09 September 2014

How Many Species Do We Need?

   A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times captured in a few sentences most of my discomfort with environmentalism. It described the aims of the Endangered Species Act as
   "[F]irst, to mitigate harms that humans had perpetrated against certain species, such as severely reducing their geographic range; and second, to make it possible for species to return to landscapes where they had been extirpated. The idea was that healthy ecosystems depend on the presence of native species."
   Talk about "healthy landscapes" is obviously metaphorical, but what is the metaphor getting at? Are the Sahara, the Antarctic, or the ocean depths unhealthy because few creatures can survive there? The answer seems to be that a "healthy landscape" just is a landscape that contains all and only its "native species."
   But what species are "native" to a landscape? Clearly, not all the species that are well-established there; I doubt that nativists would consider the Burmese python, a recent immigrant to the Everglades, or the Asian carp, a newcomer to the Mississippi, as "native" even though they are thriving. And some species no longer inhabit their historical landscapes, such as the grey wolf in most of the United States. Presumably, species are native to a landscape if (and only if) they were established there at some earlier point in time, but when would that have been?
   I suspect the answer is tucked away in that reference to mitigating the "harms that humans had perpetrated against certain species, such as severely reducing their geographic range." The idea seems to be that the native species in a landscape are those that were firmly established there before we humans came and mucked things up. But to "make it possible for species to return to landscapes where they had been extirpated," we'd probably have to pack up many of the humans now living there and send them back to their native landscapes. Which is where, exactly?
   Plainly, the government is not about to send millions of Americans back to wherever they or their ancestors came from. The best the Endangered Species Act can achieve is some reasonable accommodation between the thrust of populous contemporary human societies and our desire to maintain some pre-Columbian landscapes (to arbitrarily take a particular point in time) with their then-existing flora and fauna.
   Native Americans have recently been introducing native species, such as the swift fox and black-footed ferret, into never-plowed grasslands on Indian reservations. As the president of the Fort Belknap tribe said, "Part of our connection with the land is to put animals back, and as Indian people, we can use Indian country." That a group would want to create some replica of its historical experience is understandable, but why should non-Indians care about importing wildlife to its historical range and, by extension, exporting humans from that range?
   Most of us like to preserve ancient things; we have museums for man-made artifacts. But once we have enough museums to satisfy most of us, is there any reason to preserve more? I enjoy auto museums, but am not in favor of preserving every car ever made or returning any substantial number of them to the nation's roads. Nor do I think anyone would seriously suggest restoring the nation's highway system to its early-20th century form.
   Why should natural environments be different? To be desolated by the loss of any creature or natural habitat seems no more sensible than mourning the passing of my 2005 Honda Accord. If we woke one morning to discover that there was no longer a single 2005 Accord extant, I doubt that we would be much discomfited. Why should it be different when it's a natural species rather than an auto species that goes extinct? I'm not saying there is no difference, only that I would like to know what it is.
   Three reasons for preferring ferrets to Accords have occurred to me, all somewhat suspect.
   First, once a species disappears, we can't recreate it in the way we could build a working replica of a 2005 Accord. Some day that may not be true, and we can have a Jurassic Park of formerly extinct species, but for the moment extinction is an irreversible decision. Like a tattoo.
   The second reason is related to the first: It's difficult to foresee all the consequences of doing without a species. But isn't it just as difficult to foresee all the consequences of retaining a species? And, in truth, it shouldn't be that difficult to foresee the consequences of species extinction. Before a species goes extinct, its numbers decline, and the loss of most of a species must have larger consequences than the loss of the last few specimens. If we haven't noticed any adverse effects of losing most black-footed ferrets, then we're unlikely to notice the effects of losing the remaining few. (We might fail to notice that we've lost most of a species before the process becomes irreversible, but that's a separate problem of environmental monitoring.)
   The thought of the black-footed ferret going extinct sends many people into a funk. But extinctions happen all the time. There are supposedly about 8.7 million species on earth. It's also said that of all the species that have ever existed, 99.9% are now extinct. Putting those two numbers together means that over the course of the earth's history some 8.7 billion species have gone extinct--about one extinction every five months for the 3.6 billion years since life emerged on this Earth. Talk about a funk! (I have limited confidence in these numbers, but that doesn't change the central conclusion: There have been an enormous number of extinctions.)
   Of course, humans had nothing to do with any but an infinitesimal portion of this carnage. There were at least five mass extinctions before there were any humans, and lots of non-mass extinctions in between. Which brings us to the third and most powerful reason--most powerful because it is generally unexamined: Many people view the pre-modern world as morally and aesthetically superior to the grimy world of industrial society. In this mindset, the pre-industrial world is natural, the current state of affairs unnatural.
   Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot, does not subscribe to these views, but he does offer a more plausible explanation of why we value ferrets above Hondas. Unlike many environmentalist screeds, Smith's argument doesn't rely on purely metaphorical arguments. "Nature," says Smith, "is indifferent." The earth isn't an organism that can be healthy or sick, that has a suitable body temperature, or an ideal set of charismatic megafauna. "The earth does not resent its humans, nor does it have any interest in preserving its polar bears or its rain forests."
   According to Smith, environmentalists conceive of a stable order of fixed kinds, where any change is "unnatural." Such a "mythological outlook" is the opposite of Darwinism, which denies that any particular arrangement of biodiversity is good in itself, or that any species has an absolute reason to exist. According to Smith,
   "Human beings are no less natural than bacteria. ... It is because we are fully in nature in this way, and not above it or apart from it, that the mass extinctions we cause cannot be unnatural--in fact, the very notion of the 'unnatural' is generally nothing more than a shrouded moral judgment."
   Judging by the posted comments to Smith's piece, most readers see him as accepting extinctions. But Smith is merely attacking environmental styles of argument; he has his own reasons for opposing extinctions:
   "The point here is not to ... call for an approach to mass extinction that simply says, que sera, sera. Rather, it is to suggest that conservationism might do well to acknowledge the endurance and the strength of the mythopoetical conception of nature, the one that sees our fellow creatures not only as more or less well adapted, but also as good, truly good."
   Smith argues that we feel a "fellowship" with animals that leads to a moral commitment. "[M]oral commitments emerge out of the way creatures, human and nonhuman, enter into meaningful exchange with one another."
   Smith has a good bit to say about the influence of photos in turning animals into "fellow beings." He's mainly referring to the photographic record of recently extinct species, but the same could be said of the influence of wildlife documentaries about existing species, such as PBS's Nature series.
   In basing his opposition to extinctions on feelings of fellowship, Smith is following a philosophical tradition that roots morality in our instinctive feelings of pleasure or pain when confronting the pleasures or pains of others, feelings sometimes characterized as "sympathy" or "empathy." The most prominent exponent of this view, David Hume, realized that these feeling could extend to animals: "[T]here is no human, and indeed no sensible, creature, whose happiness or misery does not, in some measure, affect us when brought near to us, and represented in lively colours."
   Recent natural extinctions seem to be a mirror of human progress. The relentless march of modernity is homogenizing human cultures, reducing diversity world-wide. One symptom is the decline in the number of human languages. Linguists expect that at least 3,000 of the nearly 7,000 known languages will disappear over the next century, "a vastly greater proportion of the world's languages than its biological species."
   We can weep at this loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, but we should realize that these changes are by-and-large welcomed by the people whose culture is being homogenized, including us. When you bought your HD TV, I doubt that you shed a tear for the cathode-ray tube model that it displaced, nor thought it regrettable that CRTs might someday flicker their last. Most people want TVs, i-Phones, indoor toilets, central heating, and modern medicine. Judging by migration patterns, they want to live more like Europeans and Americans. At the same time, they want to keep many traditional customs and practices, however incompatible with modern life. No one said people were consistent.
   It's much the same for natural species. Most of us love trees, flowers, and furry animals. We love to stroll outside on early summer evenings to see the fireflies and hear the crickets. We like to watch breathtaking HD views of tropical jungles on Nature, safe in our air-conditioned living rooms from lions and leeches, vipers and tsetse flies. A few of us actually go off for outings to thinly-peopled climes and feel ennobled, but most of us decline to do it regularly.
   As with most other things in life, our attitude toward extinctions is an attempt to work out some modus vivendi among our various incompatible desires: We want to preserve species and habitats, but we also want to have increasingly comfortable lives. As Smith says,
   "We talk about 'saving the earth,' but what we really want is to save ourselves. ... [W]e must be clear about the motive for our conservation efforts. ... [M]ore honesty about the fact that we wish to save polar bears because we love them, and not because the earth loves them, could help to reorient conservationist arguments in a direction that skeptics would find more compelling."
   But we love lots of things besides polar bears. With so many romantic urges to balance, we should realize that we often have to kill the things we love.

PS If you found all of this depressing, maybe this will make you feel better: Of the 8.7 million species on Earth today, it's believed that fully 86% of those on land and 91% of those in the oceans still await description--that is, are unknown. If all of these unknown species were to be cataloged during the next century, that would be equivalent to discovering over 200 new species every day for 100 years. Welcome to life's abundance.

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