Amplifying Voices

How do we value?
by Emily Myron -- September 25th, 2012

With the looming election, there has been a lot of talk of values. What we value is very important – it shapes who we work for, how we spend our free time, and who we will vote for – but values are something we rarely talk explicitly about. While we may be able use things like monetary ‘value’ and laws as proxies for our true values, the time has come to be explicit. There is a crucial value judgment that we, as a species, need to make – and need to make quickly. In the words of Jonathan Bailie, conservation director at the Zoological Society of London,“Do…species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?”

Recently, the Zoological Society of London and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a report listing the 100 most endangered animals, plants and fungi around the world (you can see the full report here). From charismatic megafauna, including the Javan Rhino and the Silky Sifaka, to various fish, fungi, and flowers, these species all have one thing in common – if we don’t get our act together, they will be no different than wooly mammoths, dodo birds, and passenger pigeons to our children. This report calls for people to make a decision – ‘do species have a right to survive?’

As quoted in Miguel Llanos’s article in NBC news:

“’The future of many species is going to depend on reconciling the needs of people and nature, and ensuring economic development and conservation do not undermine each other,” Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN’s species survival commission, said… If we ignore the question’ about priceless or worthless, he added, “we shall be inadvertently accepting the ethical position that human-caused mass extinction is acceptable.”

That is what this is – an ethical question. Is what we are doing to other species right?

Unfortunately, we often do not ask this question. Rather, as Bailie points out, “’The donor community and conservation movement are leaning increasingly towards a ‘what can nature do for us’ approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritized according to the services they provide for people.’” In general, this approach works in our everyday lives, regarding how we can benefit from buying a new car, shirt, or tv, but what are we missing if we take that approach with species? How can such a question possibly capture the value of something as complex as a species?

Those species that benefit us the most are not necessarily those that are key to ecosystem function. Nor can we possibly know the true importance of a species until it is gone. For example, in Guam, there is an over abundance of spiders because so many birds have been eaten by brown tree snakes (see the NPR story). As a result, the insect and vegetation compositions of the island are expected to change. This may be a simple, almost silly example, but I think it still illustrates the point – losing species, especially top predators, can have cascading and unpredictable effects on the environment, leading to consequences we cannot imagine. We may not have realized how truly important these birds were, and now it is almost too late.

If we only ask what a species can do for us, I believe that we do not capture the true value of that species. If this is all we base a species’ value on, does that mean that if we cannot think of a human benefit, those species, therefore, have no value? And, therefore, they are not worth existing? If that is our logic, I am afraid Stuart is right; we will be justifying and accepting mass extinction. What we need to be asking is whether we believe these species have a right to exist, whether they have value to outside of how they may benefit people, and whether they are worth our resources and ingenuity.

Choices we will have to make about how to tackle this extinction crisis will not be easy, but they have to come from our values, and not just a cost-benefit analysis. People have to want to help these species; to believe that they have a right to be alive. The report includes a list of countless species we have already driven to extinction, as well as stories of species that we have brought back from the brink. We have to decide which list we want the next 100 species to be on in 50 years?

1 Comment

  1. SI
    Sep 25, 2012

    Very thoughtful discussion of values and how they impact environmental conservation.

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