Decisions regarding environmental resources are not like the resource use choices we make as individuals. They are social decisions that impact on a wide range of people who have widely differing preferences. Individual decisions in the market are based on personal interests, welfare and happiness. However, environmental decisions involve decisions concerning environmental goods and services that are not necessarily marketed and decisions about whether to introduce a reform or give a go-ahead to a project that will make the society better off and not worse off amidst the fact that definition of the society is not always clear. Furthermore, as Harding notes, in his paper Environmental Decision-Making: The roles of scientists, engineers, and the Public, environment is made up of interconnected components, processes and feedback mechanisms that make the environmental decision-making processes significantly differ from the individual market decisions.
Unlike the individual decision-making where the interests of the individual dominate, as described by the notion of the classical liberalism, environmental decision-making has a crosscutting impacts that need to be taken into account to ensure that the society is better off necessitating collective action. Therefore, the decision-makers, the decisions they make and for whose benefits the decisions are made play a key role in dictating how, who and when these decisions are made.
Ramsay provides a theoretical explanation arguing that individual’s decisions are best explained by the classical liberal philosophy which holds that people are best suited to seek the best means to satisfy their own interests leading to improved social welfare albeit through pursuing different interests and any collective action to decide and meet these interests is unwarranted. By assuming that the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number, represents what is good for the society the framework does not incorporate issues of equity, fairness and distribution that often arise when making decisions about access, ownership and use of natural resources.
In addition, the classical liberal philosophy is based on the foundation that in the market the property rights are clearly defined, defended and tradable. However, most environmental goods and services are public goods for which collective decision-making rules are necessary to make sure that they continue to advance the welfare of the society. By ignoring the social, environmental and cultural context in which decisions are made, liberal philosophy proponents assume a narrow view of the society yet broader and complex interconnected relationship between environmental, social and economic elements occur. As a result the decision-making framework offered by the classical liberal philosophy does not depict the true nature of the often non-marketed environmental goods and services that need collective action.