Protecting Nature in the Anthropocene

For most of our history, humankind viewed “nature” as something eternal and imperturbable. A god itself, a distant “mother” nature, or a creation of – occasionally angry – gods. In any case, nature was something to be discovered, conquered, brought to human use. Overcoming the adversity of nature was the essence of progress.

Slowly and in many small steps, our understanding has changed. The appreciation of pristine nature became widespread, and we learned, how easily habitats can be destroyed, species being driven to extinction. Nature reserves were declared and rare animals protected. In the 1970s we better understood the indirect effects of environmental pollution, fertilizers, and pesticides. The concept of nature and environmental protection – though always in conflict with economic interests – became mainstream thinking.

Dodo Drawing
The last known original depiction of a Dodo head before it was driven to extinction (PD, Commons)

Today, we realize that our powers are even greater than we thought. We live in the era of humans, the Anthropocene. Humans shape the planet to an extent that will forever be documented in the geological and fossil record. The speed of our reduction of biodiversity is similar to previous extinction catastrophes, so that many call our time the sixth or holocene extinction. Our pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases is leading to potentially catastrophic global warming. Our resource use is exhaustive, forever changing the planetary distribution and availability of fossil fuels and mineral resources. From local species and habitats, we need to refocus our analyses and protective actions on the entire Earth system.

The Anthropocene concept is the globalisation of environmentalism.

Protection Goals

DISCLAIMER: I am not yet completely happy with the following. I use this blog to clarify my own thinking; and I realize that I need further thought, time, and discussion on the following. I appreciate your comments!

If, from the child demanding more rights from its parental gods, we have become the caretakers of an increasingly fragile planet, a fuzzy warm feeling that we somehow want to protect something can be dangerous. We need to define and argue why and what exactly we want to protect. A memorial of untouched nature? An intrinsic right of living organisms? Economic utility and value? Or just an environment sufficient for human survival?

I am personally not a fan of the idea of untouched nature. For one, it is sometimes little more than a nostalgic desire to be transferred back into good old times; a desire for nature being Rousseau’s noble savage – which it never was. For two, I know as a botanist how few habitats are truly untouched. Humans have shaped our planet over millennia, not just centuries, introducing new species, changing the landscape. And finally, for three, I personally admire the tiny plant in the cracks of a city street, successfully battling cars, pedestrians, and cleaning machines as much as the lichen in the Arctic, successfully battling the wind and the cold.

That being said, I do think that selected habitats can and should be preserved as almost completely protected national or planetary memorials. We should respect our natural as well as human history, and dedicated memorials are an effective way to convey our history to current and future generations. Such a total protection strategy will support other conservation strategies, but on an extremely densely populated planet, it cannot replace them.

With respect to the concept of all life on Earth having intrinsic rights I see two major lines; Fundamental ethics and psychological consequences. Ethically I do believe that life – animals, plants, ecosystems, our planet – has a value that is independent of its utility to us. We are different but in the same family. It is an ethical imperative to respect and appreciate these family members for their own sake. Once we accept this, we also gain a psychological advantage: By respecting nature for its own sake, we have a different relationship. We can make better decisions because we draw on different paradigms in our daily experience. Furthermore, viewing wild organisms as our relatives and understanding how they often experience similar challenges as we humans do, can be a great source of comfort, healing, and spiritual inspiration.

Economic value and utility of nature is an important argument for nature conservation. It is good if nature conservation makes economic sense. Wherever it does, it keeps things simple. It certainly makes economic sense to stop global warming rather than bear the resulting costs. To stabilize mangrove forests rather than invest in technical solutions. To reduce air pollution rather than bear the health-care costs resulting from it.

Great progress is being made in creating economical models that include the externalized costs (cost shifted to the public, other countries, or into the future) which lead to so much economic mismanagement with respect to our humanities natural heritage at the moment. However, I feel profoundly uneasy, if we fully subscribe to an – always imperfect – economic calculation as our only guide. If we prove that human recreation efficiency of a combination of treadmills, stationary bikes, and virtual reality glasses is similar to that of a natural recreational park with wildlife – should we destroy the park in favor of development?

Finally, human survival. I strongly believe that this is simply not operational. Humans can survive under the most adverse conditions. Destroying nature until risking bare-boned survival is a complete disregard for the quality of life of future generations.

Protection Strategies

Under all protection goals, we inevitably have to make decisions. We need food, energy, living space.

Here we need to make a distinction between individuals and species. The occasional death of individuals, in exchange for our own survival and well-being, is unavoidable, although it should neither be unnecessary nor cruel. In contrast, killing off entire species with their unique and valuable genetic heritage is in principle avoidable. It is only the practice of our high population numbers, stretching our planetary boundaries, which forces us to make compromises here as well.

I believe, in each such decision, we should ask ourselves:

  • What is the value of a habitat and its species to us? What ecosystem services does it provide? Does it simply make economic sense to preserve it?
  • What is the danger that destroying this habitat will doom some of its species to irrevocable extinction, forever eliminating a piece of the planetary genetic natural heritage?
  • How important is the destruction of the species of habitat for human well-being? Is it unavoidable?
  • Which smarter alternatives can be developed, leading to a coexistence of nature and human use? How, e.g., can we improve conditions for wildlife in urban and agricultural environments?

Tragically, we often don’t do that. Partly because we don’t care or are too busy with other tasks. But partly, because we don’t know the answers. Neither our biological nor our economic models allow precise enough predictions of the outcome of a degradation of nature in exchange for some human-economical development.

PS: I consider it wrong to be cruel to any animal. I consider it equally thoughtless and unnecessarily wrong to drive an oversized car like an SUV (something I don’t do). And it is probably wrong, to use any car, or airplane, if you are at all able to avoid it (something I do not fully observe…). But I consider it right to eat plants and (some) animal meat. And I am very happy if I was able to kill the mosquito that kept me from sleeping. And while I would wish we were fewer humans on this planet, every living child has a right to a good home, even if that is destroying habitats of other species.

(German flag  A German translation is not yet available)

A second post, Why Should We Protect Biodiversity? analyses our motivation to protect biodiversity and the difference between utility to us and utility to our children – I appreciate your comments on both posts!

(© Gregor Hagedorn 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0, publ. 2017-09-19, updated 2018-03-03)

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