Monday, 17 September 2012

So long, farewell

Yes, well worth saving
There was a discussion on the radio the other day about endangered species. Specifically, that old chestnut of whether it really matters if a few species go extinct.

One protagonist was arguing fiercely that it was essential to preserve every single species, though as usual, the arguments in detail were very flimsy. They came down to:

  • It's our (moral) duty - Essentially, because it's our fault that they're dying out, we have a duty to prevent it. I really don't know if this is true or not. I can see a good argument for not going out of your way to destroy a species (take the passenger pigeon as an example), but this isn't something we do any more. 
  • The world would be a less rich place without them - certainly true of, say, pandas. Sort of true of the 57th variety of almost identical shrew-like creature. Hard to argue for a beetle. Even harder for a bacterium.
  • We don't know how we might benefit from them in the future - of course it's possible, but I suspect with most potential extinctions this 'okay, if altruism won't work, what's in it for me' approach is extremely low probability. We might benefit from staying in the house all day and never putting ourselves at risk from traffic. But hey.
  • We don't know what difference their absence would make to the ecosystem - that's true, and we know that the removal/addition of some species can have devastating effects on a local ecosystem (think rabbits in Australia). But arguably, for the species that are at risk, they can't be having a big impact on their ecosystem - there aren't enough of them.
Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting we should do nothing about species we are interested in, but I really can't get behind the 'every single species should be preserved' argument. Species have always gone extinct. I know that because of our changes to the planet this is happening much faster at the moment than has been the case recently (though nowhere near as fast as in the great extinctions of the past), so I'm all in favour of putting on the brakes. But trying to save everything is crazy. We need an 80 percent solution, where I'd say that 80 percent should include the most potentially useful (to us an the environment) and the most appealing animals. 

Some argue we shouldn't treat giant pandas so specially because of the 'awww!' factor. Rubbish. Given the choice, I am afraid I would save pandas over beetles and bacteria every time. Orwell might not have intended the way that some animals are more equal than others to be a positive lesson, but here it is.

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