Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Arguing About Extinction

Look out! Look out! It's a man eating dinosaur!

Haw! Haw! Haw! I crack me up. So what's this all about? I'll let you know on March First...

So I got into a bit of a kerfuffle with one of my writing buddies this week. Allison made this post over on her blog, The Volcano. You should go read it – but to put her position into the least-nuanced terms, she ran across some information regarding a so-called animal sanctuary that claimed to have ecological concerns at heart while operating as a tourist trap. She thought it would be more ethical to let the animals go extinct than to engage in that kind of abuse in the name of saving the species.

And I went kind of nuts. As I wrote to her in an email –

Again, I know my response here is way, way disproportional -- you just had the misfortune to tap into a subject that's one of my obsessions, and you hit a high-pressure node of opinion.

When it comes to this issue I feel very strongly that we as a species need to prioritize other animals much more highly than we do. I’ve got an elaborate framework of logic built up around this but in the end it’s an emotional response. My allegiance is to life in general before my species.

(When it comes to individuals my feelings are different, of course. I’ll tend to value those I know over those I don’t – which means that I’ll take a lizard I love over a human I don’t know, or a human I know over a dog I don’t. This isn’t rational; it’s just the way my priorities operate.)

But in the end, there is something about allowing a species to go extinct that seems like, well, a sin.

I can rationalize this by saying that someday humans may achieve a less-destructive relationship with the environment and it might be possible to allow the species to return to the wild if we had viable breeding populations in captivity. And it’s entirely possible that individual species could have their populations supplemented by captive-bred stock if dedicated preserves are allocated to them. And so on – I have some links below where related ideas are discussed with more clarity than I can bring to the subject.

Still, my reaction is, as I said, an emotional one. Extinct is as gone as it gets. You can’t replace a species that you’ve killed. The biome, Gaia, the ecosphere – whatever you want to call it, it’s my primary emotional allegiance and an extinction impoverishes it. And us. And me.

Here’s a snippet from my email exchange with Allison.

Please note that I am in no way denying that some horrible shit happens in this realm, and that a lot of bastards blanket themselves in save-the-Earth fuzzy bunnies and green fields as a cover for their rotten behavior. That doesn't mean that we should deny the value of the best work in the field. In a world where I read this in the news...

Extinction Fear For Black Rhino

... I cannot feel a sense of acceptance. When I see this I cannot calmly accept your position that --

In nature, species live and species die off. Working to prevent extinction is yet another example of how man inserts himself into the wild.

That statement really sounds as if (and I doubt that I'm reading you correctly here -- but this is how it sounds) you're putting the efforts of these folks --

Saving Rhinos

on the same level as the poachers and boner-pill freaks who are bringing about rhino extinction. As if it's possible for us to exist without affecting the environment. As if there is something fundamentally wrong with making an effort to deal with specific ecological issues. I just don't buy it.

At a different point in our exchange I suggested that if human-caused extinction was natural, then how could human-assisted survival be unnatural?

Allison also said that she’d might view my arguments differently if I could provide her with some examples of stewardship, of the ends I favor being pursued in an honorable fashion.

Here’s how I responded.

The place to start looking for models of stewardship would be in the examples that I mentioned already. First, the California Condor (and you might want to look around at the rest of this site).

The Peregrine Fund on California Condor Restoration

Gerald Durrell is the one man who's influenced my thoughts on this subject more than anyone else. Here's a brief look at his legacy.

A New Vision At The Durrell Wildlife Trust

And here's his ethos regarding zoos.

The Durrell Policy For Zoos

If you want an example of that ethos in action you might want to look through this and see which animals his zoo is helping to survive.

He's also written a large number of books that detail his efforts. They aren't heavy tomes -- they're intentionally light and amusing. He wrote them to fund his efforts, and they still work to that end. If you're interested I'd be happy to pass some on.

There are wildlife rescue groups everywhere. Here's an accessible local organization that you could take a closer look at before you dismiss the possibility of stewardship. It's just one of many.

International Bird Rescue Research Center

And later…

... on a much baser level, this kind of activity can be one of the most beautiful things a human being can do. One aspect of humanity that is dear to me (and you know there are damned few of those, he snarled) is our ability to engender bonds of affection across species.

What I'm saying here is that the animals involved might not agree with your position. Yeah, those temple tigers are being fucked over but you should ask the lion in this video about his opinion of animal rescue.

Christian the Lion

Yeah, that is brute-force sentimental propaganda for my position... but here's some more information on the park where the lion in question was rehabilitated.

Kora National Park

A similar interventionist organization is here.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Again, I have to ask if you are genuinely opposed to these efforts?

There were a few more issues and nuances to our discussion, but those were the main points. Right now we’ve retired to our corners to think things over. I’ll admit that my example of the California Condor isn’t the strongest – this is an animal that seems to need a Pleistocene ecology in order to thrive in the wild. It will likely need captive breeding programs permanently if it’s going to survive.

But something in me just doesn’t want to live in a world without them.


Raptor Lewis said...

Even if we didn't destroy their habitats and stuff, they'd go extinct eventually anyway. We just need to give them the chance without interfering. I agree we shouldn't cause extinctions, but their inevitable. They'd either evolve or go extinct. But, sometimes evolution into another species can cause extinctions as well as the death of the other individuals (which might have happened to the Dinosaurs.) So, I think you both are on to something, but you still need to think things through. If we interfere with Nature, in this case, we will hurt ourselves as well as the organism we're "saving." Also, remember the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Raptor Lewis!

Well, as you'd probably guess I disagree with you here.

Your idea that extinctions are inevitable may make sense when it comes to an animal like the California Condor, but to say that we should simply accept most extinctions as inevitable just seems wrong to me.

The majority of these extinctions are due to human interference. As I stated, why should human-caused extinctions be seen as part of the natural order while human-aided survival isn't?

The kind of extinctions that you're talking about take place over the course of deep time. What we're facing here is an extinction event.

But unlike an asteroid or a supervolcano, humans have consciousness. We have will. We have the ability to modify our behavior.

It really does seem to me that implied responsibility. Why should we accept it as inevitable that rhinos and tigers will be used up for the sake of ineffective virility drugs? Or that the extinction of gorillas due to poaching and territorial encroachment should be seen as inevitable? Or that human-introduced vermin are going to kill off the tuataras?

Those things are not inevitable. They are the result of human behavior and human behavior can be changed. And as I wrote to my friend, to look at those conditions and shrug your shoulders seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility.

You say that if we interfere with nature we'll hurt ourselves as well as the organism we're saving.

Well, you might want to go to the Durrell Wildlife Trust website I link to above and read up on their efforts. They've saved a number of species from extinction -- and their works have caused the kind of problem you talk about I'd be interested in hearing about it.

The results they've achieved are not the result of earthshaking, world-bending efforts. They are more in line with what you said -- it's a matter of giving the animals a chance.

Take my word for it -- these are issues to which I've devoted a lot of thought over the course of many years.

And now I'm probably gonna sound even snottier than I already do...

Now what Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or chaos theory has to do with this is beyond me.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is concerned with measuring the properties of subatomic particles -- and it simply doesn't apply to anything else, certainly not animals.

As for chaos theory, the closest I can come to understanding how it might apply to the situation is to say that it's difficult or impossible to predict the long-term results of the kind of work I discussed in the post. That ain't news... and it certainly doesn't indicate the probability of negative consequences.

I'm sorry to be so crabby about this. My friend got pretty upset with me as well. It's just that you're not bringing any information to the table -- just opinion.

I know, I know, nobody likes a know-it-all. It's just difficult for me to view the prospective of unnecessary human-caused extinction without feeling upset.

Zach said...

*raises hand*

Poachers need their heads torn from their necks.