Fables about biodiversity (etc)?

Continuing my review of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996), we come to Chapter 7 – regarding (what they called) the “brownlash’s” dismissal of concerns over biodiversity; threatened and endangered species; and species going extinct. Being Americans, the Ehrlichs discuss this matter with repeated reference to the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, as I pointed out a few days ago, the US having been the model for nearly all modern environmental legislation, the ESA has been replicated (in all but name) in many other developed countries around the world. As the Ehrlichs point out, the ESA “lends itself to a simplistic us-versus-them mentality. After all, what’s more important – the economic wellbeing of people or the existence of a single species of owl, or snail, or butterfly?” (p.107). However, as the Ehrlich’s also point out, the ESA protects entire habitats that are known to contain endangered species. Unfortunately, for those inclined to object to the ESA, they will object either way; whether protection is demanded upon the basis of a single species or an entire ecosystem. After all, if nature has no intrinsic value, why should we not destroy it if it gets in the way of progress, right? Wrong. Such anthropocentric thinking is what caused the Easter Islanders to become extinct. Even if you dispute the fact that nature has intrinsic value (i.e. that which it would have even if we were not here to observe it), you cannot (or should not) dispute the fact that it has inherent value; not just instrumental value. That is to say, humanity should (but often fails to) recognise that, even if we are not actually using nature’s resources (i.e. depleting them), they are performing useful (if not essential) functions. The technical term for these are ecosystem services; the most obvious of which is photosynthesis. However, healthy, photosynthesising plants don’t support themselves; they are dependent upon entire ecosystems that include bacteria, fungi, insects – indeed an entire food web – to ensure that the building blocks of life and nutrients (i.e. carbon, nitrogen, etc) are continually recycled. (If viewing this before 14 December 2011 – do watch the BBC’s After Life programme showing time lapse video of decaying food.) One of the most astonishing assertions of the brownlash is that we should not be concerned about habitat destruction because “[o]nly a small portion of the Earth has been altered significantly by men and women” (Gregg Easterbrook, 1995). Is this guy for real? Surely, by 1995, only a small portion of the Earth had not been significantly altered by humanity? Today, arguably, even the Arctic and Antarctica, and the entire Oceans are being altered by human activity; there is literally no part of the planet that we are not affecting. Yet again, based on current patterns of resource consumption, derogation and pollution – including the ongoing impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels not seen for 35 million years – this is clear evidence of human overpopulation. Another common brownlash argument points to the fact that we do not even know how many species there are on Earth, so how can we know how many we have lost and/or whether their loss is significant? However, once again, this argument ignores the concept of ecosystem services. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that by rapidly destroying entire habitats, we do not allow time for populations of species to migrate or adapt. Therefore, even if we are not actually there to witness the last individuals expire; we can be fairly certain that habitat elimination will lead to species extinction. However, I think the most compelling argument put forward for the retention, if not strengthening, of the ESA – rather than any brownlash appeal for it to be weakened, regularly over-ridden, got-around, or repealed – is that put forward by Edward O Wilson, who once famously described insects and other invertebrates as “the little things that run the world“. Because they thought Wilson’s words were so important, the Ehrlichs quoted them at length but, in essence, his point was that “we need invertebrates but they don’t need us” (quoted on p.121). In our arrogance, we humans like to think of ourselves as the masters of our environment. Sitting as we do at the top of the evolutionary tree or – for those of an ascientific persuasion – the top of the food chain, we like to think of ourselves as the supreme being on our planet. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that we are in fact the least important species on it. If we were not here, because none of them are dependent upon us for anything, the rest of the lifeforms on Earth (apart from a few domesticated pets) would probably not even notice if we disappeared. In fact, some species might even be better off. Actually, that is a bit unfair. As with any predator, our sudden removal would cause an imbalance – leading to a sudden explosion in the numbers of those species on which we rely heavily for food. That would probably not end well. However, the reality of the situation is much worse. Humans are not going to disappear, not without a long fight at very least. Unfortunately, our current activity is stressing ecosystems all around the planet and it is far more likely that we will – unless we radically change our collective behaviour – continue to inflict great stress on those ecosystems and, thereby, continue to cause species to go extinct. In doing so we are – almost literally – playing with fire; because we do not know exactly where nature’s breaking point is. At what point will ecosystems fail? I tell you something; this is a game I don’t want to play anymore… What about you?


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Arctic, Betrayal of Science and Reason, Climate Science, Economics, Environment, Ethics, Limits to Growth, Mass Extinctions, Philosophy, Politics, Scepticism, Sustainable development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fables about biodiversity (etc)?

  1. pendantry says:

    leading to a sudden explosion in the numbers of those species on which we rely heavily for food You might be right, but something about that doesn’t sit right with me. If humanity suddenly upped and buggered off (in, say, three massive space arks) or all died from a virulent humans-only disease contracted from a dirty telephone* then I suspect that many of the beasts we’d leave behind, those on which we rely as food, wouldn’t do very well at all. Many of them are so domesticated that they rely heavily on us. Cows need daily milking, for instance. And of course many of them are penned up and would probably starve to death. The vultures would have a field day. I wonder how Old Jules’s cats and chickens would manage? (Please don’t let any of this playful trivia detract from the fact that I agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of your post: ecosystems are in collapse all over the planet as a result of our arrogant interference). * Apologies to Douglas Adams


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