Friday, August 19, 2005

Earth Last! Conservation as a Special Interest

What are we to make of the paper published in the top scientific journal Nature that advocates releasing wild animals from Africa on the Great Plains of America, because of their genetic similarity to animals that once roamed there but are long since extinct? The plan is striking in its audacity. But even more interesting is the unexamined goal of the authors. More and more scientists believe that the arrival of humans in North America coincided with the disappearance of most large mammals (think of the woolly mammoth or saber-tooth tiger), as has happened in many places over time. And African animals are apparently sufficiently similar that we can make things almost the way they were by carting these beasts across the Atlantic. While there is some formulaic rhetoric about preserving biodiversity, what the authors really believe is that their plan is a chance to undo the sin of Pleistocene humans in surviving.

If one is concerned about dangerous animals wreaking havoc throughout the previously tranquil Midwest, not to worry. Lead author and biologist Josh Donlan of Cornell University tells the BBC that "all of this will be science-driven." And if the hapless Dakotan proles are concerned about suffering the same fate as the occasional Californian who encounters a mountain lion, "There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions."

Why on earth should we be trying to promote the re-etablishment of the distribution of genotypes that prevailed thousands of years ago? The ease with which Prof. Donlan proposes upsetting and even endangering the lives of people unfortunate enough to live in the way of his plans, and with which he assumes that the fact that a "scientist" is in charge makes everything alright, is an example of a disturbing trend in much of the environmental left. This belief has also colonized some portion of scientific ecology, and views the human presence on the earth, especially as we remake it to serve our ends, as one gigantic mistake. Restoring large tracts of the earth to their pre-human state is taken to be a self-justifying moral imperative. When people (none of whom, one supposes, are conservation biologists) have to disrupt their plans and goals to avoid being eaten by a newly introduced lion thousands of miles from where it belongs (or to sell their land to promote biologists’ and environmentalists’ peculiar romantic attachment to the primitive), they have only themselves to blame for daring to remake the world to begin with.

To the extent that this kind of thinking reflects a well-constructed moral code (and there are often reasons for doubting that) it is a peculiar one. It suggests not just that the pristine, pre-human earth is a moral good in its own right, worthy of respect, but that what humans do to it in the course of pursuing happiness is unworthy of respect. But this is exactly backward. What humans do to the earth can only be judged by the criterion of how it affects other humans. The earth is not a moral actor capable of choices worthy of our respect. We cannot "protect" or "defend" or live in "harmony" with the earth, which is simply a gigantic ball moving through space. What we can do is think about how what we do to the earth affects other humans. (Whether animals deserve a place in our moral calculus is a more complex philosophical question.) It does not make sense to talk about preserving the earth without attaching that goal to some utilitarian end. As an example of what not to do, here is the list of alleged wildlands crises by the Sierra Club, about as mainstream an environmental organization as one is likely to find:

What's Been Lost: A Snapshot
• More than 95 percent of America's old-growth forests are gone.
• More than half of America's National Forest lands (52 percent) have been exploited by the timber, oil and mining industries.
• More than 90 percent of our prairies have been plowed under or paved over, and more than 99 percent of the tallgrass prairie is gone.
• More than half (52 percent) of America's wetlands have been drained and developed and the nation continues to lose more than 100,000 acres of wetlands per year.

The number of threats to our wildlands has increased dramatically in the last 100 years: pollution, oil and gas drilling, development, suburban sprawl and off-road vehicles have added to the damage done by logging, mining and overgrazing. Wild America is under siege.

It is not clear what is so special about “Wild America,” or why an “old growth forest” is inferior to plain old forests. It is often said that, primarily due to rising agricultural productivity, there is more total forest cover in the U.S. now than in 1900. (I have been unable to verify this factoid.) Some people like to look at old growth forest, and some people are happy from a great distance even knowing it is there. Some people couldn’t care less, and some people attach great value to the paper produced from tree farms. One of them, perhaps, will use it to sketch a great novel or scientific paper. The "exploitation" of national forests is done in the course of providing real humans, American and otherwise, the things they value as they navigate their way through life. So too with paved roads and the buildings constructed on “wetlands.” (The use of the word “wetlands” is itself a polemical masterstroke, as a “wetland” cries out for the human-free touch much more than a “swamp” or a “marsh,” which the Oxford English Dictionary lists as synonyms.)

What all of the Sierra Club’s objections have in common is that they are really narrow preferences for using land in particular ways. Some of the fellow citizens of Sierra Club members share these preferences, some do not. So how to resolve this disagreement? One is the way we resolve most conflicts over resource use in society, through the exercise of property rights. There is nothing about any of these concerns that is different from concern about whether an acre should be used for wheat or corn, or whether another restaurant or gas station is the best use of a particular piece of land in a particular neighborhood. We routinely let property rights sort out these conflicts, and whether land should be used to display some (very possibly imaginary) pre-human idyll or as a ski resort is exactly the same sort of problem. Calling it a conflict of private interests is not as compelling as calling it “preservation,” but that is what it is. Even the argument that the pre-human landscape is being preserved for future generations, who have no say in the matter if it is sold off to some corporate farm, is not as compelling as it first seems. We leave it to mine owners to decide the rate at which the minerals will be extracted, secure in the knowledge that prices will convey the correct information about its scarcity, and we routinely allow easements to be placed on land to prevent future development. And biodiversity preservation is also a task often entrusted to the market, via game preserves, private company seed banks, etc. It is no more rational to bypass the market to preserve pre-human land than it is to use government force to require that such land be converted to shopping malls.

Environmentalist proposals of all types, especially those to conserve species or land, should be judged strictly by a human-centered morality. Implicitly, that is how they are being judged anyway, with the inability of the environmentalist to recognize his own interest as parochial being the primary stumbling block to seeing that. The environmentalist should be made to explicitly indicate how his proposals will make some set of humans better off, and whether that gain is worth the costs selectively imposed on other humans. Some proposals, such as many involving pollution reduction, will clearly pass such a test (although the precise nature of restrictions to be imposed are still up for debate). But others will not. The clarity that comes from seeing environmentalism and conservation as just another special interest involving scarce resources will go a long way in helping us understand which of their special interests merit state action. The earth is a means to an end, not an end in itself.


Blogger Solomon2 said...

I make a distinction between environmentalists and conservationists: Environmentalists worship Nature at the expense of people, conservationists believe in preserving Nature for better present or future human use.

Theodore Roosevelt, the president who hunted grizzlies yet gave us Yellowstone, was a conservationist. Smokey's motto was, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires." Nature and people, that's conservation. Nature without people is environmentalism.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solomon2 is right. My Dad will hunt or fish anything thas edible and legal. He subscribes to many Conservationist magazines.
You have to Conserve forests and fisheries if you want deer to shoot or fish to catch.
It is 'nature and people'. Maximizing 'Nature' for the benefit of people, not nature for nature's sake and it doesn't matter how many people die.

And I'm a Floridian, and we do need our wetlands to improve fisheries. ;) Besides, the more 'natural' (most useful for fisheries also) wetlands are stupid places to build up anyhow. The ocean tends invoke Eminent domain eventually.

Otherwise I mostly agree with ya. These EcoNuts either don't care about their own species or actively hate Homo Sapiens.

7:36 PM  

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