionary philosophies into specific, if hypothetical, policies. The Yale Law School professor moves between practical examples and French philosophers like Derrida. He produces a sustained argument that cost-benefit analysis restricts informed decision-making as opposed to enabling it because of increasingly untenable restrictions on standing and the assumption of impermeability of national boundaries. Important questions regarding legal standing that are emerging in relation to new biological and genetic manipulation technologies are described in detail.

This book is important not so much because of its current and compelling critique of cost-benefit analysis, but mainly because of its impassioned and effective reframing of the precautionary principle as an active and effective idea in environmental decision-making. Kysar reclaims the centrality of morality in environmental law, without ignoring the need for practical engagement.

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