Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Is an ethic of biodiversity enough?

The environmental crisis has never loomed so large nor been so extensively debated as in the last few years. But at the same time we have never heard less about environmental ethics - the bio-inclusive…

We’re happy to kill individual creatures in large numbers - what’s stopping us wiping out the biosphere? Darren Harmon

The environmental crisis has never loomed so large nor been so extensively debated as in the last few years. But at the same time we have never heard less about environmental ethics - the bio-inclusive perspective that insists on moral consideration not only for humankind but for the legions of other species who share the planet with us.

It is assumed the survival of humanity itself is ultimately dependent on the ecological integrity of the biosphere and therefore that no special pleading is required for ecosystems or other species in their own right.

But is this assumption correct? While the biosphere does currently provide essential life support for human civilisation, it is not inconceivable that we might in due course devise artificial systems that mimic the functionality of ecological systems, making natural ecologies superfluous.

Exemplified in solar cities that photosynthesise and industrial aggregates that cycle water and carbon, such “genetic architecture” would be sensitive to context and co-adaptive and in that sense as sustainable as the natural systems on which it was modelled. There is no reason in principle why an entire global urban-industrial formation should not ultimately usurp the biosphere altogether, replacing it with a “new nature" designed by humans exclusively for humans.

Such a post-ecological civilisation might perhaps retain teams of “service species”, whose only purpose would be to satisfy human needs and wants, while all other species would prove dispensable in favour of artificial systems that mimicked the life support currently supplied by the biosphere.

If the fate of non-human species is in our hands, and we can survive perfectly well without (most of) them, then our decision whether or not to conserve them is indeed a moral one: would it be wrong for us to replace the living biosphere with artificial systems of our own?

Presumably most of us would consider this wrong. But why? It is not considered wrong in modern societies to kill or displace organisms on a vast scale to sustain and service humanity. Indeed, biocide, in the sense of the mass destruction of living things, is the very premise of the process of development that is in full swing across the globe.

Habitat is routinely destroyed, environments contaminated, wildlife stripped from the oceans for human consumption and slaughtered on land for trivial human ends while domestic animals are enslaved and tortured in factory farms. “Pest” creatures like bacteria, cockroaches and fungus are happily put to the sword. Biophobia is the foundation of contemporary civilisation.

So if the mass destruction of (non-human) life is considered morally acceptable, why would we baulk at the more wholesale destruction of the biosphere?

The intuition that runs through public debate in this connection seems to be that we do have a moral obligation to life, but not to individual living things: we may destroy organisms and communities and populations with impunity provided we do not in the process extinguish entire species or forms of life.

This de facto though usually implicit environmental ethic enters public discourse through the scientific category of biodiversity. Biodiversity functions in public and policy discourse not merely descriptively but also prescriptively: it is treated not only as a fact of ecology but a value to be protected.

The coherence of such an ethic of biodiversity may be questioned on two counts, the first moral, the second, ecological.

  1. If living things are not considered morally entitled to protection in their own right, as our acceptance of biocide implies, then why should species matter? True, a diversity of species is necessary for a healthy biosphere; but if the biosphere turns out to be relatively expendable for human purposes, and we don’t value living things in the first place, then we have no reason to conserve species.

  2. From the viewpoint of an ethic of biodiversity, the ethical trigger for environmental intervention is species endangerment: we are ethically called to intervene to prevent extinction. But taken to its logical conclusion, this makes little ecological sense. For if nothing is protected until it becomes endangered, then only remnants and “last things” will eventually remain. Viable ecologies cannot be constituted out of such remnants: attrition will inevitably occur. Ecology is premised on abundance: tens of thousands of seeds are produced to replace a single organism; huge populations are required as buffers against environmental set-backs and contingencies. At the individual level, organisms may indeed compete for scarce resources, but at the population level, plenitude is the rule: nature operates with large numbers.

If we are ethically committed to saving the biosphere then, we cannot depend on an ethic of biodiversity. Biophobia must be renounced and an ethic of respect for life in general embraced. Instead of continuing to put pressure on the biosphere, stopping short only at the point of endangerment of species, we should be seeking to optimise the populations of all species, including our own, relative only to the internal constraints imposed by the checks and balances inherent in ecosystems.

Ecological optimisation of the human population would entail dramatic reduction, since our present population has been achieved at massive cost to other populations. This reduction would not be a matter merely of numbers however, but of offsetting the ecological costs of human activity against any positive inputs that a technologically reformed civilization might make into global ecology.

A viable environmental ethic based on the optimisation of species-populations would lead to a question modern society has so far failed to ask, the question of proportionality: how much human presence is enough? How much is compatible not merely with preservation of species but with abundance of populations?

If we are to save the biosphere we need to acknowledge that the biosphere requires ethical consideration in its own right, and that a mere ethic of biodiversity will not do the job. An adequate environmental ethic will rest on a generalised respect for life that will give rise to a principle of bio-proportionality - the ecological optimisation of populations. Anything less than this will only undermine the prospects for nonhuman life on earth by masking or colluding with a lethal biophobia.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

41 Comments sorted by

  1. Greynomad Travelling

    logged in via Facebook

    As nature is removed, crime increases. There is a balance between nature and humanity which works well when maintained...Without the beauty and calm of nature people lose their perspective.

    report
  2. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    A very good article Freya.

    But how do we move forward? It appears to me that when ever we, as a society, discuss anything, we polarise and have eternal battles (thankfully without weapons). Winning the battle becomes more important than the original argument. How can we change/evolve while engaging this default tribalistic behaviour?

    @ Greynomad. I'm pretty sure that levels of violence in our society are much lower than anything we find in history. I am not seeing a correlation between removal of nature and increased violence. Not sure about crime generally.

    report
    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Michael Croft

      I strongly suspect that the apparent overall reduction of human violence (the Steven Pinker 'Better Angels' argument) has a great deal to do with greater prosperity and better education, and, in so far as it is happening, is happening DESPITE the 'loss of nature'.

      It's not necessarily an either/or question. My best guess is that we could probably say that, on the whole, we have been getting better, but there ar still quite a few negative forces dragging against our progress and the damage done by 'biophobia' is one of them.

      report
    2. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Greater prosperity and education are but part of the equation, research in The Spirit Level http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spirit-Level-Equality-Better-Everyone/dp/0241954290 indicates that violence drops as equity increases, and that equity is the more important factor in reducing all manner of social ills.

      And you are right, it isn't an either/or question. However. ultimately "there is no future for humanity on a dead planet".

      report
    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Michael - very happy to meet you at that point (particularly given that the feeling of 'prosperity' is a highly subjective thing and there's solid psychological evidence that our typical way of calibrating our expectations is through comparing ourselves with those around us!)

      report
  3. Paul Wittwer

    Orchardist

    Great article. A culture of Respect for Life would represent a huge step forward in mankind's growth as a sentient species.
    We are at present a rapacious species, acting on primitive instincts of self preservation which manifests as greed and destruction of the natural world and each other.
    We are a plague on the Earth while having the technical means not to be.
    What we lack is the wisdom and the culture, the complete sentience required to limit our numbers in the first place let alone limiting our per capita consumption or sharing resources fairly.
    What we lack is a Respect for Life.
    Hopefully we will come of age as a species and learn Respect for Life before the biosphere delivers a catastophic series of culls over the next 30 years or so.

    report
  4. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor at Wound CRC

    While the concept of a synthetic biosphere is to me extremely unpleasant, we do place artificial value on biodiversity. Through the history of the earth, there have been many extinctions and recoveries and reshaping of the biosphere. Ideally we should be deciding on the sort of environment we want to live in and work towards that. Hopefully it will be one where the beauty and calm of nature can be found. We already deliberately and knowingly put in place processes aimed at the removal of species from the earth in addition to the accidental extinctions. Rather than trying to preserve biodiversity in totality (which we cannot achieve), we do need to take a more pragmatic approach and preserve what we need and want to preserve and can achieve with the resources available to us.

    report
  5. Tom Jackson

    Pastoralist

    How can we have an academic ethic? Surely all our moral principles arise from our interactions. And the vast majority of the world's population, especially in the developed world, live in a manner that isolates them from nature. Hunter gatherers lived in intimate association with nature and had ethics or moral principles which recognised the importance of other creatures and plants. Just look at the systems which Aboriginal people had developed.
    Right from the beginning of Agriculture this interdependence began to break down until today we only recognise it in an academic way, and talk about the beauty or peacefulness of nature.
    That isn't what nature is.

    report
    1. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Tom Jackson

      Many of us do travel "into nature" and have natural experiences - kind of like a theme park.

      I go into a forest here on the Central Coast of NSW and see bell-miner dieback killing thousands of hectares of trees and halting tree-hollow formation processes (for owls and possums to live in), along with infestations of lantana, camphor laurel and privet. But most people hear the bellbirds and say how beautiful it is and have a wonderful nature experience....

      Not that isn't what nature is.

      report
    2. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to Tom Jackson

      Australian Aboriginal people like all hunter gathers and a lot of forest dwelling people placed limits on their rates of reproduction and their lifespans were limited too. Their dependance on natural resources and their immediate environment was total. Sadly our society in general is doing just the opposite, aided by improvements in medicine, support services, baby bonuses etc. The general conversation appears unwilling to address any issue which asks for consideration of other species than our own, let alone our dependence on the natural world for survival...it is just crazy to suggest that humans could exist without a healthy functioning biosphere.

      What's to do about that, then?

      report
    3. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Georgina Byrne

      I was also thinking of making that point Georgina. Perhaps the over-reproduction of homo sapiens sapiens was inspired by the development of agriculture. Having many children, eg 10 per woman, I suspect would not be do-able for hunter gatherers. They probably killed babies and had ways of aborting pregnancy. But with agriculture, more mouths to feed is not as much of a problem, and more hands to work the land is an advantage. Just thinking ...

      report
  6. Michael Croft

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thank you Freya and well said. There are very few "universal truths" and one of them is that a systems resilience is directly proportionate to the breadth and depth of diversity within the system. So if a resilient biosphere is what we desire/need, we need bio-proportionality to enter the lexicon - but perhaps it may be easier to say bio-balance or some-such?

    report
  7. Ted Black

    Retired

    I suspect that we underestimate the irrational impulses that drive much human behaviour, and logically expecting humans to voluntarily limit their reproduction is doomed to failure, as we are evolutionarily designed to reproduce our genes. We, like most organisms, will expand until resources limit further growth.

    report
  8. John Troughton

    ANU Alumni

    Entities, "artificial systems that mimic the functionality of ecological systems, making natural ecologies superfluous" have been and will be devised to be sustainable and are being implemented on earth and potentially on water and in space. The concept of human carrying capacity of the earth has to be revisited. Concentration of these entities on limited land areas would release land to focus on optimising the remaining ecological systems for whatever reason society may wish.

    report
  9. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    Interesting concept, and no doubt technically possible. However in such a closed system, what chance of survival if a contagious disease was introduced?

    Would it be possible for humans to live in such an environment? Though theoretically possible, is it possible for humans to adapt to such an environment?

    I could not happily live in a high rise. To live without the weather, the fluctuations, the birds, insects, what a soulless existence it would be.

    report
  10. Les McNamara

    Researcher

    Aren't we just going around in circles if we argue that 'ecological optimisation of populations' is a response to 'lethal biophobia'?

    The obvious conundrum here is that to achieve 'bio-proportionality', we need to kill some introduced 'pest' species en masse, ad infinitum - or at least until non-lethal controls are found. This seems to be at odds to the authors views on 'biophobia' and 'respect for life in general'. How many cats, foxes and rabbits are 'enough'? How do we 'optimise' the population of those species without putting many of them to 'the sword'?

    And who decides what is ecologically 'optimal'? Is an Australia with far more foxes and far fewer marsupials 'bio-proportional'?

    I don't see how this focus helps us make better decisions about how we manage or interact with individual animals, species, ecosystems or the biosphere.

    report
  11. Glenn McLaren

    Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

    Important article Freya. I teach Environmental Ethics at Swinburne. Arran Gare and i have been arguing for decades that environmental degradation is primarily an ethical problem rather than a scientific one. We have been largely ignored, however. In fact, just as humanity faces perhaps its deepest ethical problems universities are downsizing or obliterating philosophy departments and philosophy courses. This is because like much of society they have embraced utilitarianism. They believe that all…

    Read more
    1. Roger Simpson

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      I agree with your comments Glenn particularly about the urgency of the challenge. However, our ethics need to be based on an accurate understanding of ecology and how best we can function within it. Many of our ideologies discount the role of natural processes and our relationship to them. Neo-liberalism (or, I will do what I want and will not pick up the cheque) is another one of these. Most spiritual beliefs are similar in they are human focused being centered on our relationship to the deity, not natural processes. An ethic based on our examined understanding of ecology is probably the best place to start. That said we are inhibited through our distinct perspective as being part of the whole.

      report
    2. Mister Anderson

      Student

      In reply to Roger Simpson

      If ethics extended to future generations we could certainly not wipe out species with a healthy conscience.

      report
    3. Glenn McLaren

      Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Roger Simpson

      You're right Roger which is why we do as you suggest. We are process philosophers and so begin with a universe which is a dynamic whole within which structures, such as ourselves, emerge through the constraining of activity. Check out our journal Cosmosandhistory.org. I think you'll appreciate it.

      report
    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      Hey, cool - thanks for the reference to the online journal, Glenn - had a quick browse and it looks really interesting - I've added it to my favourites list for future pleasure!

      report
  12. David Choquenot

    Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra at University of Canberra

    The logic behind ecological ethics have been sliced-and-diced in a number of ways; usually to serve some underlying value-based view of the world. I personally find Callicott et al.'s (1999) use of "compositional" and "functional" views of biodiversity instructive and useful. However, irrespective of the basis for any particular dichotomy, these different perspectives are all challenged when confronted with a call on what "functional" includes, and what it does not. For example, I like knowing that…

    Read more
    1. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to David Choquenot

      I like your thinking and agree that there is no simple way to tackle the problems caused by the current level of human consumption and urbanisation. People will always be more moved by the plight of individual species even of individual animals and such sympathy is probably the only practical way to at least try to maintain some natural systems necessary for human well being as well as actual survival. Re "pest" species: several people have flagged the need to deliberately re-introduce large herbivores to the North of Australia to consume the grasses which are threatening...elephants/rhino maybe...we in "developed" Western society are too quick to label everyone/everything according to some fixed criteria of "value" assigned by we humans. I despair of those who spend their lives in a virtual reality...yet here I sit!

      report
  13. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    You write as if logic were the solution, Freya.

    Yet the majority of people are, arguably, too scared to be able to grasp the logic. As with a terrified individual, the reasoning faculties of the society close down and the organism reacts refexively according to established patterns.

    A terrified person cannot learn new reactions until the terror has subsided. It is probably the same for communities.

    You mention the logic of reducing human population in the short term. This is not only important…

    Read more
  14. Mister Anderson

    Student

    Hi Freya,

    Great article. I understand and respect your sentiments but (as an anthropocentric environmentalist) I'm not sure they stack up.

    You say that we might one day replace ecological services with technological ones. I disagree. The technology required to produce something along the lines of say the hydrological or atmospheric cycles, is so far beyond us it's certainly still in the realm of science fiction. I think that the ecological harm we're creating will long see humans extinct…

    Read more
  15. Peter Innes
    Peter Innes is a Friend of The Conversation.

    ag science research

    Taking arguments to their logical extremes, i.e. we continue on with no other species, or we try to preserve a reasonable proportion of all species, is an effective method of defining the bounds of the issue I think, so well done for that!

    In the real world it will most likely be the human needs for security, food, resources, not to mention the greed, envy, lust and those other human failings, that decide what species and how many really get to keep traveling on the ark!

    report
    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Innes

      Peter, there really are moments when I half wish all the other species would gang up on us, take us out the back and give us the good thumping we need to re-awaken our sense and sense!

      report
  16. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “An adequate environmental ethic will rest on a generalised respect for life that will give rise to a principle of bio-proportionality – the ecological optimisation of populations.”

    As a possible estimate, about 1 square mile of natural environment per person for long term sustainable living (and the environment would have to be on fertile soil, and the person’s consumption minimised as much as possible)

    A village of 100 would have to be surrounded by 100 acres of natural environment. A city of 1,000,000 would have to be surrounded by 1,000,000 acres of natural environment etc.

    report
    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Opps,

      A village of 100 would have to be surrounded by 100 square miles of natural environment. A city of 1,000,000 would have to be surrounded by 1,000,000 square miles of natural environment etc.

      report
  17. Susan Nuske

    Ecologist

    As with my nature-loving friends and colleagues, I believe I already have an appreciation and ethic in line with this 'bio-proportionality' concept. But changes in the ethical-morale of humans, let alone just our society, will inevitably swing with the majority. How do we start bringing these discussions into the consciences of the 'non-converted bio-phobic-ally aligned population'?

    From my observation, education of the endangered species provides awareness to the general public that the issue…

    Read more
    1. Les McNamara

      Researcher

      In reply to Susan Nuske

      "Bio-proportionality" seems to be roughly synonymous with "balance of nature". Most ecologists now believe that nature isn't 'balanced' and never was. I don't see how this "principle of bio-proportionality" is new or helpful?

      report
    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Les McNamara

      Les I am in agreement with you re: the balance of nature paradigm. With which I would include the idea of "climax communities". It does happen sometimes but not very often. But the whole national park/bush reserve management paradigm is based on that flawed principle, and are not working very well in maintaining biodiversity, which is not surprising in my opinion.

      This paper provides an interesting read:

      http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss1/art15/

      can you reference any others?

      report
    3. Susan Nuske

      Ecologist

      In reply to Les McNamara

      Thanks Les, I do understand that my comment can be interpreted that way. I was simply trying to use Freya's use of the term 'bio-proportionate', which I interpreted as more of a question of quantity rather than the quality of the ecosystem - how much nature is there, rather than whether this nature is in 'balance' with us and itself.

      Which leads to the ethical argument - if people have an appreciation for nature, for nature's sake, then may we see more effort to more areas of conservation rather than areas that we can 'optimise' for your purposes?

      report
    4. Les McNamara

      Researcher

      In reply to Susan Nuske

      The author said we should "optimise the populations of species, including our own, relative only to the internal constraints imposed by the checks and balances inherent in ecosystems".

      The 'balance of nature' is about "population equilibrium among organisms and their environments resulting from continuous interaction and interdependency"

      I can't see much difference between the two.

      In the dictionary, "Proportion" refers to "the comparative relation between things or magnitudes as to size, quantity, number, etc.; ratio".

      ...So "bio-proportionality" is presumably about striking the right "balance".

      This paradigm is many hundreds of years old and has been superseded (by ecologists) by the idea that "nature is dynamic and highly variable with open-ended trajectories contingent upon preceding events".

      Do we need a new word to describe an old and arguably redundant idea?

      report
  18. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Most people see the world in concentric circles of relationship. Family and close friends, other friends and colleagues, the wider community, the nation, and wider.

    Likewise, the circles centre on humanity and the wider world of other lifeforms are outer circles.

    There is a clear evolutionary logic to this way of looking at the world. It is bizarre to pretend that we can override this kind of worldview in most of the population through one specific kind of logic: that of "bio-proportionality…

    Read more
  19. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Hi Freya, thanks for the essay. I'm reading your "Reinhabiting Reality" right now & what a fantastic book it is yet apparently & not surprisingly generally under-appreciated. It's time will soon come! Though you relegated the hardwon insights of deep ecological feminism to the end notes i understand why & also appreciate how deeply commited you are to the necessity of formally yet creatively & innovatively arguing your passionate yet always reasoned case in the mainstream. The dilemma is that…

    Read more
  20. Noel Kelly

    logged in via Twitter

    "what’s stopping us wiping out the biosphere?"

    Wait for it, wait for it...

    report
  21. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    I am so glad I was pointed in the direction of this article. It dovetails with my thinking; for far too long humans have regarded themselves as not only apart from the rest of the world but paradoxically superior.

    In my Uni days I shared house with another student (a Commerce undergrad) who defined intelligence as being determined by which creature on this planet invented the combustion engine (ironically this man did not even know how to drive a car). We now all know where the fossil fuel industry has lead us.

    Living with the environment or at the expense of ecosystem Earth - is the choice really that difficult?

    report