Condors, conservation and existential value

recent article over at KCET's "Rewild" site documents difficulties the condor recovery program continues to face, in spite of apparent success. The mortality rate among reintroduced individuals is high, and the reasons are varied: lead poisoning (from the bullets in discarded carcasses upon which the condors feed) is still a big problem, and so are trash ingestion, egg-thinning (it will surprise no one that residual DDT is likely the culprit here) and collisions with technology (wind generators and power lines). The article is an eye-opening, cautionary read. It counsels us not to take the current number of "wild" condors (some 230 spread over California, Arizona, Utah and Baja - up from zero in 1987) as evidence that successful rewilding is a fait accompli.

  "Is the goal worth it? "That's a societal question," Davis responds. "What's the value of nature? Of science? The image of wild condors continuing to fly is inspirational to the entire country.""

Apart from the sobering data, the article ends with some particularly pregnant thoughts, quoted above. These are questions upon which I (like many others) have dwelt often. Beside the interesting intellectual exercise we can get from examining the logical chain that informs our positions on these questions, consideration of them is crucial to what the eventual landscape of achievements in conservation biology and environmentalism looks like.

The fact is that while we (environmentalists) may believe the notion "...wild condors continuing to fly is inspirational to the entire country" to be a transparent truth, there are surely plenty of people who do not. We cannot just presume that our opposition will skate over these kinds of assumptions, allowing us to build further argument without dissent. It's incumbent upon us to justify such "givens"; to establish, by virtue of coherent rationale, the basis upon which we answer the question, "What's the value of nature?" And to do that, we are obligated to consider the metaphysical nature of "value."

Anyone who has thought about this topic has surely considered the obvious question, "Value to whom?" Is value an attribute that depends entirely upon there being an active valu-er? Or can value be an intrinsic quality unconnected to any kind of external self that assesses things based upon personal need? Would a universe, or a world, or even just an old oak tree, have any value if there wasn't a self-awareness there to offer the appraisal? Does the question even make sense? And even if you can cobble together an argument for the value of an oak tree as a component of an otherwise unmindful environment, how do you translate that into a compelling inducement to appreciate and conserve the tree? 

  And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. - Genesis 1:26

Some environmental philosophers and activists take the position that our inherent anthropocentrism can be central to an argument against unbridled "dominion," rather than an excuse for it. We are all born anthropocentrists, regardless of whether we try to suppress the tendency, or justify it with Bible verse. It's a matter of survival - we need food, warmth, protection. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that many people regard the worth of nature in terms of their individual requirements. Is it really that substantial a leap from "I'm cold" to "I'm going to build a fire, even though fires are disallowed (in this park/at this altitude/during this dry season)"? Sure, we can all (or most of us) agree that people who flaunt clear and reasonable principles like campfire restrictions (or not using lead bullets, or accepting climate change) out of convenience are careless and inconsiderate. But we need to recognize that we share with them the same primal instincts for valuation of nature, and try to find the persuasive potential in that commonality.

It's inarguable that, at least for the foreseeable future, we will depend upon natural processes to maintain supplies of good water, healthy food, and breathable air. For us, a vigorous and productive natural world is not a luxury. From this perspective, the point is not to bemoan the fact that humans tend to look at nature's value in relation to our needs - we do - but to encourage an extrapolation of those needs into the future. There's nothing more instinctual than surviving and reproducing, and appealing to those urges could help to promote recognition of the possible negative consequences that propagate from something as seemingly incidental as losing one already-depleted species, or lighting one fire. When that associative step is taken, a willingness to postpone immediate demands in favor of the long-term good can be seen as personally beneficial.

To me this approach makes a lot of sense. Not because I think nature can only be viewed as valuable in the light of human desires, but because I don't know how to build a successful argument around the idea of nature as an innate, discrete good separable from human attitudes. Any conclusion we reach to the effect that condors hold an inherent value comes necessarily from us, is imputed by us, and is ultimately only as worthy as we - and more importantly, the opposition - deem it to be. This, to me, suggests that our focus needs to be on convincing those who aren't inspired by the flight of a condor to find value in the more panoramic context of time and human flourishing. No one, unmoved by the damage done to their environment by an illegal fire, or uninspired by a soaring raptor, is going to reverse their behavior based upon emotional testimony. But neither can those same individuals remain unmoved by the possibility of their friends and relatives early demise, nor will they be uninspired by the thought of prosperous and healthy children and grandchildren.

This is the nature of value to which I believe we should appeal. If we can inculcate our society with an implicit connection between environmental and personal wellbeing, I suspect the value of nature will need little defense.