Why Extinctions Really Matter
Obsessed with instrumental value, our society fails to embrace a fundamental truth about why destroying other life is wrong
ARTICLES ABOUT the extinction crisis invariably cater to our egotistical selves. The reasoning is that people will only protect what is useful to them. Only that which has instrumental value. “Use it or lose it,” as my wildlife professor used to say.
Our society adheres to this “wildlife management” ideology even for endangered species. We can grow, cull, manipulate, and control wild animals, plants, and other organisms to our heart’s content. We can manage to save some species here and there, to the extent that these efforts don’t conflict with our economic development and social goals.
Consider the basic content of typical articles on extinction:
Animals on the brink: Why extinctions matter by Robin Hicks
Pharmaceuticals derived from plants and genetic knowledge are threatened; loss of one species could impact others; there is much to be discovered from life that may go extinct; extinction worries animal lovers.
“If the current rate of extinction continues we could lose most species by 2200. The implication for human health and wellbeing is dire, but not inevitable…Species loss also erodes the services biodiversity provides us [carbon sequestration, pollination, ecosystem integrity that supports us, etc.]”
Should some species be allowed to die out? by Jennifer Kahn
Species have economic value and “may act as a repository of potential discoveries: new materials that mimic the strength of spider silk; drones modeled after insects; an anticancer drug derived from Amazonian moss.” The Akikiki, an endangered Hawaiian bird, “does not appear to play a crucial role in the ecosystem…it’s hard to argue that their loss impoverishes our experience of the world.”
The message is quite clear: Save wildlife from extinction because or when it benefits us.
Unfortunately, under this conservation paradigm, extinctions of wildlife have increased, and will worsen. Wildlife with no clear use for people, which includes most of it, is at highest risk of being wiped out.
Utilitarian Conservation Dooms Wildlife
Let’s face it, the argument that species are useful and therefore shouldn’t be extinguished has not motivated society to do what it takes to safeguard wildlife and biodiversity. Sure, cost-effective measures to prevent extinctions and population declines are welcome, but the instrumental value of wildlife isn’t sufficiently high to justify any major change to the way we exploit Earth.
Few citizens and far fewer political leaders are up in arms over ecological attrition and the drip-drip loss of species. Even when a billion wild animals are burned alive, society only briefly takes note. Besides, if worse comes to worst, we humans have great faith in our creative ability to find substitutions and replacements for lost “natural resources,” wildlife included.
If a medicine is derived from a nearly extinct plant, we can replicate its beneficial chemicals and produce them in a lab. If helpful insects go extinct, we can replace them with drones. Exotic tree plantations can more or less substitute for diverse native forests. Genetically modified organisms will save the day. Why we might even “resurrect” extinct species to replace what’s lost. And on and on.
Never mind whether these “substitutions” actually happen or are effective. What matters is the expectation that our cleverness, our mighty science and technology, will compensate for what’s lost to us through extinction. Besides, trying to prevent most extinctions is often a costly and losing battle. Many argue that our economic resources should be devoted to feeding and housing the world’s poor, developing transportation infrastructure, increasing space exploration or building up military defense, not expended on protecting wildlife in a natural world that arguably no longer exists.
In short, don’t expect an end to extinctions with a utilitarian attitude toward wildlife. “Use it and lose it” is the reality.
A Fundamental Truth
Given ongoing extinctions of wildlife, let’s ask if there is something basically wrong with the way we think about conservation. My belief is that we are losing the battle against extinction not only because of failure to devote sufficient resources to it — but primarily because our society has ignored a most basic reason as to why extinctions are bad.
In today’s arguably more compassionate world, it’s strange that environmental writers need to repeatedly explain to us “why extinctions matter.” The answer is staring us in the face. Our failure to see it proves just how out of touch we are with life itself.
If you ask people why their lives matter, you will almost certainly get answers that boil down to “I matter because I matter to me, or to someone else.” That’s what our subconscious tells us. That intuition is what drives not just us but all life.
Every living being experiences the world through interactions between its physical self and its environment. Life responds favorably to some things, and negatively to others. There’s good stuff and bad stuff, but overall there’s net “happiness” — a joie de vivre so to speak. That’s what motives life to thrive. It’s what we might call inherent worth.
All life is rewarded for feeding, drinking, sheltering, thinking, mating, playing, and otherwise being active. There are complex biochemical, physiological, neurological, psychological, and/or behavioral mechanisms involved.
As the late environmental philosopher Paul Taylor put it, “Each organism is seen to be a teleological [goal-oriented] centre of life, pursing its own good in its own unique way.” This view is at the core of why life—and extinction—matter.
What is it like to experience life as a deer, a coral polyp, or a giant sequoia? It’s impossible to say exactly. Whether you are catching photons and carbon dioxide for food, or eating someone else, the basic imperative to live and thrive is nevertheless the same. It is a precious phenomenon of life deserving of great respect.
Individual lives matter each moment, but what matters universally is the collective experience of their kind. Extinguish a species and a unique manner of existence is gone forever. Every school kid, every writer, and every video game addict should understand that fundamental truth. It ought to be everyone’s gut response to the question of why extinctions matter.
What Can We Do?
Shift the extinction narrative. Every environmentalist, conservation writer, and wildlife advocate needs to inform society on why extinguishing other life, through malice or negligence, is inherently wrong. We can enlighten others on the intrinsic worth of other life before discussing its practical value to us. We can urge people to see life through the “eyes” of other creatures, and help them understand the concept “good of their own.” We can remind people that we don’t evaluate fellow humans, or the human race as a whole, exclusively in terms of their usefulness. So let’s not judge wildlife that way.
Dispel human supremacy. The ideology of human supremacy justifies treatment of other life for whatever purpose people see fit. In my view, it originates from a religious belief of human dominion over other life and from secular thinking that “might makes right.” We can explain that all life is God’s creation and none should be extinguished. And that our sense of superiority is shallow and self-appointed. We can point out how humankind is not an isolated entity but rather part of an extended family of life. Let’s nudge society away from extreme anthropocentrism and encourage an ecocentric worldview.
Promote ecological justice. Making conservation a top social and economic priority is a matter of justice, explains Anna Wienhues, author of Ecological Justice and the Extinction Crisis. Let’s challenge the crazy notion that wildlife is property or just another “resource.” Extending legal rights to wildlife won’t be easy— but it’s certainly not impossible.
I’d like to end on a short personal note. Yesterday, while out hiking, a large group of radio-collared dogs came running up to me, followed by guys loaded with wearable technology. They probably had a state permit for “training” hounds to go after mountain lions and bobcats that later might be relocated and shot for trophies. To everyone’s shock, within a stone’s throw, the dogs suddenly flushed a mountain lion who was resting in the afternoon sunshine of a winter’s day. The men followed the radio signals and loud barking to a forested cove, thrilled to locate the treed lion and their frenzied dogs.
The incident sobered me up as to the difficulty we face in convincing people to consider the lives of other animals and limit putting themselves first. The good news is that you and I are here, dear friends, and part of society too — and we’re wiling and able to speak in defense of all life. Fortunately, mountain lions in my neck of the woods are not threatened with extinction. But that’s beside the point.