My work is inspired by sympathy for wild animals. I agree with Aldo Leopold who, toward the end of his life, believed that humans should be no more important than other animal species.
“[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” —Aldo Leopold, 1949.
Not bad. “Earth ethic” would indicate the shared importance of life in the oceans and on land. This ethic should encompass air, animals, plants, rivers, rocks, and sea. It seems to me that, at the time of his death, Leopold hadn’t yet fleshed out his ethics ideas. He hadn’t seen human impacts reach the catastrophic level we see in 2016. Were he living now, he would most likely be a leading conservation activist.
There is an important distinction in ethics and nature conservation between goals and policies that give priority to humans and goals and policies that treat all species equally. Both types of conservation assume that humans serve as the supervisors and operators who act to achieve the goals. The first type of conservation is sometimes called homocentric conservation. Its practitioners strive to preserve nature’s ability to produce the greatest and most stable (sustained) level of benefits for humans. The second type of conservation is sometimes called biocentric conservation. Its practitioners strive to preserve nature’s stability even if that reduces the immediate benefits for humans.
Biocentric conservation is often difficult for people to understand. Homocentric conservation developed while the needs and impacts of the human population were small compared to the extent and productivity of natural ecosystems. Belatedly, humans are beginning to realize that nature isn’t, and never was, inexhaustible. However, it is difficult for most people to shift their view to biocentricism, because the biocentric approach does not give priority to human comfort or convenience.
I believe that long-term survival of humans depends on long-term ecosystem stability. Ecosystem stability is not a static condition. The numbers of species and individuals within each species, as well as the physical conditions of particular places are variable. All together, these variables produce fluctuating conditions that change from year to year and decade to decade. As long as the change in number of species and the total number of individuals is gradual over decades or centuries, ecosystems are stable. If numbers change quickly and trends become steep, the ecosystems are unstable. In the places where I have witnessed this occurring (e.g., Rogers 1982), there is increased soil erosion and reduced productivity (plant photosynthesis).
There is much more to say about approaches to nature conservation. I will only add a definition of two attitudes toward animals that might help understand the approaches. Biocentric conservation accepts the first (Rights) of the two attitudes defined in the graphic below, and homocentric conservation takes the second (Welfare) attitude.
I wrote the above definition of nature conservation years ago when I was learning the history and progress of the subject. Having watched the news and events of the past decade, I have adopted a more sensible attitude toward the subject:
Nature conservation was humanity’s great challenge for the Twentieth Century. Nineteenth Century naturalists warned about the environmental damage humans were doing (Andrea Wulff–The Invention of Nature). At the start of the Twentieth Century conservationists like U. S. President Teddy Roosevelt began setting up protective government agencies such as the National Park Service, Forest Service, and others. The Dust Bowl raised awareness of the need for conservation among farmers and school children everywhere. However, in spite of public concern, we were never able to control the ‘progress’ that inch by inch was converting nature into profits. Farmers, grazers, and loggers destroyed ecosystems, eroded the soils, consumed the grasslands, and cut the forests. As these enterprises grew, the rest of us moved to the cities and left nature conservation to for-profit businesses from the single farmer up through huge corporate farms and timber companies. Nature conservation faded from common knowledge. I fear that we may now be on our way to destroying most if not all of life on Earth.
I have become uncertain of the long-term survival of humans. With no effective controls over our population and resource use, I now believe human extinction is a real possibility. A major war or disease might slow our devastation of the planet, but the only effective inhibitors of our steady destruction of nature are themselves global killers. The most likely are a great solar flare, a massive meteor, and of course, human-caused climate change. The last one, climate change, is a sure bet unless we treat it like the emergency it is and combat it with all our resources. Our struggle for progress and profit has locked us into a global-warming cycle that will extinguish us and most or perhaps all other species unless we get busy and solve the problem. If we don’t, our grandchildren might be among the last humans on Earth.
No matter how bleak our future appears, unforseen events might change everything. For one thing, the expected intensification of weather extremes may soon create enough public and political concern that we begin to act. Let’s hope, and while we’re hoping, let’s fight progress and profit however we can.