Biodiversity ethics

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There was an interesting article in The Conversation recently entitled “Is an ethic of biodiversity enough?“. This article, by Freya Matthews, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Philosophy at La Trobe University, starts with a thought experiment: what if we could supply with technology all the services that the ecosystem currently provides?

Now that’s a big ‘if’. For my part, I find it hard to believe that our
technology will improve sufficiently quickly, and that our common sense will similarly improve sufficiently quickly – I think it more likely that we’ll continue blindly until we face some sort of crisis, which our level of technology will be unable to address in time.

Anyway, to return to the story: Matthews  points out that if we could create artificial systems that could support human life, then we wouldn’t need natural systems to do so, and hence the survival or otherwise of those natural systems would be a solely moral decision, rather than a survival one.

She goes on to note that we currently have no problem disposing of animals in a wholesale fashion, and treating them quite cruelly. There’s no argument that this is true: we do act as though the whole of the animal (and indeed vegetable) world is there for us to use, abuse, and destroy, although there are many groups attempting to rectify this situation. Her suggestion here is that our current system is based on a principle of ‘biophobia’ – blithe acceptance of the destruction of creatures and whole species.

Matthews concludes that we need an ethic of biodiversity that encompasses a respect for life and a sense of proportionality, so that we maintain an abundance of species with an abundance of members, rather than merely ‘firefighting’ by trying to save individual species threatened with extinction. Her word is ‘optimisation’ – we should look at optimising all species in order to optimise the biosphere.

One result of this is that we need to consider our own species as just another to be optimised, and this is where it gets problematic. Few people who are familiar with this issue would disagree that humans are badly overpopulated, and have a highly disproportionate impact on the natural world: on the other hand, most people are unlikely to want to consider any possible solution (or even the problem).

But that’s one of the things we need to do in order to preserve the biosphere: we need to start work on limiting human numbers, and we need to start work on limiting human impacts (pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction, etc.) on the natural world. And in order to start working on it, we need to start talking about it.

The means to limit human population are well-known: equality of women, comprehensive sex education, and freely available contraception, are all proven to work in reducing population growth. And all of this is possible now, without new technology.

And there is a plethora of options for reducing our impact on the biosphere: individual choices like recycling, using public transport, being smart about heating and cooling, etc., and structural changes like renewable energy development, smart urban design, smart use of water, laws to regulate pollution, regulating new buildings to make them energy neutral, mandating re-use of materials wherever possible, and so on. Again, all these options are available now, without having to rely on new technology.

We need to start getting these ideas into the public discourse, regardless of how unpopular they may be to begin with. As one commenter to the article, John Harland, puts it: “We cannot achieve change through banging on about what is wrong. We need to build the narrative and the vision of how we can do better.”

[Featured image: Pongo abelii, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.]

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