Life in the Anthropocene

The conservative bioethics blog Secondhand Smoke just ran a piece by Wesley Smith called “Human Beings a Mass Extinction Event! So What?”, making this claim:

If we do cause a mass extinction and we thrive anyway–so what? What difference does it make if we kill off species if they don’t do us any material good?  It just means more earth for us.

The author goes on to defend the Dominion-as-stewardship thesis (itself defended by people as diverse as Matthew Scully and E.O. Wilson), but the question itself got me thinking about tactics, framing, and environmental activism.

While at the Fletcher School studying international environmental policy, I was struck by how often multilateral treaties danced around the issue of nonhuman animal worth – issues concerning conservation and biodiversity preservation are almost always framed anthropocentrically: rainforests are a reservoir of potential bioprospecting resources, aesthetic human value, carbon sinks, etc. In other words, delegates were being ‘utilitarian conservationists’ (read: Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt) rather than ‘biocentric preservationists’ (read: John Muir).

(I suspect that many of the delegates to the Stockholm Declaration and the Rio Summit believed in the inherent – rather than merely instrumental – worth of other animals. But they knew that they had to sell their negotiated language to publics and to politicians.)

This question of how to frame nature is hotly debated, and recently headlines seem to show that quantification is winning out. I’ve struggled with the quantification of qualitative and otherwise incommensurable or indeterminate goods. Asking ‘how much money is a pig’s preference to root worth’ is a different question from ‘how much money would consumer x be willing to pay (WTP)’. The second can be answered, albeit with various statistical caveats; the first can only be answered in the same way that an average American citizen’s life is apparently worth seven million dollars.

Does the cause of conservation benefit from such quantification? When we say that ecosystem services provide enormous monetary benefit (which they undeniably do, in the form of air and water purification, flood protection, etc.), are we reshaping the public discourse to the detriment of the nonhuman animal world? Or are we merely acknowledging the dominance of public choice-type thinking in our policy paradigm? I don’t know, but I do know the anthropocene is hurtling us towards a future where most of the animals we’ll see in zoos might be extinct in the wild.

I don’t understand why these questions of worth have to be all or nothing. But then again, I tend much more towards utilitarianism than deontology, and am skeptical of the very concept of inherent value.

One response to “Life in the Anthropocene

  1. I’m still learning from you, while I’m making my way to the top as well. I certainly enjoy reading everything that is written on your website.Keep the posts coming. I loved it!

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