Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservationby Marc Bekoff
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For far too long humans have been ignoring nature. As the most dominant, overproducing, overconsuming, big-brained, big-footed, arrogant, and invasive species ever known, we are wrecking the planet at an unprecedented rate. And while science is important to our understanding of the impact we have on our environment, it alone does not hold the answers to the current crisis, nor does it get people to act. In Ignoring Nature No More, Marc Bekoff and a host of renowned contributors argue that we need a new mind-set about nature, one that centers on empathy, compassion, and being proactive.
This collection of diverse essays is the first book devoted to compassionate conservation, a growing global movement that translates discussions and concerns about the well-being of individuals, species, populations, and ecosystems into action. Written by leading scholars in a host of disciplines, including biology, psychology, sociology, social work, economics, political science, and philosophy, as well as by locals doing fieldwork in their own countries, the essays combine the most creative aspects of the current science of animal conservation with analyses of important psychological and sociocultural issues that encourage or vex stewardship. The contributors tackle topics including the costs and benefits of conservation, behavioral biology, media coverage of animal welfare, conservation psychology, and scales of conservation from the local to the global. Taken together, the essays make a strong case for why we must replace our habits of domination and exploitation with compassionate conservation if we are to make the world a better place for nonhuman and human animals alike.
“It may not be easy to be compassionate in this speedy, greed-ridden world, but maybe a person can be a bit kinder. Marc Bekoff and his fellow contributors make the case that an attitude of intelligent caring is both possible and essential if the world is to be saved.”
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IGNORING NATURE NO MORE
The Case for COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATION
By Marc Bekoff
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Infirm Ethical Foundations of Conservation
John A. Vucetich and Michael P. Nelson
THAT CONSERVATION HAS an ethical foundation is widely appreciated. Less appreciated is the shambled condition of that ethical foundation. This condition is revealed by our inability to answer questions like, What is population viability and ecosystem health? and, Is conservation motivated only to meet the so-called needs of humans, or also by respect for nonhuman populations and ecosystems? Some argue that this ethical uncertainty does not impede the effectiveness of conservation. We provide examples that suggest otherwise. We also explain how the source of ethical uncertainty is our mistaken tendency to think that the morality of our behavior should be judged more on the consequences of our actions and less on the motivations that underlie our actions.
Conservation's aim is often thought or said to be to maintain and restore population viability and ecosystem health. Achieving conservation is difficult, but the framework for conservation's goals seems in place: Use the best available science and the precautionary principle as input for a decision-making process that will suggest which actions will most likely lead to the most desirable outcomes; use politico-legal force to turn desired actions into law or policy; and include some environmental education (e.g., media and formal curricula) to build social support. That education almost always reduces to describing how humans affect natural systems, as if that will shock or shame us into supporting conservation.
This framework rests, unfortunately, on an infirm foundation that casts doubt on whether we really understand the aim of conservation. The answers to three questions illuminate the inadequacies of the foundation of conservation:
1. What is population viability and ecosystem health?
2. How does conservation relate to and sometimes conflict with other legitimate values in life, such as social justice, human liberty, and concern for the welfare of individuals, nonhuman animals? How should we resolve such conflicts?
3. Do populations and ecosystems deserve direct moral consideration?
These are the most important unanswered questions in conservation. Not having answers that are well defended and widely agreed upon has practical, on-the-ground consequences for conservation. Moreover, none of these questions are purely science questions. They are all philosophical or ethical in nature. This is disturbing because the ethics and philosophy of conservation may well be the most undertreated aspects of conservation. The very nature of conservation is, therefore, up for grabs because its ethical foundation is up for grabs. All the while, few people seem concerned. The need is not for each individual to answer the question in his or her own way; what is needed is the development of ethical consensus, which arises from ethical discourse (Nelson and Vucetich 2011).
An interlocutor might express skepticism: developing ethical consensus where there is none is impossible—not even among conservation professionals. Much evidence, however, speaks to our ability to develop ethical consensus (witness the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights). Moreover, if we cannot arrive at a reasonably broad consensus about the three big questions above, then conservation's relationship to society will remain like a nation's tax policy: everyone agrees that tax policy should balance equality and fairness, socialism and libertarianism—but no one agrees on what that means. Instead, we should want conservation's relationship to society to be more like human medicine, which proceeds efficiently because we all agree on the aim (human health) and we all agree, more or less, on what human health means.
Answering "What is the aim of conservation?" is challenging because the question is broad and abstract, while at the same time the particulars of real conservation issues are so varied. It is difficult to identify principles that are general enough to entail most real issues, but not so broad and general as to be vacuous. To say that conservation is about maintaining and restoring population viability and ecosystem health is a bit too vacuous. By answering the three big questions, much that is vacuous will become firm. What follows is an exploration of how to approach the three big questions of conservation and the consequences of failing to take them seriously.
The Three Big Questions of Conservation
1. What is population viability and ecosystem health? Conventionally, population viability is assessed by estimating the probability that a population will go extinct over some time frame (Akçakaya, Burgman, and Ginzburg 1999). In principle, it is straightforward to estimate a population's extinction risk and to rank order extinction risk among a set of populations. In practice, both tasks tend to be especially difficult, in large part due to the limited availability of empirical data for most real populations.
Perhaps even more difficult is the task of determining the amount of extinction risk (the probability and time frame) beyond which a population would be considered endangered or not viable. For example, is a 5 percent chance of going extinct in 100 years an acceptably low chance of extinction? Or is a 10 percent chance of going extinct over 200 years more appropriate? No matter how extinction risk might be quantified, why is there so precious little discussion about such a profoundly basic question as, What is an unacceptable risk of extinction?
It seems straightforward to judge ecosystem health in the terms we use to describe ecosystems, that is, by: (i) their species richness and diversity; (ii) the nature of their ecosystem processes (e.g., nitrogen cycling) and ecological processes (e.g., predation or herbivory); (iii) temporal dynamics in these processes; and (iv) the spatial variation of ecosystems across landscapes (e.g., relative frequency of different kinds of ecosystems across landscapes).
One extreme, well-rehearsed perspective considers an ecosystem healthy to the extent that humans have not impacted it. From this perspective humans are a pathogen. Another extreme, well-rehearsed perspective considers an ecosystem healthy to the extent that it can continue providing resources and services that humans need. From this perspective humans are a parasite.
Our attempts to navigate this dichotomous notion of ecosystem health have been inept. For example, as we are increasingly faced with decisions about how to handle conservation-reliant systems (Scott et al. 2010), we find ourselves unable to avoid odd questions like, Is a human-altered ecosystem healthier when humans stop intervening, or when human intervention is used to return it to its prealtered state?
Another circumstance rises from our stumbling through the dichotomous view of ecosystem health. This circumstance, as odd as it is general, is represented by the question: On what portion of the landscape should we protect ecosystem health, and on what portion of the landscape should it be sacrificed for our use? The more familiar forms of this question are: How much wilderness and bioreserve area do we need? and, Should human impact be concentrated (e.g., intensive forestry on a small area) or diluted (e.g., less intensive forestry over a larger area)?
This attitude raises serious ethical questions, such as, On what ethical grounds can we justify respecting some ecosystems, but sacrifice others? This is Sophie's Choice manifest in our relationship with nature. The question also represents an ethical tragedy, a situation of our own making that seems to leave us with no acceptable choice. Moreover, this handling of the dichotomy never answers the question, What is a healthy ecosystem?
Despite the well-rehearsed problems with each perspective, each is rooted in a fundamental truth: humans can ruin ecosystems and humans need what ecosystems provide. But these perspectives also require believing that humans are separate from nature and require denying nature's intrinsic value. Both beliefs are unwise. Is it possible to develop a unified notion of ecosystem health that simultaneously recognizes: (i) humans can ruin ecosystems; (ii) humans need what ecosystems provide; (iii) humans are not separate from nature; and (iv) the value of healthy ecosystems for the sake of the ecosystem's interest, not just our own interest? What portion of conservation professionals concern themselves with this problem?
2. How does conservation relate to and sometimes conflict with other legitimate values in life, such as social justice, human liberty, and concern for the welfare of individuals, nonhuman animals? How should we resolve such conflicts? One approach to this question is to consider a useful definition of sustainability, which is "meeting human needs in a socially just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health [or populations of their viability]" (Nelson and Vucetich 2009c; Vucetich and Nelson 2010). Received definitions of sustainability suggest our unwillingness to, for example, sacrifice social justice in exchange for conservation and raise more particular questions like: Is it socially unjust to deprive a human community of their mode of living, if their mode of living deprives a nonhuman population of its viability or an ecosystem of its health? This question can be answered, but doing so requires: (i) a better understanding of what ecosystem health is; and (ii) an interest and ability to understand the nature of social justice, an interest and ability that seems well beyond the majority of conservation professionals and outside of the realm of what we normally think of as conservation science.
These questions would be ridiculous for anyone thinking that a particular conservation action was absolutely necessary for the survival or basic welfare of humanity. In that case, one might willingly pay almost any price for the conservation. The circumstance is, however, far more complex. Survival of the human species does not, for example, depend on Kansas having intact grassland ecosystems or the Pacific Ocean having blue whales. We already have a pretty good idea about how humans can survive without these populations or ecosystems.
Still, we cannot ignore the "13th rivet" metaphor, which explains how the loss of any particular species or ecosystem may not be important for the welfare of humanity, but the collective loss of many populations and ecosystems is. This raises the problem of how we go about deciding how we ought to treat any particular population or ecosystem. For every proposed conservation action, we must know how/whether the benefits of that particular action are worth the ethical costs that action might incur on social justice, or animal welfare, or whatever the costs may be.
The point is, conservation is not the only legitimate value in society. Particular conservation actions sometimes conflict with other values, and no particular conservation action always and automatically trumps every other value. Consequently, knowing conservation's role in society requires knowing how and why populations and ecosystems are valuable. In particular, we need to know how they are valuable beyond their utility to humans.
3. Do populations and ecosystems deserve direct moral consideration? This question is critical not only for conservation, and the academic field of environmental ethicists has generated a great deal of insight about how the question might be answered, though it is largely unknown to many conservation professionals.
An important line of reasoning has been that direct moral consideration should be extended to anything possessing a morally relevant trait. Many consider sentience and the capacity for reason to be morally relevant traits, and some consider them to be the only morally relevant traits. If so, ecological collectives would not deserve direct moral consideration because they are not sentient or capable of reason. Another school of thought known as biocentrism argues that being alive is the morally relevant trait. While some of these scholars argue that ecological collectives are morally relevant because they are living things, others argue they do not deserve moral consideration because they are not living individuals. Each of these approaches represents a kind of thinking known as extensionism.
By contrast, some professional ethicists have argued that ecological collectives deserve direct moral consideration because they are the will of some deity. Ironically, some theological consideration suggests that only humans deserve direct moral consideration.
Another more secular approach has been to argue that ecological collectives deserve direct moral consideration because they and we are members of a shared biotic community, and all community members deserve moral consideration. This was Aldo Leopold's contribution to environmental ethics. Deep Ecologists approach this question by first recognizing that humans deserve direct moral consideration, and then by recognizing that humans and ecological collectives are indistinguishable, and for these reasons ecological collectives deserve direct moral consideration.
In the process of developing these insights, some environmental ethicists have discovered a more basic challenge, which is, knowing what exactly is meant by the term direct moral consideration. First, as a matter of vocabulary, environmental ethicists generally say that a thing deserves direct moral consideration if it has intrinsic value, in contrast to having only instrumental (or use) value. The trouble is, what exactly is meant by intrinsic value.
Intrinsic value could be something that exists within certain things; implying intrinsic value is an objective property that can be discovered. In this case ethicists say to be intrinsically valuable is to be valuable in and of itself. However, intrinsic value may only exist in the mind of the valuer. In this case, intrinsic value would be value in addition to use value. Alternatively, intrinsic value may be more relational, that is, something that emerges from a valuer's relationship with certain things. Uncertainly about the meaning of intrinsic value amplifies the difficulty of answering the question, Do populations and ecosystems deserve direct moral consideration?
Answering this question would solve a great challenge for conservation. However, answering this question in the affirmative creates even more difficult ethical questions for conservation. Specifically, how to weigh and adjudicate among the disparate interests of humans and nonhumans.
Excerpted from IGNORING NATURE NO MORE by Marc Bekoff. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. His numerous books include The Emotional Lives of Animals, The Animal Manifesto, and Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, the last also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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