Sunday, October 11, 2015

Species extinction is a great moral wrong

Nearly three decades ago, conservation biologist Michael Soulé published an article titled "What is Conservation Biology?" Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé's success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this new field. At its heart was the belief that the human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong.

"The diversity of organisms is good," Soulé wrote, and "the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad." Other species have "value in themselves," he asserted – an "intrinsic value" that should motivate respect and restraint in our dealings with them.

In a recent article published in the journal BioScience titled "What is Conservation Science?" Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier attempt to update Soulé's conservation philosophy, but lose sight of this moral commitment.

Update: Dr. Michelle Marvier has responded to this article in the comment section below.

Specifying the ethical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give a prominent place to increasing human wealth and "working with corporations," while recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. In fact, the article's rhetoric serves to normalize extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the local extinctions of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as "nostalgia" for "the world as it once was" and suggests that people need not keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.
Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration in this one article, but rather an essential part of the authors' view that conservationists should accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch (so named due to the pervasive impact that human activities now have on Earth's ecosystems).
An earlier essay that they published with Robert Lalasz, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity – because such extinctions will not necessarily change whole ecosystems or inconvenience human beings. There, the authors argue that:

  … Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature … In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller's sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question! And also, perhaps, for other species that preyed on or otherwise interacted with them. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors; they are not real catastrophes as long as the "ecosystem functions" that benefit humans remain intact. This is shortsighted. There is an extensive body of ecological research showing that even though there is often redundancy in biological communities, as species are lost, ecosystems start to lose functionality and become more prone to collapse. Leaving aside the scientific absurdity that some of the most abundant tree and bird species in North America could disappear with "no measurable effects," there is an ethical blindness here that is even more troubling.

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next few centuries if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-hogging path. In one sign of the times, in 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to the effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet in response to this threat Kareiva, Marvier and Lalasz had this to say:

 Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth's history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends — the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.
Such a glib statement ("seemingly stranded on a melting ice block") is both scientifically unjustified and morally obtuse. As Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, correctly points out, "no credible scientist believes that polar bears, who hunt from sea-ice platforms, will rapidly evolve to sustain themselves hunting harbor seals in open water." And equating past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused climate change fails to acknowledge the human responsibility for this threat. Karieva and Marvier suggest that the polar bear's fate depends on "two opposing trends" as "the environment changes," — when it really depends on whether or not humanity substantially reduces our greenhouse gas emissions.

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to Kareiva, Marvier and some other Anthropocene proponents, as long as this destruction does not harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth's resources. If increased human population and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our population and economic demands, not make excuses that will just lead to greater ecological damage.

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses for their displacement or making light of their extinction. It is particularly inappropriate for Peter Kareiva to do so, given his position as chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving biodiversity. TNC's fundraising rests in part on appeals to a strong and widely shared moral view that other species have a right to continued existence. Much of the conservation value of TNC's easements and land purchases depends on society-wide moral and legal commitments to preserve threatened and endangered species and their habitats. Kareiva and Marvier state that they "do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action," or presumably, conservation law. Yet their articles do precisely that, with potentially disastrous implications for practical conservation efforts, particularly in the long term.
To be clear: We do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important aspect of conservation. Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours.

But it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to concern for our own well-being, or to assume that it is acceptable to extinguish species that do not benefit humans. Such an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, which is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is primarily a matter of justice, not economic convenience.

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature's order, creativity and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When humans take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much and have brought a meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, the science of conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Biologist Colin Tudge put it well in his book The Variety of Life:
The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.
From this perspective, even one human-caused extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species as on how well we do so with other people.
Michael Soulé is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence. Human beings should preserve them whether or not it is convenient or economically beneficial for people.

The authors adapted this article from an editorial they wrote for Biological Conservation.

What is the Anthropocene Epoch?

According to some scientists, we live at a rare change of geological epochs: the shift from the Holocene (which began about 12,000 years ago when the last ice age ended) to a new epoch tentative named the Anthropocene, because of the immense and increasing human influence on the Earth. Human-dominated ecosystems now cover more of our planet's land surface than do wild ecosystems, while agriculture, construction and mining may move more earth than the natural processes of rock uplift and erosion The key question is whether we should reduce those impacts for our own good and the good of other species, or accept increased human domination of Earth.

The Authors

Philip Cafaro, PhD Richard Primack, PhDDr. Philip Cafaro ( is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, an affiliated faculty member with CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability and Book Review Editor of Elsevier's Biological Conservation journal. His main research interests are in environmental ethics, consumption and population issues, and wild lands preservation. He is the author of Thoreau's Living Ethics and Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, among other books.
Dr. Richard B. Primack ( is Professor of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity.  His research concerning the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts is the focus of a new book coming out in March titled Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau's Woods.



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