Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Is biodiversity valuable?

Coral reefThe other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

The other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of living things. But, what is it about variety and variability that is valuable?

First, it seems strange, at least to me, to think that we can create or increase value by making things less alike and/or producing more of them. Conversely, similarity and rarity don’t seem intuitively disvaluable (indeed, rarity can increase the value of many things).

Second, claiming that biodiversity is valuable leads to difficult questions. For example: do types of species matter: are a few more complex species (in terms of genetic material) more valuable in their contribution to biodiversity than a great variety and number of simple organisms? These sorts of problems cause me to question that biodiversity is valuable for its own sake.

Imagine a modern-day Dr. Moreau destroys all living creatures on an island, places a dome over the island and populates it with a new ecology of his own fiendish bioengineered creation. Imagine further that the variety and variability of the organisms that Dr. Moreau’s clone creates is greater than what had been there before. To say that the crazed doctor’s creation is potentially more valuable than the lifeforms it replaced is rather counter-intuitive (although a utilitarian would likely simply reject this intuition). But, why would whether organisms were created by man matter for the value of variety or variability?

It’s more plausible to think that biodiversity is valuable in terms of the benefits it brings for the organisms that comprise it: it instrumental value. However, there are a huge mass of complex problems that accompany this thought too. Members of ecosystems interact dynamically; they prey upon one another, compete for resources, may have varying moral value of their own and so forth. This means that the value of biodiversity will be different depending upon whether you are the one being eaten by another organism or the one doing the eating, and it will be constantly changing. Thus, is seems impossible to place a value on biodiversity that is not qualified in some way with details of the point of time it is valuable and the entity for which it is valuable. This doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it doesn’t appear to map to the ordinary way in which we talk of the importance of biodiversity. We don’t think ‘today biodiversity is valuable for clams, lions, and humans, tomorrow it may be valuable for thrushes, the flu virus, and banana trees.’ Nor does that description of the value of biodiversity appear all that interesting.

What’s more, returning to our Dr. Moreau clone above: what if not all of functions of the engineered ecosystem were fulfilled by living things? Perhaps our doctor has replaced many of the trees with carbon absorbing fakes? It would seem here that reducing the variety of living things reduces the number of potential conflicts whist preserving the instrumental value of the ecosystem to those remaining organisms. Why would that be a worse state of affairs than a greater variety of living things engaged in more competition?

The sorts of reasons given above cause me to question whether biodiversity is valuable either intrinsically (for its own sake) or instrumentally. Two ways to solve these problems would be either to adopt a speciesist ethic and value biodiversity solely in terms of its values to humans, or to deny the value of individual organisms and adopt something like Leopold’s land ethic. Neither of those two options is terribly appealing to me, so I’m initially minded to just reject the claim that biodiversity is valuable entirely. It’s certainly an interesting topic to return to.


Why should we conserve rhinos?

The question of why we should conserve rhinos popped up on Twitter earlier today. We tend to assume that it’s bad when a species is under threat of extinction, but it’s rare to see any defence of such claims. So what reasons might we have for thinking that poaching rhinos to extinction is bad? Below are five potential reasons why we should preserve a species, using rhinos as an example:

1. Because then there would be no more rhinos for us to enjoy

This reason sees rhinos as instrumentally valuable – they are the means by which we gain enjoyment, much as we would from viewing an aesthetically pleasing artwork or a beautiful sunset. If the loss of rhinos were a bad thing on this ground then we would have to show that there is a particular type of enjoyment that we can only gain from rhinos and which cannot be compensated for from other sources. Maybe there’s a special quality to the enjoyment of watching rhinos that we cannot gain from watching elephants or hippos, but it seems unlikely to me. Not a very strong reason then.

2. Because rhinos fulfil an important role in the ecosystem

Again, this reason views rhinos as instrumentally valuable insofar as they help preserve an ecosystem. Why we might want to preserve an ecosystem may be because we see ecosystems as valuable for their own sake (although I’m not sure what features of an ecosystem we could pick out to that would make it so), or because we judge ecosystems to be important in meeting human (or potentially other animal) needs. If we think the preservation of rhinos is important for ecological reasons, then that importance is contingent on no other animal being able to fulfil the same role in the ecosystem and the ecosystem being unable to adapt to the loss of rhinos. In other words the rhino must be a necessary component of the ecosystem for it’s extinction to be a matter of concern under this reason. Ecosystems are often quite resilient and adaptable, so whether rhinos are necessary in this way is something I’m sceptical of.

Edit: thanks to @AGBear for pointing out that the precautionary principle might apply here. Perhaps we cannot know what the negative consequences of the loss of a species on an ecosystem will be. Because those potential negative consequences might be very high – ecosystems are very complex beasts – we should do our best to preserve endangered species such as the rhino. This argument still doesn’t value rhinos for their own sakes though. Furthermore, the value of the species is also (as above) derived from the role played by individual non-human animals in the ecosystem. I’m also inclined to think that whilst we might not know the precise risks to an ecosystem that the loss of a species carries, we can know with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, and the accuracy of our predictions is likely to increase as numbers of a species decrease and we can see the effects of this decrease. In other words, our lack of perfect knowledge doesn’t provide a knock-down reason for saving a species.

3. Because rhinos fulfil an important economic role in a community

It’s not uncommon to see reference made to the valuable contribution certain wild animals make to poor communities through the attraction of tourists. Here again the reason to preserve a species is instrumental and contingent, this time upon the species being an irreplaceable source of income. That rhinos are the only way a poor community can gain wealth is a pretty strong claim – not one that I’m sure can succeed, so I think that this reason ultimately fails too.

4. Because the destruction of the species involves the destruction of individual members rhinos

Here we come to what I think is a much more plausible claim: the reason to save rhinos from extinction is that extinction involves the death and probable suffering of individual rhinos who are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. This, of course, is where the argument for animal rights comes in – I’m not going to defend it here, but I think it offers the only truly convincing reason for saving a species, a reason that is derived from the moral status of the individual non-human animals making up that species. Thus, we care about saving rhinos not because we care about whether there are rhinos in the world or not, but because we care about the individual rhinos that do presently exist.

5. Because the species is valuable to individual rhinos

This fifth reason hangs of the fourth: the thought is that if an individual being is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake, and it values its own species, then that species might form part of the individual being’s good. Although I can see how we might see the preservation of a community or a family as important for the reason it plays in a creature’s life, I don’t see how the species can be analogous to the family in a way that is makes sense in this kind of argument. Furthermore, I suspect it will only be a subset of non-human animals that it can be convincingly claimed of that they value their communities. Perhaps the higher apes, dolphins, perhaps elephants etc. So, this reason also looks like it too fails.

The weird thing about the reasons I’ve given above is that the claim about the badness of a loss of a species usually appears to rest not on them, but on an implication that species are intrinsically valuable. That is to say that species are valuable for their own sake and not because of the individual members of the species that make them up. But that claim is very different from the potential arguments I’ve listed above. It seems like we have an intuition that species are intrinsically valuable, but I can’t think of how you might defend this claim convincingly.

Ultimately then, I’m not sure why the destruction of a species counts as a bad thing separate from the loss of the individual members of that species, so I’m minded to conclude that we should focus instead on the plight of individual non-human animals and on their communities.

Anyone got a good argument for the intrinsic value of species?


Against Conservationism

Some time last year I wrote the essay below; I can’t remember what I wrote it for, but I’ve just dug it up whilst reorganising my files. I thought it a shame to waste, so I’m sharing with you.

Against Conservationism

For anyone who believes that human beings, or perhaps more properly, human persons, have moral duties to non-human animals for their own sakes, key features of animal conservation should be both troubling and problematic. The reasons for concern rest in the way conservation debates are framed together with the nationalistic language used, and the implicit sentiments that accompany them. Put simply, conservationism sups from the same cup as nationalism and other ideologies that subordinate the value of the individual to that of some larger social grouping. This claim may seem like it is intended to be provocative, but it is made neither to display boldness nor provoke reaction. Rather, the intention is to bring to attention that which has been before us, but which has rarely been perceived.

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