A quick follow-up to my post at the beginning of the year over the controversy surrounding the proposal to ban the hunting of polar bears. It appears that scientific sense and respect for indigenous cultures have prevailed over blind love for cute (on TV) animals: CITES have refused to pass a ban on hunting polar bears. My heart still weeps for the polar bears’ fate, but if we want to change that, then we need to tackle global climate change. Anything else is just a distraction; a chance to feel good whilst accomplishing nothing of lasting benefit.
Posts Tagged ‘moral case for conservation’
Polar bears made, I suppose, an appropriately seasonal topic for this article on the BBC news website that appeared on Christmas Day. Except that the contents were actually pretty grisly and touched upon a central tension of the conservation movement.
At question was what is driving polar bears to extinction. Is it climate change, hunting or both. WWF claim the main driver is climate change. The Humane Society say it is a combination, and that hunting will deliver the coup de grâce. They may be technically right, but, without, I confess, having actually examined the science, I would be inclined to trust WWF, IUCN and Traffic, when they suggest that hunting is little more than a side show and that climate change will likely cause the extinction of polar bears in the wild regardless of hunting pressure.
Quite apart from the likelihood that the big guns have got their science right, my suspicion is aroused by the name of the disputants. If the Humane Society are concerned that the hunting of polar bears is inhumane they should say so, and preferably put it in context by comparing it with, say, the trauma that livestock experience at a typical abattoir. But when they start arguing the toss over biodiversity losses with the experts you have to wonder at their motivation.
Mike Shanahan touched upon the same problem in his confession that he once ate shark fin soup. We are back at the same question of “What is conservation for?” that I tackled in my series last year on the Sakhalin whales.
I suppose in some ways it is a good thing that urbanites consciences should these days extend to the killing of animals previously seen as dangerous predators. But there surely is a limit to this inter-species empathy; I bet few such urbanites would hesitate to call a pest control company if they experienced a sudden rat infestation. And the romantic fantasising about the fierce world of the top predator is as nonsensical as the Victorian myth of the noble savage. We should respect other cultures and other species regardless of their apparent nobility or lack thereof.
The fact is that we find the lives of these charismatic species inspiring. The soaring flight of an eagle will always have considerably more emotive power than the domestic fluttering of a sparrow (unless there are chicks involved). Moreover these emotive connections are what first drew all of us in; nobody was inspired to be a conservationist by biodiversity loss statistics. So we should harness these stories.
But conservation policy and practice is best if it is science-driven. What good is saving a polar bear from a hunter’s bullet only for it to die of starvation as its arctic habitat disappears? The bullet might be the kinder way to go; something the Humane Society might wish to reflect upon.
I still (probably naively) harbour hope that humanity will get its act together to stave off catastrophic climate change, and thereby save the polar bears and many other species from extinction. A ban on hunting polar bears would be the equivalent of worrying about whether you made the bed while the house burns down.
This is the conclusion to the series I have run recently on the fate of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin, and whether or not we should care about them. This was all prompted by an article by Richard Black on some esoteric arguments about whether some of the Sakhalin whales may actually be temporary visitors from the much larger population of Grey Whales in the Eastern Pacific, and the implications this discovery has for how they may be treated from a conservation perspective.
Such, apparently unexpected outcomes of conservation analysis and regulation are not as rare as one might expect. Global warming is shifting species ranges across national borders. When this first happens the new arrivals instantly become a rare species in their new country, and may be afforded all sorts of protections (and thus constraining businesses) as a result. Viewed globally this is nonsense since the vast majority of the population is elsewhere; so long as it is not globally endangered then there is no real reason to grant it extra protection in a country it has not historically called home.
So how did we get here? We start from a basic moral argument for conservation that is usually rooted in a love for nature, that assigns it some intrinsic value. Aesthetics and empathy for our mammalian cousins (except for some of the rodent class) often plays a big part. How many conservationists were converted to the cause by watching the likes of David Attenborough?
This, however, only serves to protect a few gems in national parks and other protected areas, and is not very scientific. So biologists have long talked about biodiversity, a measure of the degree to which wildlife found in a given place is both different from each other (many species) and different from elsewhere (unique). Biodiversity hotspots have become a major theme of conservation. It helps that many of these hotspots coincide with traditional views of conservation priorities, e.g. the lemurs on Madagascar, but not all such hotspots are so charismatic; it is unlikely that the East African Coastal Forests will ever attract huge numbers of tourists. More tellingly, biodiversity itself is an abstract concept; easy to relate to when marvelling at the lush and beautiful diversity on display in a tropical rain forest or coral reef, but much harder to grasp when, say, a new car park obliterates the last home of a hitherto undiscovered beetle.
So where do I stand?
I kicked this series of posts off with a poll. I asked you readers to select from a number of options:
- Hunting whales is just morally wrong.
- Biodiversity loss is a major problem. Anywhere we can draw the line we should.
- Protecting these whales will protect a lot of other wildlife. (The umbrella species argument.)
- Conservation and development should be balanced, but sacrificing biodiversity to extract more fossil fuels which will just increase global warming is not a sensible trade off.
- Conservation and development should be balanced, but we’d be asking Russia and the local communities in Siberia to sacrifice a lot of money and this is just a sub-species.
- Economic development should generally take precedence over conservation within bounds, i.e. allow the oil and gas developments to go ahead with appropriate regulation.
- This is just red tape dyed green, strangling legitimate business. If you want to keep the grey whales then you pay for it!
Alas less than 10% of you bothered to vote. I guess I should be flattered that you are rather more interested in my opinion than in expressing your own (either that or you couldn’t care less either way). The votes were fairly evenly split except for the last option which received no votes, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I shall leave the poll open for a while longer and watch to see if anything interesting does come of it.
As for my position, it is this. I think it would be great if sufficient moral clarity existed in the world that the top arguments held sway. But that is not the case. Other moral arguments about the ‘rights’ to development, food and clean water, and to health and education, also command our attention, and often compete with conservation. Sometimes, as in this case, there is a direct trade-off, other times it is simply a matter of competing for scarce financial resources. Thus conservation must prioritise internally and compete with other causes externally for support. Such prioritisation requires careful, rational thinking which often takes us some distance from our purer, more emotive starting points.
First and foremost I am a conservationist, but I recognise that conservation must fit with the economic realities in which we find ourselves; people who argue it should be the other way around are simply being Utopian. It is possible, nay desirable, to change the rules of the game, e.g. with the introduction of natural capital accounting, but it is not feasible to change the game entirely.
Thus my preference, were it possible, would be to try to combine economic development (in this case drilling for oil and gas) to go ahead with appropriate regulation to minimise such negative impacts as could be mitigated cost-effectively. If that were not possible, and as I previously remarked, the situation in Russia is not encouraging in this respect, I would probably be prepared to sacrifice the sub-species, with the hope of achieving better conservation results elsewhere, unless the umbrella species argument were particularly compelling, which I do not believe to be the case, though I know far too little about the Sakhalin environment to know for sure. Finally I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to pony up the cost to buy the rights to the Sakhalin oil and gas if they think it is so important.
This is part five of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.
In that poll I offered the option that: “Conservation and development should be balanced, but we’d be asking Russia and the local communities in Siberia to sacrifice a lot of money and this is just a sub-species.”
This statement is essentially asking us to explicitly weigh the value of this sub-species* population. Different people have different values and so will answer differently as to which side of the fence they sit on. Regardless as to which side you sit upon, I think it is important to acknowledge the different perspectives and not to assume that one or other is necessarily morally superior to the other. It may be that in the future such questions are resolved with the same clarity as other moral questions, in much the same way that slavery, once an accepted part of life, is now regarded as barbarous. But for now there is not such a universality of views, and basic pragmatism requires us to recognise that, however strongly held may be our views, we need to be able to talk to and engage with others who do not see things the same way.
Moreover if we are to properly answer this question we need to ground our arguments properly. Exactly how much biodiversity does a sub-species represent? Many other species and sub-species of beetles and microscopic organisms which we do not even know about are going extinct every day with destruction of precious, highly diverse habitats such as tropical rainforests. Just because the whales are mammals does that make them somehow more special?
Of course such arguments are in themselves not a reason to do nothing. If it was going to be easy or cheap to save the whales we might reasonably conclude that we should do it anyway. But it appears that saving these particular whales could be very expensive. Think of all the other sub-species we could potentially save with the money that it would cost to save these whales!
This all might seem a bit cold and calculating in comparison to the moral simplicity of other stances, but the reality is that we live in a resource-constrained world, and conservation organisations are having to determine their priorities in this way all the time. I just hope that when it comes time to weigh my soul such calculations will not feature on the negative side of the ledger.
* I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, the Western Grey Whale is a full sub-species or some other taxonomic category. Depending upon ones values, determination of such might be critical to answering the specific question this blog post poses, but is not relevant to the wider issues I raise.
This is part three of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.
This is the umbrella species argument. It’s not really about the whales, it’s the habitat, stupid! If you are going to adopt this argument, which again has a lot going for it, then you need to quantify in some ways the value of all the other wildlife that will be protected. Since we do not currently know where these Western Grey Whales breed, we are talking here about their feeding grounds off Russia’s Sakhalin Island. A quick online search didn’t turn up anything definitive on this (the grey whales feature prominently due to the press interest drummed up by campaigners). Clearly there is a lot of wildlife or and around Sakhalin but it is not clear how much of it is threatened by oil and gas extraction, nor how much would be protected as a result of safe-guarding the whales.
This is symptomatic of a wider problem in conservation: so-called charismatic flagship species may not always make for good umbrella species if the flagship species’ range does not actually accord closely with the distribution of rare or endangered species. E.g. grizzly bears can be content to live in peri-urban environments and raid dustbins. That all said, the multiplier effect of the umbrella species argument cuts a lot of ice with me, and, in my mind, beats the above two arguments for importance, although ultimately it also rests on the assumption that protecting biodiversity and pristine habitats is a good thing, which are same the principles that underpin those earlier moral arguments for conservation.
This is part two of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.
This is the scientific version of the moral argument against hunting I outlined earlier. Many conservationists contend that destroying biodiversity is morally wrong, and recently there have been scientific attempts to prove that a general loss of biodiversity itself (as opposed to habitat destruction or elimination of specifically valuable species) can be bad for us (lost opportunities for medical discoveries, weaker environmental resilience).
As a conservationist myself I think there is a huge amount to be said for this very important argument. But just because something is true, even scientific fact, does not in itself elevate it above other important truths. Political leaders are rightly called upon to balance competing interests. In this case they would ask exactly how much biodiversity would be saved by protecting these whales, and they might legitimately conclude that a sub-species that may already have fallen below the minimum viable population threshold, and might not actually be distinct from its eastern cousins, is not worth getting that worked up about.
If you are coming to this blog new before you read this and following posts please consider reading my previous one and voting in the poll.
In considering the question of the morality of whaling it depends first upon why you are hunting. Although not exactly a pressing conservation problem, I supported the ban on fox hunting which the previous UK government introduced because I think hunting for fun is barbaric, and has no place in a civilised society. On the other hand it has to be said that licensed hunting of big trophy mammals (elephants, lions etc.) in southern and eastern Africa has proven a big conservation success due to the extremely high fees that hunters are prepared to pay. Although I would hate to pull the trigger myself, I very much support this as a pragmatic solution to biodiversity conservation and habitat protection, for without the funds these hunters pay the large mammals would just be hunted and chased away by farmers, and the habitat degraded if not destroyed.
In the past a major incentive for whaling was the oils and fats that could be harvested from their bodies. However, since the advent of better synthetic replacements derived from petrochemicals, most whaling is done for food (discounting the pseudo-scientific hunting practiced by Japan to get around the current moratorium). So anyone who voted for this option had better be a vegetarian or they are a complete hypocrite. I eat meat so ultimately cannot agree with this position, although I do admire people prepared to live their ideals in this regard.