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The Value of Life
Biological Diversity and Human Society
By Stephen R. Kellert
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1996 Island Press
All rights reserved.
THIS BOOK is about the value of living diversity—how these values are integral to what it means to be fully human, yet how they are increasingly threatened by a massive hemorrhaging of life on earth. Although the connection between these issues has become clearer to me of late, this recognition has emerged only after years of researching how people value living diversity: emotionally, intellectually, and materially.
I first became interested in the issue of how people value nature and wildlife two decades ago. From my innocent perch of the time, I was primarily concerned with the problem of how the effective management of wildlife often seemed less a problem of manipulating animals and their habitats than managing our own species' often callous and destructive disregard for much of the natural world. This perspective had certainly not originated with me. Aldo Leopold, one of the wildlife profession's pioneering ecologists, had suggested more than a half century before: "The problem of [wildlife] is not how we shall handle the [animals].... The real problem is ... human management. Wildlife management is comparatively easy; human management difficult." I was struck, nonetheless, by how little systematic research had been done over the intervening years to explore the human/animal/nature relationship.
Fortunately, during this early stage in my career, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also became interested in American values and perceptions of wildlife and its conservation. The FWS seemed motivated by increasing concern about what appeared to be new trends in American relationships to wildlife—particularly attitudes that challenged many of the service's traditional emphases on managing wildlife uses, mainly sport hunting and fishing. The FWS also appeared uncertain about new regulatory responsibilities imposed by the passage of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in the early 1970s. They additionally wondered what was the motivation behind the explosion of wildlife recreational interest, particularly activities like birding, wildlife viewing, ecotourism, and others. All these changes represented significant new management challenges at the time, and the FWS believed an investigation of American values and behavior toward wildlife might better equip it for dealing with these profound shifts in American society.
A little historical perspective on the Fish and Wildlife Service is needed here to clarify its interest in this research. The service had traditionally focused on managing sport hunting and fishing and the hundred or more deer, ducks, salmonids, and other game species associated with these activities. This emphasis had served the profession well. Indeed, it was the basis for the generation of dependable revenues through the taxing and licensing of sportsmen, the elimination of the commercial wildlife trade, helping to restore depleted game species, and promoting the development of the wildlife management field. But it had also led to a strong financial, political, and ideological dependence on sport hunters and fishers. The price of this reliance had become a narrow management focus—and the exclusion of most of the public from the wildlife profession's inner circles.
Two trends had eroded this tight logic by the 1970s. The first trend involved two linked phenomena: growing opposition to sport hunting and growing interest in nonconsumptive wildlife activities. Most wildlife enthusiasts do not object to hunting, but all antihunters are by definition nonconsumptive users and thus the two groups became lumped together in the minds of many sportsmen and wildlife managers. The Fish and Wildlife Service hoped a national study might discover the motivation behind these two presumably connected phenomena.
The second trend was the passage of major new laws at considerable variance with the wildlife management profession's traditional approach. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of 1973, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and other environmental legislation—all suggested a widening recognition of the need to protect natural systems, biological diversity, and rare and endangered species. These new requirements meant vastly expanded and unprecedented regulatory responsibilities for the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that had restricted itself largely to providing services for a fairly narrow clientele. These dramatic legislative changes created considerable administrative uncertainty for this traditionally low-profile agency—as well as political risks. The FWS worried about public support for these new regulatory responsibilities, particularly when they conflicted with powerful political and economic interests. Few recognized at the time how the problem of endangered species would, in just two decades, erupt into a firestorm of crisis proportions involving a projected loss of tens of thousands of creatures and a scale of biological impoverishment unprecedented in human history.
The Fish and Wildlife Service believed that by discovering the wildlife-related values, interests, and activities of the American public through a national study, it might be possible to manage wildlife in a more socially acceptable manner. My study had several goals: the more equitable allocation of resources among users, a better basis for mitigating conflicts among wildlife interest groups, ascertaining support for protecting and restoring rare and endangered wildlife, educating the public about the value of wildlife and its conservation, and more fully understanding trends in American perceptions and uses of animals and the natural environment. The study's most significant challenge, given the extraordinary diversity of feelings and beliefs people direct at the natural world, was developing a means for classifying and measuring people's values of wildlife and nature. Logic suggested and science dictated the possibility of devising a set of basic values toward animals and the natural environment that might be systematically, empirically, and quantitatively studied across varying groups in society.
The first step was to delineate a taxonomy of basic values as a way of organizing and describing people's feelings and beliefs about animals and nature. This conceptual framework is described in detail in the following chapter, but here it might help to note the nine essential values: an aesthetic attraction for animals and nature, a dominionistic interest in exercising mastery and control over wildlife, an ecologistic and scientific inclination to understand the biological functioning of organisms and their habitat, a humanistic affection and emotional bonding with animals, a moralistic concern for ethical relations with the natural world, a naturalistic interest in experiencing direct contact with wildlife and the outdoors, a symbolic use of animals and nature for communication and thought, a utilitarian interest in pragmatically exploiting wildlife and nature, and a negativistic avoidance of animals and the natural environment for reasons of fear, dislike, or indifference.
The development of this typology of basic values facilitated the measurement of the American public's attitudes toward wildlife and its conservation. During the course of this research and many subsequent studies since, it became more and more apparent that these patterns of thought might reflect universal dispositions toward nature somewhat independent of group affiliation, history, and culture. Indeed, the ubiquitous expression of the values suggested they might constitute basic tendencies—tendencies rooted in the biological character of the human species despite the molding and shaping influence of learning and experience.
As these views developed, I encountered the work of the American biologist Edward O. Wilson, particularly his writings on sociobiology and the concept of biophilia. Wilson defines biophilia as people's "innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." Could it be that my typology of basic values reflected a physical, emotional, and intellectual tendency among humans to affiliate with nature and living diversity? The values may, in other words, have developed during the long course of evolutionary time because of their functional significance. A subsequent book edited by Wilson and myself, The Biophilia Hypothesis, further elaborated this human affinity for life shaped by the formative influence of experience, learning, and culture.
Many implications stem from the notion that people have a fundamental physical, emotional, and intellectual dependence on nature and living diversity. Above all, the meaningful and satisfying experience of these values may represent a vital expression of healthy human functioning and relationship to the natural world. Conversely, the erosion of this dependence on nature might signify considerable risk to humans materially, affectively, cognitively, and even spiritually. Most discussions of the harmful impacts of the species extinctions occurring annually—currently estimated at 15,000 to 30,000—have focused on the loss of material benefits to people such as fewer medicines, agricultural products, or diminished ecosystem functioning. These losses certainly represent substantial threats to human well-being, but the biophilia notion suggests that far more may be at stake than just the diminution of people's material options. The degradation of life on earth might also signify the possibility of diminished emotional and intellectual well-being and capacity.
This book delineates these basic values of living diversity, their presumed importance to the realization of human functioning, and the threat posed by the current biodiversity crisis to our species' physical, emotional, and intellectual experience. Chapter 2 offers a detailed description of the nine basic values of animals and nature and connects these perceptions to human evolutionary development. The current large-scale loss of biological diversity is described, as well, particularly its possible impact on our fundamental dependence on nature and wildlife.
Although these basic values are depicted as inborn biological tendencies, they are greatly influenced by learning, culture, and experience. Part Two of the book considers the modifying effect on the content and expression of these values exerted by human demography, activity, relationship to varying species, and culture. Chapter. 3 examines value differences in American society, particularly among different age, gender, education, occupation, urban/rural, and ethnic groups. Chapter 4 explores the influence of diverse animal-related experiences on perceptions of nature and wildlife including hunting, birding, zoos, television and film viewing, and abusing animals. The effect of diverse species on the human psyche is examined in Chapter 5, illustrated by attitudes toward wolves, whales, and invertebrates, insects in particular. Part Two concludes by assessing the role of culture in Chapter 6, especially value differences among Eastern and Western societies, the world's great industrial superpowers (the United States, Japan, and Germany), and views among developing non-Western nations, illustrated by Botswana.
The book's final section, Part Three, considers the application of understanding human values of living diversity in a variety of policy and management contexts. The complex problem of endangered species protection is examined in Chapter 7. Chapter 8 explores the general challenge of conserving biological diversity—particularly human competition and exploitation of biological resources in both rural and urban settings—and the need to develop more effective wildlife management institutions and structures.
The book's final chapter focuses on the indispensable role of education and ethics if we are to reduce the current hemorrhaging of life on earth. This chapter returns to the initial consideration of how people depend on a vast complex of subtle relationships with nature and living diversity to achieve lives rich in meaning and value. Modern society has embraced a dangerous illusion in coming to believe it can live apart from nature. Our ethical and institutional structures must acknowledge instead how much human life depends on healthy relationships with nature and living diversity. We need to relearn Henry Beston's suggestion of a half century ago:
Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature's inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man.CHAPTER 2
THIS CHAPTER describes the basic values of nature and explains their adaptational significance in human development. Although these values are rooted in human biology, as noted earlier, they are shaped by the formative influence of experience, learning, and culture. Indeed, the values may be expressed in diverse ways, and in the next several chapters, we will examine the shaping influence of demography, activity, culture, and species on people's basic perceptions of nature and living diversity.
Our human identity and fulfillment depend to a great extent on the satisfactory expression of these values of living diversity. The notion of biophilia, as we shall see, suggests that each of these values reflects a profound human craving for affiliating with nature and wildlife. The erosion or dysfunctional expression of these values can lead to a deprived and diminished existence. Without society's support and reinforcement, the values may manifest themselves marginally, but as elements of human biology they will remain frustrated. This may explain our current vicious cycle: society's denial of the importance of a rich and rewarding relationship with nature contributes to the extinction crisis, which, in turn, further alienates people from the natural world.
Nine Basic Values
The relationship between the values, the notion of biophilia, and the current large-scale loss of biological diversity will be discussed later in the chapter. But before turning to this complex relationship, the nine basic values of nature and living diversity need to be described. Each value is given a descriptive name in the following order of presentation: utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, dominionistic, humanistic, moralistic, and negativistic. These terms are just labels of convenience, however, not terminological straitjackets. And although their progression reflects a certain narrative logic, it is not meant to indicate their order of importance.
The utilitarian value emphasizes the many ways humans derive material benefit from the diversity of life. The term "utilitarian" represents something of a misnomer, however, as all the values have utility insofar as they reflect some benefit to people. The conventional idea of utilitarian used here reflects the traditional notion of material benefit derived from exploiting nature to satisfy various human needs and desires.
Many plant and animal species provide material benefits to people in the form of food, medicine, clothing, tools, and other products. Most people recognize this dependence in nonindustrial societies, particularly among preliterate tribal hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and others. Yet many developing nations still derive most of their output from extracting and exploiting wild living resources. Even industrially advanced countries such as Japan secure much of their food from exploiting wild fish stocks, and nearly 5 percent of the American economy has been found to derive from utilizing wild living species.
Recent years have seen an expanded appreciation of the utilitarian value of nature and living diversity—particularly the future benefits that might be obtained from exploiting the genetic, biochemical, and physical properties of plant and animal species, many of them still insufficiently studied. We are beginning to recognize, too, the undiscovered significance of various obscure and unknown species. Only a small fraction of the many plants containing alkaloids, for example, an organic compound possessing anticancer properties, have been tested for their possible medicinal use. It has been estimated that some 25 to 40 percent of the world's current pharmaceutical products originated in a wild plant or animal species, and much of today's agricultural production depends on genetic improvement by a dwindling reservoir of wild plants.
Excerpted from The Value of Life by Stephen R. Kellert. Copyright © 1996 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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