Retrospectacle asks Is a Species’ Survival Inherently Valuable?
My answer is “yes,” but I agree with Shelley that the question is tricky. If someone found a way to make chiggers go extinct, would I really mind that much? Do I really care that this or that dam would make some guppy go extinct?
Much as I want to believe that a world without chiggers would be a better place, I ultimately have to conclude that it wouldn’t be.
There are two books that I think are essential to understanding where I’m coming from. The End of Nature by Bill Mckibben lays out one important part of the argument. His claim is that nature matterrs, in the sense that it is important for us all to know that there are parts of the world that exist which are not under human control. The book’s theme is global warming, and he observes that even in the deepest wilderness, we can no longer look at the colors of a perfect sunset without wondering whether those clouds originated in a smokestack, or whether human alterations of our atmosphere had made that sunset possible. That we can no longer envision nature external to ourselves, McKibben argues, is the end of nature.
Knowing that everything we see has been influenced by our actions, intentional and inadvertent, is a powerful ethical spur. Without the ability to attribute natural phenomena to some extrinsic power of “nature” means that we have to step into that void. Recognizing that we have reached a time in the planet’s history where we are truly responsible for what happens on and in every inch of soil and every drop of water is a large responsibility, and my understanding of what that responsibility means comes from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.
The essay on “Thinking like a Mountain” is probably the simplest introduction to the complexities of managing a wild place. Intuitively, you might think that removing predators would improve the quality of the land in terms of your ability to hunt in it, and to run cattle on the land. Aldo Leopold thought the same way when he killed his first wolf:
I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die [in the wolf’s eyes], I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
Of course, the obsession with wolves and deer is exactly what Shelley is writing about. Shelley is right that decisions about conservation often “really all just boil down to whether or not humans currently view a species as valuable in some way.” The problem is that we rarely know what we ought to view as valuable, and extinction is forever. When we take on the power to cause extinction and accumulate the wisdom to recognize what we are doing, we also must accept responsibility to make that choice wisely. And irreversible decisions like extinction ought to be taken with the greatest of care.
An example in the headlines this week comes from grizzly bear conservation. Major decisions about the conservation status of grizzly bears are being based on data on the spread of beetles that attack trees of little economic value. Those trees, however, provide an important food source to bears and other species, and the beetles attack the trees. As the climate warms, the beetles will attack more trees, and the range of those trees will decrease, perhaps by as much as 90%. That will have dramatic consequences for the bears, as well as for many other species that rely on the pinenuts and the pine forests.
What this means is that, to preserve the bears, it may be necessary to control the beetles and to protect a wider range of forests than might seem necessary now. People advocating protection for the grizzly bears are not just worried about that one charismatic species, but “[b]ecause of the close relationship between the pines and the bears,” the advocates hope to use the debate about protecting the bears “as a means of bringing attention to the overall ecosystem in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.”
In the past I’ve argued that this approach, the only one available under current laws, is not ideal. Recent research shows that many endangered species do not concentrate in a few specific “hot-spots,” which makes it less likely that other threatened species will be able to “piggyback” on a few charismatic species.
Most species that are endangered are not at risk because of hunting or targeted exploitation. They are going extinct because their habitats are being degraded as a result of (often inadvertent) human activities. The solution, as I’ve said before, is to extend protection not just to individual species, but to ecosystems as units. Preserving individual species often requires us to manage ecosystems in that way anyhow, and formalizing that arrangement would increase transparency and improve outcomes for both wildlife and human life.
We should do this not just because there is a moral imperative for us to take responsibility for these systems we’ve altered, but because we don’t know what we will lose. A world without chiggers might be more pleasant for me, but without chiggers, we might well find ourselves at a loss down the line. Eliminating species will destabilize natural systems in ways that are hard to predict and which will be difficult for us to replicate as responsible stewards.