The elephant in the room (biodiversity ethics part 2)

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In yesterday’s post, I talked about an ethic of biodiversity and some of the issues arising from it. Today, I’d like to wade into the swamp of controversy with the big one.

It’s pretty clear that, if we want to have a stable, functioning biosphere in the long term, we need to make some very substantial changes to our values and our economic systems, including our use of the planetary resources: simply responding to each crisis in turn won’t be enough.

The big issue here is that our current economic system is predicated on extraction and consumption. The ecosystem is considered to have no value, and so the externalities of production and consumption are not counted. By externalities, I mean things like:

  • pollution of air, water, and land;
  • production of tremendous amounts of waste;
  • removal or destruction of trees and other plants, either for profit or as part of something like mining or agriculture;
  • removal of habitat for other creatures, including native peoples living in and on those areas;
  • degradation or destruction of reefs and other marine environments;
  • overfishing, overgrazing, and overhunting;
  • extinction of some species.

These are big things for the biosphere, and they have a huge cost in terms of life and quality of life, but since there is no dollar value attributed to them, they’re effectively invisible. One partial solution is to calculate an approximate dollar value to the services that the ecosystem provides: a recent UN report did just that, providing both values for services provided and costs for our actions that take no account of these services.

In the long term, though, we really need to make a revolutionary change to the way we live. Some options for useful steps along the way are provided in this article. Instead of measuring our well-being using the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), for example, why don’t we use Gross Domestic Happiness? After all, the unspoken assumption behind our economic system is that consumption will increase happiness, and since it clearly doesn’t work for the vast majority of the world’s population, we need to move to something that does.

Ultimately, though, we need to have a system that’s not based around consumption. That means things like:

  • smarter building designs, both individual and on a city or national scale, to use less energy and resources;
  • ‘cradle to cradle’ production systems that re-use waste from one product in production of another;
  • less use of toxic products and creation of toxic by-products;
  • sourcing products locally;
  • moving away from planned obsolescence (things designed not to last);
  • and simply consuming a lot less.

This will necessitate a new ethical and economic system that treats the biosphere as something we live on and within, rather than a resource to be used and abused simply in order for a very few people to make very large profits. The possibilities are there: we just need to think about them, talk about them, and then act.

I’d like to leave you with a cartoon that Nick of wildlife tv reminded me of: after all, what have we got to lose?

[Featured image: The elephant in the room. Image from Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain]

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