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Threatened species: we’re failing on morality and policy

Extinction is a diminution of the natural legacy that we have inherited. It is a breach of the duty we have for inter-generational equity – that we should pass to our descendants a world as rich, intact…

We need to change the moral system that lets us off the hook for species extinction. Kelly Garbato

Extinction is a diminution of the natural legacy that we have inherited. It is a breach of the duty we have for inter-generational equity – that we should pass to our descendants a world as rich, intact and functional as that we were given.

In his Quarterly Review essay, Tim Flannery notes that extinction is also an irredeemable stain on our soul. But souls have little currency in a largely selfish society, structured by economics and law; and Tim’s argument about soul, regrettably, has too little moral impetus.

Should we have and accept a responsibility for the maintenance of all species? Unhappily, the basis in western ethics and religion for such a proposition is weak.

Some Christian philosophers, such as Henry More, recognised that God “takes pleasure that all his creatures enjoy themselves, that have life and sense.” Thomas Aquinas thought that, regardless of man’s treatment of the individuals of any species, God would ensure that the species as a whole would not be destroyed.

Aquinas liked the idea of life’s diversity: “Although an angel, considered absolutely, is better than a stone, nevertheless two natures are better than one only; and therefore a Universe containing angels and other things is better than one containing angels only.” And then, of course, there was Noah.

But such arguments amount to a weak and subordinate historical thread. In his 1974 book, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, John Passmore reviewed historical attitudes to the natural world. He concluded that there was a long-established unconcern for other species. Instead, there is a pervasive historical current that humanity stands apart from, and is superior to, other species; that non-human forms of life are purposed for our use and have no established rights.

This argument is in Plato’s Scala Naturae, with humans alone in perfection on the top rung of the ladder of life. It is in Descartes’ conception that nature is nothing but matter, and that our thinking alone elevates us beyond that matter. It is in Moses’ framework that restricts moral concerns only to dealings amongst humans and their property.

Aristotle claimed that “plants are created for the sake of animals, and the animals for the sake of men”. From at least the Stoic philosophers onwards, there has also been a belief that to accord other species some rights would be to undermine our civilisation: “human life would become quite impossible if men thought of themselves as governed in their relationships with animals by moral considerations".

Marx considered the “great civilising influence of capital” lay in its rejection of the “deification of nature”, happily allowing “nature (to become) simply an object for mankind, purely a matter for utility".

From such a pervasive and enduring premise, our primary responsibility is seen to focus on our own species’ immediate well-being. Interest in or care for other species is a far more peripheral indulgence mediated in part by the extent to which such species may be of use or attractive to us. Extinctions of “inconsequential” species are an inevitable and little-mourned consequence of such a world view.

So, there is little in our inherited moral framework that ordains a responsibility to prevent extinction. The legal and policy basis is also insecure.

The key international conservation strategy (Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Targets) includes the target “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented”. The South Australian conservation strategy is boldly titled “No species loss …”. But there is no comparable commitment to maintain all native plants and animals in the Australian constitution, national environmental legislation, or national biodiversity conservation strategy.

Without such an over-riding objective, further extinctions will be tolerated meekly; they will not be seen as they should be, as policy or management failures.

The exclusion of such commitment in Australia’s biodiversity strategy reflects the application of a zealous change in government policy: that attention to “losers” is an unprofitable diversion from the main game of broad-scale landscape conservation. It is a naïve polarity; for both approaches are necessary.

Under a policy umbrella that obviates the need to seek resolutely to prevent extinctions, many conservation scientists have embraced triage - that limited resources should be directed to only those species that will most economically repay investment. Others have devised elaborate algorithms to measure the relative worth of species, arguing that in a staged environmental retreat, low priority species are the most expendable.

All such filtering mechanisms amount to abrogation of responsibility. We should have the resources, skill and obligation to conserve all components of biodiversity. Furthermore, once we start sacrificing the least-wanted species, we start on a gradational scale of irresponsibility that will inevitably compound. It is a fatal compromise; a weakening of our moral fabric. We will increasingly lose the ethical integrity to fight for and secure the remaining species. It is like the dirty war:

First, we must kill all subversives; then their sympathizers; then those who are indifferent; and finally, we must kill all those who are timid.

Tim Flannery’s article considers a range of management and resourcing measures that may reduce the incidence of extinctions. But the problem is far more deep-rooted. We must change a moral system that constrains acceptance of the rights of other species and fails to accept a responsibility for the maintenance of life’s diversity; and we must re-calibrate environmental legislation and policy to match that responsibility.