Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Value of Biodiversity

As comments to a recent entry, I've had an interesting discussion about environmentalism with my friend Molle. We both agree that biodiversity and ecological systems should be preserved. But we disagree as to the reason for this.

If I understand Molle correctly, her opinion is that we should preserve biodiversity because it is precious (or even holy?) without reference to the needs and wishes of humans. Let's say she feels biodiversity is an abstract good.

My opinion is that that there is no such thing as abstract good. My reason for thinking we should preserve biodiversity is that it would be dangerous and aesthetically dissatisfying for humans if we lost it. I believe that the concept of value is only at all applicable from the perspective of an intelligent observer.

Consider the planet Octavia, far, far away. It sported a radiant ecosystem with innumerable species of exquisite beauty -- until yesterday. A nearby star and the local black hole bumped uglies, producing an extended shower of hard radiation, killing every living thing on Octavia as the planet rotated. The planet now has innumerable fossils of exquisite beauty. And in a few years, Octavia's entire star system will be swallowed by the black hole, obliterating it.

Now, is this a tragedy? No. It's a non-event. Let me add two crucial pieces of information.

1) The smartest being that ever evolved on vibrant Octavia was a blue armadillo-like creature with the brains of a fish. And it didn't suffer one bit when the radiation hit it.

2) No intelligent being from another star system ever came close enough to Octavia to even notice that it had life.

Or consider a species of yellow toad restricted to a single valley in Papua New Guinea. Its habitat is severely threatened by logging, and chances are it'll be extinct in a few years. The passing of this rare toad species is of no practical concern to humans, and the locals won't miss it. But people in the West, like me, will mourn the toad. Not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was a fun animal to study.

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Blogger Molle said...

Faktum är att jag inte tycker mig ha propagerat för alla arters bevarande till varje pris. Det jag ursprungligen sa var att planeten Jorden kommer att överleva oavsett vad vilken art som helst som bebor den hittar på, och att jag inte tycker att människan är så himla mycket mer att hänga i granen än andra djurarter.

Jag råkar nu vara människa själv, och därför accepterar jag förstås människans kamp för att fixa det bättre för sig här på planeten -- helt i likhet med det alla andra arter sysslar med. Nån fatalist är jag inte heller, utan tycker att var och en bör dra sitt strå till stacken för att göra tillvaron bättre inte bara för sig själv, utan också för många andra samlevare här på Jorden. MEN om jag blickar framåt och ser det scenario som du snuddade vi i det tidigare inlägget, nämligen det där människan har utrotat sig själv mangrant, så kan jag inte sörja över det. Jag kan inte se det som: "Å, men människan som just höll på att fullborda det storartade projektet si eller så, asch men det VAR väl synd att hon skulle gå och dö ut!" utan mer som den gula paddan som utrotades, saknad av ingen.

Den synen på saker och ting beror kanske på att jag inte inbillar mig att jag efter min död kommer att sitta på ett moln och se hur allting utvecklar sig. Eftersom min tro är att allting tar slut kommer ju ingen att kunna sakna eller gräma sig över nånting.

Beträffande arternas bevarande eller icke bevarande håller jag på och läser en intressant liten skrift från Formas (Forskningsrådet för miljö, areella näringar och samhällsbyggande). "Bevara arter -- till vilket pris?" heter den, med undertiteln "Balansgång mellan ekologiska, ekonomiska och sociala aspekter". Där får man en hel del vanföreställningar kullkastade och även, i och med detta, många dåliga samveten mildrade. (Med "man" menar jag mig själv, men det finns ju många som ömmar för slika frågor på kanske helt felaktiga grunder. Ibland är det bra att få sina föreställningar ställda på huvudet.)

14 March, 2006 09:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I'd feel a little sad and touched to hear about Octavia's fate.


15 March, 2006 12:02  
Blogger Martin said...

Yes, but my point is that nobody with even a tenth of your intelligence ever will.

15 March, 2006 12:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even under your premises, one could still argue that the potential for intelligent life, capable of experiencing or performing whatever is good under your moral system of choice, has now been lost.

Which may or may not be an issue, depending on how you choose to regard this kind of thing.


16 March, 2006 10:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(By the way, did you know that the Opera browser can't render words put within HTML tags? In Opera, the italicized word 'potential' comes out as '"/*'.)


16 March, 2006 10:54  
Blogger Martin said...

Well, Akhôrahil, if we were to regard the potential for new species as precious, then we should kill off the present ones as fast as possible. With them around, it'll take ages before any new species show up! (-;

I am saddened to learn that Opera the web browser is unable to render text within HTML tags. The < BODY > and < /BODY > tags must be particularly irksome.

16 March, 2006 15:11  
Anonymous martha said...

Here's an aside to this discussion, stolen from

“Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.”

--Richard Dawkins

17 March, 2006 18:19  
Blogger Martin said...

Very well put! The more I read about Dawkins, the better I like him. Gotta read something by the man some day.

17 March, 2006 18:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Opera again, did you make any changes to the blog? The page won't load in Opera at all now. Which probably says more about Opera, the unwanted step-child of browsers, than about the blog itself.


19 March, 2006 14:27  
Blogger Martin said...

No changes that I am aware of. I don't actually enter any HTML code into this thing apart from the occasional < A > or < I > tag. The host site does all the formatting for me.

Any particular reason for using Opera? Firefox is very nice. 'Sgot tabs, for instance.

19 March, 2006 15:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't normally use Opera, it's just that I have to have all the major browers available for my work as a web tester. So sometimes it's Opera I'm in when I go to take a look here.

It's actually my least favorite browser.

19 March, 2006 18:08  

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