It’s clear that human beings have had a devastating impact on the natural habitats of most other species on the planet. By some estimations, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year, largely due to habitat loss, overexploitation of resources, and other forms of environmental destruction. This is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural (not caused by human activity) extinction rate.1 Obviously, the rate at which we are depleting resources and life on this planet is not sustainable, so things need to change for everyone’s sake. The question is how to go about doing that.
This post isn’t about environmental issues, that’s a whole other conversation that needs to be had. However, in the meantime, where and how should we put our resources in the effort to save endangered animal species. There is a trend toward focusing on species that are most interesting or appealing to people, which generally means cute or smart mammals. In some ways this makes sense, because conservation efforts rely on public support, and these are the animals that make people want to donate their money. On the other hand, there’s a prejudice here. Cute animals like the panda are getting huge amounts of attention, while thousands of other species are going extinct without notice all the time. Unfortunately, those human beings attempting to lessen the damage caused by their species are forced to choose which species get a chance to live and which don’t.
I mentioned that public appeal is a major factor in this choice. However, there are certainly other ones that can lead to some ethically questionable actions. Conservationists tend to favor biodiversity, which can mean essentially killing off an invasive species that is affecting the habitat around it. But is this an ethical preference or simply an aesthetic one? Efforts like the one in California’s channel islands can involve mass slaughter of animals introduced decades before by humans, with the intent of saving another species that is judged to be more important and more deserving of the habitat. In this particular example, it’s probably not a coincidence that the species being saved was a particularly cute kind of fox, and the success of the campaign depended on killing the much less marketable wild pigs and donkeys.2
The rate at which natural ecosystems are declining is much faster than all the efforts to restore them, however successful or ethically sound they may be. There needs to be a way to focus limited resources in this area to causes that will prevent the most future damage.
I think most people who work on invasive species problems or other environmental issues that may have some ethical issues are coming from the right place. The usual justification for these is that because we caused huge changes to an ecosystem that we judge to be damaging, it is our responsibility to fix it. This would make sense if we could foresee the consequences of our decisions, but most of the environmental disasters happening now are happening because that is clearly not the case. But conveniently, this approach serves ourselves in a very significant way. It helps alleviate guilt. Many people (justifiably) feel extreme guilt for the negative affect that the human species has had on the other life on this planet. Putting time and effort into reversing those changes makes that feel a little less awful. I would guess that this is the reason that many people justify some pretty horrible actions for the cause.
Power is also a factor in this situation. It is undeniable that the human species has huge amounts of power over the environment. In almost all cases, exercising this power has lead to damage to natural ecosystems. Even so, I think that it is very difficult for people to accept or even consider that the best solution would be to relinquish that power. That’s a very hard thing to do for people, and this kind of thinking is often unstated.
The need to alleviate guilt and the desire to maintain a sense of power are both very strong psychological motivators. In this case, both seem to be at play in clouding people’s perceptions of right and wrong when it comes to how we should combat the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems.
The Ethical Questions:
How should we decide which species to try to save?
Should we have the power to remove invasive species at all costs?
Are biodiversity and preventing ecosystems from changing ethically relevant issues? Are we approaching them the right way?
How far should we go in preventing invasive species from taking over?
Where should conservation efforts focus their resources?
There does seem to be some value to keeping a level of biodiversity and preventing invasive species from destroying ecosystems. But there is also something to be said for not meddling more than we already have. Most invasive species are invasive because we brought them there (aren’t we the ultimate invasive species??), and trying to correct our own mistakes at sometimes great costs feels a bit like playing God. I would argue that we should focus our efforts on not affecting the natural habitats that remain any more than necessary. This may mean that ecosystems change, but ecosystems have been changing for billions of years. We seem to have an intense desire to control this process, but maybe things would be better if we just let them be.
From this standpoint, the conservation efforts that do make ethical sense are those like anti-poaching and anti-deforestation campaigns. The driving factor here is to reduce human impact on the environment, instead of trying to fix problems we’ve already caused. To me, this seems like a much better use of our considerable power.This is the approach that has the best chance of working, because we are minimizing unintended consequences. The ecosystems on this planet have gotten pretty good at taking care of themselves, much better than we are at maintaining them.