Earth’s sixth mass extinction has begun
June 22, 2015 8:19 AM   Subscribe

If we regard the Earth as nothing more than a source of resources and a sink for our pollution, if we value other species only in terms of what they can provide to us, then we we will continue to unpick the fabric of life.

Further coverage from the Washington Post
“We can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way,” they write. “If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits.”
posted by j03 (115 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Humanity will go extinct within the next few hundred years. It is inevitable at this point. Intelligence was a maladaptation.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:31 AM on June 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


I put my recycling on the curb and rode my bike to work today. Does that help?
posted by mikewebkist at 8:32 AM on June 22, 2015 [11 favorites]




Humanity will go extinct within the next few hundred years. It is inevitable at this point.
sonic meat machine

Blind pessimism isn't anymore scientific or rational than blind optimism.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:35 AM on June 22, 2015 [36 favorites]


Our science is the problem. Time to change it.
posted by No Robots at 8:38 AM on June 22, 2015


A lot of the time I have to not think about the kind of world my nieces and nephew will inherit. I expect I will do a lot of apologizing when they're a little older.
posted by Kitteh at 8:38 AM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


But in the meantime, think of all the value we created for shareholders!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:39 AM on June 22, 2015 [40 favorites]


Blind pessimism isn't anymore scientific or rational than blind optimism.

Blind pessimism might be, but I don't think it's blind: it's realistic. Every time we make any progress, there will be people willing and able to exploit more resources to make more money (making them more powerful, of course). Look at neonicotinoids. Europe says they're killing bees, and bans them, but they buy food from the U.S., where there is no chance that they will be banned.

Cities in the U.S. west are unsustainable due to water demands, but there is no plan for dealing with that issue. It's clear, it's present, and it's dangerous—and we can't do anything about it.

We're destroying our oceans in a million ways, but when the advanced nations create regulations on fishing there are always "rogue fishermen" willing to violate them and ruin the entire effort. And people are willing to buy it.

What, in our species' history, or any species' history, makes you think that we'll put on the brakes before we kill ourselves? All of nature is a sequence of boom and bust cycles... and our bust cycle is going to be a hell of one because our boom cycle was fueled by our ability to devise new, more efficient ways to turn things into supply for our technology.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:42 AM on June 22, 2015 [17 favorites]


World biodiversity is simply dropping to the level which has been the norm in Europe for centuries. A lot will be lost, but it will not be as extreme as some forethink.
posted by Thing at 8:45 AM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


World biodiversity is simply dropping to the level which has been the norm in Europe for centuries. A lot will be lost, but it will not be as extreme as some forethink.

But the reason it hasn't been so dire for Europe is that that particular relatively small continent has been benefiting from biodiversity everywhere else. If something goes awry 3,000 miles away, there are consequences for everyone everywhere--not just within that small area.
posted by witchen at 8:48 AM on June 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


Well, we'll just go to space, and arf arf arf....

SPACE!
posted by entropicamericana at 8:50 AM on June 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


What, in our species' history, or any species' history, makes you think that we'll put on the brakes before we kill ourselves?

The fact that our ability to kill ourselves will be the first thing to degrade.

I think we're looking, long-term, at a decline back to pre-industrial levels of civilization and a massive decline in global population, but we're not going to go extinct through our own efforts.
posted by Naberius at 8:52 AM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


You ever get the feeling that the variable L in the Drake Equation is a very small time window? Advances in technology include advances in the ability to wipe yourself off your own planet. We probably weren't the first carbon blobs to develop ourselves to the brink of extinction.
posted by cmfletcher at 8:56 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The fact that our ability to kill ourselves will be the first thing to degrade.

It doesn't take action to kill ourselves; all we have to do is shit in the sandbox to the point where, when our technology stops working, we can't achieve the same level of success with the traditional agriculture and hunting and gathering that we once relied upon. Perhaps some remnant will cling to existence in a desiccated world.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:59 AM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's very telling that, in response to an article about a collapse in global biodiversity, we're talking about how long humans will survive. Similarly, it's depressing how articles such as this one always lean hard on what other species can do for us. Is it that counter-intuitive to value biodiversity for its own sake?
posted by IjonTichy at 9:02 AM on June 22, 2015 [20 favorites]


Perhaps some remnant will cling to existence in a desiccated world.

The future is a Fallout/Mad Max LARP! Guys, this is gonna be cool. Anyway I trust the MetaFilter bunker is fully stocked and my ticket will be arriving in the mail shortly
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:04 AM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


It doesn't take action to kill ourselves; all we have to do is shit in the sandbox to the point where, when our technology stops working

People say this a lot and I have no idea what they mean by it.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:07 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


And as we can see here, nobody really wants to actually talk about it.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:08 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Blind pessimism might be, but I don't think it's blind: it's realistic.

You're just not being pessimistic enough!

Humans going extinct seems somewhat hysterical. Sure, many people will probably die, but as usual rich people in rich countries are going to be okay because they have the power to get the resources they need. The future won't be every human dying, it will be the poor and less powerful dying with the remainder serving the small thriving elite. You can already see this in action today.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:08 AM on June 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


Every time we make any progress, there will be people willing and able to exploit more resources to make more money (making them more powerful, of course).

Unless our economic system changes drastically. Which I think is inevitable one way or another, either through a total crash of the economy and possibly society as we know it, or through reform. There's not a lot of political will for the latter yet, but it's growing.
posted by Foosnark at 9:10 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Species go extinct all the time. But many evolve into something completely different. Does that mean that it has gone extinct?

We call Homo Erectus as extinct or dinosaurs as extinct but homo sapiens and birds, respectively, have a large part of their DNA. I am not sure if we have a clear definition of what extinction means for a species or a genetic line.

Rapidly changing environment increases evolutionary pressures and would cause species to evolve more quickly.

Sure, the species mix in a ecological niche would change. Some species which we know would die out and some other species would take their place.

For me, its hard to attach a value judgement to extinction events. Is it bad that a lot of species are dying out if you know that it would mean new, "more evolved" species would take their place?

Further, past mass extinctions, even those caused by volcanoes or meteor strikes took millions of years. We humans simply cannot work on that scale. What ever we do in, say 1000 years, would be long gone by the time

So, I think we are a bit too much worried about species going extinct..we should be worried more more about our extinction.

The earth abides.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:10 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's very telling that, in response to an article about a collapse in global biodiversity, we're talking about how long humans will survive. Similarly, it's depressing how articles such as this one always lean hard on what other species can do for us. Is it that counter-intuitive to value biodiversity for its own sake?
IjonTichy

Telling why? I'm familiar with the concepts of deep ecology, but not sold. I don't think biodiversity has any value "for its own sake". The universe has no meaning beyond what we ascribe to it. Biodiversity should be preserved because it helps us. If it helps any other creatures, that's a pleasant bonus.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:12 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sangermaine: " The future won't be every human dying, it will be the poor and less powerful dying with the remainder serving the small thriving elite. You can already see this in action today."

In fact, my belief is that we all are descendants of the rich and powerful. Someone, somewhere in our genealogy was really powerful and resourceful by their tribal standards or became rich and powerful and its their genes who survived. The "poor" just die out.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:12 AM on June 22, 2015


People say this a lot and I have no idea what they mean by it.

Third-world nations are a template. Power grids will become less and less reliable, and electricity more expensive. Sanitation infrastructure will break down and we will have fewer resources to fix it. Insecticides and herbicides will cause pests and weeds to adapt (this is already happening), diminishing crop yields. Antibiotics will stop working as bacteria adapt (already happening)... and so on. "Technology not working" does not mean the televisions turning off at 9 PM on a Sunday.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:15 AM on June 22, 2015 [19 favorites]


Cities in the U.S. west are unsustainable due to water demands, but there is no plan for dealing with that issue. It's clear, it's present, and it's dangerous—and we can't do anything about it.

I don't know about this. We could potentially build new desalination plants powered by new nuclear power plants if we got over our irrational phobias regarding modern fission plants. San Diego is building a desal plant in Carlsbad now.

If water costs rise enough maybe businesses will relocate to more sustainable areas. The only reason I'm in the godforsaken Bay Area is because of the job market. I'd move in a heartbeat if the executives who keep insisting on locating their businesses here took their employees well-being into account and opened shop in more affordable areas.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


1) The question of human survival is a derail since it's not what the article is about. 2) Of course ultimately things have value because we assign value to them, but we can decide to assign value for practical, aesthetic, and scientific reasons. Discussions of the future of biodiversity, including this article, often hinge on the practical. This is limiting, both because it leaves out those other sources of value and because it doesn't apply to all extinctions. When the last northern white rhino dies, there will be no practical consequences for the human race, and yet I'd hope we could agree that something of immense value will be lost.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:20 AM on June 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


IjonTichy: "When the last northern white rhino dies, there will be no practical consequences for the human race, and yet I'd hope we could agree that something of immense value will be lost."

Why would something of immense value be lost? What is exactly lost?

Given the ratio of species gone extinct and species existing today, most "beautiful", awesome species have already gone extinct, does that mean that we have lost most of the "value" inherent in our ecological diversity, whatever that value term means?

By aiming to preserve all species existing today, we are trying to convert a living, breathing, changing ecology into a museum and are preventing new species from coming up.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:26 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


By aiming to preserve all species existing today, we are trying to convert a living, breathing, changing ecology into a museum and are preventing new species from coming up.

The northern white rhino is going to be extinct because humans refused to stop poaching them, not because it failed to adapt to an evolving environment. Its extinction is a tragedy because it disappeared in the name of rampant consumerism. Its death arises from human hubris, aka, the foundation of tragedy.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:34 AM on June 22, 2015 [49 favorites]


When our descendants visit a zoo in the year 4000 they're gonna see lots of really neat species of pesticide-resistant corn fungus I guess
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:35 AM on June 22, 2015 [24 favorites]


Species go extinct all the time. But many evolve into something completely different. Does that mean that it has gone extinct?

We call Homo Erectus as extinct or dinosaurs as extinct but homo sapiens and birds, respectively, have a large part of their DNA. I am not sure if we have a clear definition of what extinction means for a species or a genetic line.


We are direct descendents of some extinct species of hominids (e.g., Homo erectus under some phylogenies). There are other species of homonids with no descendents (e.g., Australopithecus afarensis, aka Lucy). Birds are direct descendents of some species of dinosaurs. There are other species of dinosaurs with no descendents (e.g., Tyranosaurus rex).

Currently, none of the anthropogenic extinction events are leading to speciation events. Speciation generally requires large, genetically diverse populations and lots of time, two things that none of the species we are killing have. There will never be a descendent of the black rhino. There will never be a descendent of the eastern cougar. There will never be a descendent of the ivory bill woodpecker. There will never be descendents of the plants and frogs and beetles whose extinctions we have caused in the Amazon before we ever even gave them names. "Evolution" is not going to solve the problems that we are creating.

Biodiversity is decreasing everywhere. Our research tells us that biodiverse communities are more productive (i.e., more total biomass of stuff), more consistantly productive from year to year, and more resilient to disturbances like fires, storms, droughts, and floods than less biodiverse communities. Thus, with less biodiverse communities, we can expect less productivity (which translates into less food for the things that live there), more variability in productivity from year to year (which puts at risk those species that already have diminished to tiny populations), and less likelihood to recover from the disturbances like fires, storms, droughts, and floods, which because of our other actions in altering the climate, are all increasing in frequency. In other words, decreasing biodiversity leads to nothing but decreasing biodiversity.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:35 AM on June 22, 2015 [42 favorites]


By aiming to preserve all species existing today, we are trying to convert a living, breathing, changing ecology into a museum and are preventing new species from coming up.

From our temporal perspective, the ecology shouldn't be changing. The natural rate of change is measured in thousands of years at the minimum; seeing these sorts of changes within a human or even societal lifespan is very unusual and represents severe ecological disruption.

I think the problem with assigning value to diversity based on its usefulness to us is that we don't know (and probably vastly underestimate) that value. In many cases the value won't be apparent yet -- for example, how many species would we have regarded as inessential up to the point that we discovered some vital medical use for them?
posted by bjrubble at 9:39 AM on June 22, 2015 [13 favorites]


TheLittlePrince: Some species which we know would die out and some other species would take their place.

It comes down to the numbers. Scientists estimate species are currently going extinct at 1,000-10,000 times the background rate (source). It takes hundreds of thousands of years for new a species of mammal to evolve, so if we kill off 30-50% of them by 2050 (source) there just isn't enough time for them to escape the mass extinction by evolution.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:39 AM on June 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


Third-world nations are a template. Power grids will become less and less reliable, and electricity more expensive. Sanitation infrastructure will break down and we will have fewer resources to fix it. Insecticides and herbicides will cause pests and weeds to adapt (this is already happening), diminishing crop yields. Antibiotics will stop working as bacteria adapt (already happening)... and so on. "Technology not working" does not mean the televisions turning off at 9 PM on a Sunday.

Right but it does mean just sitting on our hands and letting that happen in an absolutely cartoonish and unrealistic manner.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:40 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Biodiversity should be preserved because it helps us. If it helps any other creatures, that's a pleasant bonus.

You are assuming that we know whether any given bit of biodiversity helps us enough to be worth protecting.
posted by Poldo at 9:40 AM on June 22, 2015


You are assuming that we know whether any given bit of biodiversity helps us enough to be worth protecting.

Uh, that statement is nonsensical. biodiversity doesn't exist in discrete chunks.. biodiversity is the network effect of the whole. That statement is like saying "It's ok that network nodes on the internet are disappearing at a rapid rate because we can't know *which* specific network node might be worth protecting." It's a complete misunderstanding of what biodiversity is.

Biodiversity Reduces Human, Wildlife Diseases And Crop Pests
posted by j03 at 9:49 AM on June 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


Humans are affecting ecology at a very fast pace but is our impact faster than a comet or asteroid impact or a volcano eruption? ... these events disrupt the environment in a matter of months and years.

The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event which wiped out 75% of species existing then was most probably, caused by an asteroid impact.

I am sure there were a lot of black rhino, eastern cougar, ivory bill woodpecker equivalent species which were destroyed after the strike. But new species came up and the ecology sustains.

The ecology would sustain.. there will be new species. Life finds a way, so to speak.

Our main problem is ensuring the survival of as many humans as possible during these massive ecological changes. This sounds very selfish at a species level but, frankly, instead of trying to "preserve" multiple species from extinction, we are better off trying to protect poor and disadvantaged humans from the impact of ecological change.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:52 AM on June 22, 2015


Sorry if I worded it poorly, but that wasn't my intention. The idea that we can measure the value of any particular aspect of our environmentoutside of the whole is indeed what I was trying to get at.
posted by Poldo at 9:53 AM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


instead of trying to "preserve" multiple species from extinction, we are better off trying to protect poor and disadvantaged humans from the impact of ecological change.

This falsely assumes protection of biodiversity would have no significant impact on poor and disadvantaged.
posted by j03 at 9:58 AM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Humans evolved on this planet, and have just as much right to survive as some rhino. We're part of evolution, we're part of nature. The future doesn't resemble the past, and that in and of itself typically scares the bejesus out of people.
posted by gsh at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Responsible scientists have to come out against the gibberish about letting evolution take its course.
posted by No Robots at 10:03 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


j03: ""It's ok that network nodes on the internet are disappearing at a rapid rate because we can't know *which* specific network node might be worth protecting.""

Taking this analogy further, right now, we don't know how many nodes are there (we keep discovering new species), we dont know how these nodes interact with each other (we don't have any predictive model of how a diverse ecology, involving 100s of species, functions), we have no idea what types of nodes will be created in future and how they will impact the network. In short we have a very rudimentary idea about the network and we are trying to act as an admin. We are just a user of the network. a powerful user which can cause a lot of disruption, but just a user who wants to get admin rights without knowing how the network functions.

j03: "This falsely assumes protection of biodiversity would have no significant impact on poor and disadvantaged."

Actually this is more about changing the objective from trying to "protect biodiversity" to protect humans. If our efforts to protect humans results in increased biodiversity, thats good. But having an aim of protecting biodiversity as a stand alone target is a fool's approach.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:04 AM on June 22, 2015


Humans evolved on this planet, and have just as much right to survive as some rhino. We're part of evolution, we're part of nature. The future doesn't resemble the past, and that in and of itself typically scares the bejesus out of people.

This is a false dilemma. We're in no danger of surviving. There are over seven billion of us and we have the benefit of technology. The rhino, however, is in serious danger.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:06 AM on June 22, 2015


sonic meat machine: Humanity will go extinct within the next few hundred years. It is inevitable at this point.

Sangermaine: Blind pessimism isn't anymore scientific or rational than blind optimism.

I honestly can't tell; is SMM's statement pessimism or optimism?
posted by The Bellman at 10:07 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The rhino, however, is in serious danger.

Did you mean, "some" rhino?
posted by uraniumwilly at 10:09 AM on June 22, 2015


They warned me about this type of thinking in Tomorrowland.
posted by fairmettle at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2015


I'm actually reading The Sixth Extinction right now and it's not just the cute little critters and majestic rhinos that are going extinct. It's the plankton that supports the entire ecosystem that includes the fish we eat. It's the trees that provide the habitat for thousands of species along with providing us with oxygen. We do not exist independent of the rest of the living things on this planet. If we wipe everything else out, we go with along with it.
posted by chatongriffes at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2015 [30 favorites]


In short we have a very rudimentary idea about the network and we are trying to act as an admin. We are just a user of the network. a powerful user which can cause a lot of disruption, but just a user who wants to get admin rights without knowing how the network functions.


The suggestion is simply that as a "powerful disruptive user" we should aim to perhaps cause less disruption. You seem to assume that any attempt to lessen the impact of our disruption is folly. I think there's some distance between attempting to lessen human impact and trying to "admin" or control entire ecosystems. I agree with you that total ecosystem control is infeasible.. but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make any attempt to reduce known impacts.

Actually this is more about changing the objective from trying to "protect biodiversity" to protect humans.

That's what I'm saying is a false dichotomy. There is no difference between protecting biodiversity and protecting humans. One is directly related to the other. Biodiversity is a necessary element for humans to thrive.
posted by j03 at 10:14 AM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


We have left many weapons on the ocean floors, each a new crisis as it degrades and releasesi its contents, a large cargo of lindane lies in the English Channel, this content will affect the entire chain of sea life, again and again as these barrels corrode. Palm oil production is wiping out forests all over the tropical regions.

There is interesting work ongoing placing a monetary value to biodiversity, the actions of bats as insect control, for example. I saw an amazing piece on PBS with Amazonian forest people, in full regalia, using laptops, and labeling rainforest trees as carbon sinks, to leverage for ancestral lands.

"Poorly understood" is going to stay that way, if understanding curbs the money. People are working on it, but politics unravels it as fast as it can. I think denying the grid with solar, and keeping water local is important for biodiversity. There is open, hostile war on cultures that exist in harmony with the web of life.

Where I live religion is playing a big role in loss of biodiversity, taking the water before it can nourish the flyway and nesting grounds that is Great Salt Lake.

The poor who know how the biosystem works, will survive us, if we don't pre-destroy their ability to live as they always have.
posted by Oyéah at 10:15 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


...we dont know how these nodes interact with each other (we don't have any predictive model of how a diverse ecology, involving 100s of species, functions)...

This isn't entirely true. While we don't have a 100% effective method of predicting which node / biome / life form will affect another we certainly do have various theories and models. Fields like systems ecology and theories like that of the trophic cascade are just popular examples of entire disciplines and fields of study that are ongoing and very real. Correlations are certainly being made on a year by year basis, some bordering on cause / effect. Broad understandings and consensus among scientific minds are well established. Less biodiversity = generally a bad thing for ecological systems as a whole.

To say that since we don't have a 100% effective predictive model we should just shrug and be "lol whatevs" in the face of fragmentation, deforestation, air pollution, de-speciation, etc because "life goes on" is pretty misguided.

we are better off trying to protect poor and disadvantaged humans from the impact of ecological change

...and yet protecting them could very well be the same act as curbing our own contributions to that change.
posted by jnnla at 10:17 AM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


So for people saying that we shouldn't worry too much about biodiversity even though we still don't understand a lot about how species interact with each other and us, I would like you to do this test:

Go into the system folder on your PC and find a bunch of files you don't recognize or understand. Go ahead and delete them. They probably aren't important. The stuff in "My Documents" is probably way more valuable.

If you know too much about computers to reasonably feign ignorance, open up the hood of your car instead and rip out a couple of random unlabeled hoses and wires.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:31 AM on June 22, 2015 [27 favorites]


The earth abides.
posted by TheLittlePrince


Yeah, if I lived on Asteroid B-612 I wouldn't be worried. In fact, your fellow asteroids probably caused the other extinctions.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:31 AM on June 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


TheLittlePrince >

Taking this analogy further, right now, we don't know how many nodes are there (we keep discovering new species), we dont know how these nodes interact with each other (we don't have any predictive model of how a diverse ecology, involving 100s of species, functions), we have no idea what types of nodes will be created in future and how they will impact the network. In short we have a very rudimentary idea about the network and we are trying to act as an admin. We are just a user of the network. a powerful user which can cause a lot of disruption, but just a user who wants to get admin rights without knowing how the network functions.
...

Actually this is more about changing the objective from trying to "protect biodiversity" to protect humans. If our efforts to protect humans results in increased biodiversity, thats good. But having an aim of protecting biodiversity as a stand alone target is a fool's approach.


I think the latter sentiment is inadvertent evidence of the former. We should do everything we can to protect biodiversity precisely because it's an indispensable characteristic of an extremely complex macro-system, and of countless subsidiary systems, that help to sustain human life in some ways we already understand; and also, undoubtedly, in many ways we don't fully understand yet. Protecting biodiversity is protecting humans, because we are unavoidably dependent on ecological health for human well-being. Any conception of human well-being that discounts a historically-informed model of ecological health is a dangerous mirage.
posted by clockzero at 10:35 AM on June 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


j03: "That's what I'm saying is a false dichotomy. There is no difference between protecting biodiversity and protecting humans. One is directly related to the other. Biodiversity is a necessary element for humans to thrive."

I would disagree there about there being no difference between protecting biodiversity and protecting humans. There are differences.

A lot of conversation about protecting biodiversity (which includes avoiding use of pesticides/insecticides/GMOs, doing organic farming, using "ecologically sustainable"(whatever that means) labels or filters) leads to fewer options and resources for poor people. A lot of conversation about not using pesticides or GMOs goes contrary to what helps humans, especially poor humans in 3rd world countries. It was the use of pesticides and fertilizers which enabled millions of Indians to get enough food. It was the use of industrial farming of GMO cotton which enabled a lot of farmers to rise up from poverty. But there are still millions of hungry people who need help.

And arguments about maintaining biodiversity or ecological sustainability or preserving certain species and thus preventing poor people from farming or hunting are routinely used to reduce the options available to poor for getting food or moving out of poverty.

In fact, in many 3rd world countries, short term human requirements consistently clash against long term environmental preservation objective. Take, for example, gathering wood for cooking. Yes, it causes deforestation, affects water supply and reduces long term sustainability for humans. So, whats the solution? If "protecting biodiversity or preserving, say, tigers " is the objective, then the solution is, usually, a ban on collecting or cutting wood and declaring the forest as biological preserve and driving poor people out of that area. But if "protecting humans" is the objective, the solution is to find alternative, affordable ways for them to cook food. This solution causes preservation of biodiversity as well but the difference in objective causes a big difference in lives of people.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:39 AM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Go into the system folder on your PC and find a bunch of files you don't recognize or understand. Go ahead and delete them. They probably aren't important. The stuff in "My Documents" is probably way more valuable.

Ok, done. Everything seems to be working just f
posted by Xavier Xavier at 10:42 AM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't think biodiversity has any value "for its own sake". The universe has no meaning beyond what we ascribe to it. Biodiversity should be preserved because it helps us. If it helps any other creatures, that's a pleasant bonus.

This is only true if you assume that no other living creatures have a conscious awareness of their environment, which I think is an indefensible position at this point.
posted by junco at 10:44 AM on June 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


clockzero: "Protecting biodiversity is protecting humans, because we are unavoidably dependent on ecological health for human well-being."

Taking a concrete example, many forests in India are protected from human encroachment with the objective of protecting a particular species or keeping a particular ecological niche safe. Preserving ecological niches is a noble objective.

The problem with this objective is that it forgets what happens to the humans who are driven out of the forest or are not allowed to hunt or chop trees. Protecting humans becomes secondary to the "protect tiger" or "protect rhino" objectives. And the objective is not achieved anyway because the poor will, anyway, try to chop trees for wood or hunt the tiger to protect livestock or to get money.

If the approach was changed to "protect humans" the solutions would focus on helping people reduce their dependency on forest. If we are able to lift these people out of poverty and have a comfortable life, they would be much more likely to use the environment sensibly and in a sustainable way. Meanwhile, tigers might become extinct because they cannot co-exist with humans and they cant evolve fast enough, then so be it.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:59 AM on June 22, 2015


Cities in the U.S. west are unsustainable due to water demands, but there is no plan for dealing with that issue. It's clear, it's present, and it's dangerous—and we can't do anything about it.

Not to be all FTFY about this, but it's farming that's unsustainable in the West. In California, agriculture uses 80% of the water to produce 2% (no typo, that's two not twenty) of the state's GDP. We could stop all irrigated farming tomorrow, save the delta smelt, restore a ton of wetlands in the central valley, and destroy dams and improve fishing and rafting tourism for a fairly low cost to the state's economy.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:03 AM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


A lot of conversation about protecting biodiversity (which includes avoiding use of pesticides/insecticides/GMOs, doing organic farming, using "ecologically sustainable"(whatever that means) labels or filters) leads to fewer options and resources for poor people.

Or, you could say that the rapid rise in the use of dangerously unsustainable cultivation practices has led to dependence on a monoculture of cheap calories and that despite our awareness that these practices are dangerously unsustainable we should continue to use them until our soil is depleted and fields are overrun with super-resistant weeds and deal with that crisis when it comes rather than trying to slowly modify our practices in a controlled way.

Yes, it causes deforestation, affects water supply and reduces long term sustainability for humans.

You should just stop there. "reduces long term sustainability for humans."

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you favor long-term, permanent environmental devastation and irreplaceable loss of biodiversity rather than face a potential for short-term discomfort for humans.

Of course we cannot change overnight and there is of course always the potential for the poorest and most vulnerable to be impacted. However, we've made our bed and now must lay in it. We need to begin our change in a manageable way now rather than face endless crisis in the future.
posted by j03 at 11:08 AM on June 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


It took about 3.6 billion years to make the jump to multicellular life. The estimated maximum timeframe of the Earth as a viable host for life is something like 8 billion years--so our planet is around biological middle age, and if an event or events knocked the biosphere back to unicellular forms, it might not have enough time to cook up another complex web of exploding life. Greater biodiversity means greater complexity and speciation in less time with higher chances of adaptation and survival--so this many extinctions happening this fast is deeply unsettling.

Anyway, it goes beyond the domain of the sciences as well: a planet with just us and a few domesticated/"useful" species would not be a worthwhile place to live. Urbanization may have damaged our ability to understand this, because it wouldn't be like living in a modern city; quality of life would be minimal. It would be a literal nightmare, and is most likely not even possible.
posted by byanyothername at 11:11 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Telling why? I'm familiar with the concepts of deep ecology, but not sold. I don't think biodiversity has any value "for its own sake". The universe has no meaning beyond what we ascribe to it.

what is value anyway. also have you ever really looked at your hand
posted by kagredon at 11:12 AM on June 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


Out of curiosity - is there a charity focused solely on preservation of the DNA of endangered species? That seems like something that should exist, if it doesn't.
posted by Ryvar at 11:22 AM on June 22, 2015


It's absolutely astounding to me that anyone can say with a straight face that humans will not go extinct. Of course we will! The only unknown is when, and science points to a hell of a lot sooner than later.
posted by agregoli at 11:24 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


"I look at it this way... For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers... so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it's natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse." - G. Carlin.
posted by ovvl at 11:24 AM on June 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


j03: "However, we've made our bed and now must lay in it."

The problem is that one group of humans made the bed and now want another group of humans to lay in it.

Our misplaced focus on "protecting biodiversity" and "preventing extinctions" is not only hubris of human's significance in this ecology but also a diminishing of the right to survival of billions of humans.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:29 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ryvar, I think people are working on that, but its almost pointless if we don't preserve what we have...you can't create species again from DNA alone, not to mention cloning is pretty primitive still.
posted by agregoli at 11:30 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


agregoli: "Of course we will! The only unknown is when, and science points to a hell of a lot sooner than later."

So, when we transform ourselves, using genetics into creatures which can live underwater or be 10 feet tall or be resistant to radiation or get energy directly from the sun ... or upload our brains into machines, would humans have gone extinct?

I don't think humans will go extinct unless there is an asteroid strikes large enough to destroy earth. And even then, with some warning, some humans still might manage to survive.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Protecting biodiversity is surely a protection rather than a diminishment of the right to survival of billions of humans, due to all the benefits of biodiversity that have been mentioned repeatedly right here in this thread, and all the catastrophic consequences that are seemingly inevitable if we don't. Unless mass starvations are going to turn out to actually be a benefit to everyone's survival somehow.
posted by dng at 11:35 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem is that one group of humans made the bed and now want another group of humans to lay in it.

We're all going to lay in it sooner or later. The consequences of laying in it later seem far worse than doing it sooner.

Our misplaced focus on "protecting biodiversity" and "preventing extinctions" is not only hubris of human's significance in this ecology but also a diminishing of the right to survival of billions of humans.

Our hubris is fact. Our impact is enormously outsized. Every day that we delay action is in fact a diminishment of the right to survival of billions of humans. How can you suggest that *not* taking action is somehow the path of least harm?
posted by j03 at 11:38 AM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem is that one group of humans made the bed and now want another group of humans to lay in it.

You are making the precise opposite point from the one you think you're making. The real issue is a bunch of rich westerners who feel like they get to harvest every single usable resource on Earth for themselves as quickly as possible, which creates environmental catastrophes which are mostly borne by poor people. If your environmental justice argument is seriously to stop preserving biodiversity, I have no idea where you're getting your information because you are just wrong, wrong, wrong about the main drivers and factors in these issues.

So, when we transform ourselves, using genetics into creatures which can live underwater or be 10 feet tall or be resistant to radiation or get energy directly from the sun ... or upload our brains into machines, would humans have gone extinct?

WTF ridiculous counterfactuals are you floating here, and WTF does it have to do with the sixth extinction? And why in god's name are we STILL derailing over this super abstract, honestly dumb question of whether humans will go extinct when there is a very real 6th extinction going on right now, which is conveniently described in the article if anybody cared to read it instead of just coming straight in here with all their ~hot takes~ about how ecologists are just trying to screw over poor people. I can barely even believe this thread.
posted by dialetheia at 11:38 AM on June 22, 2015 [18 favorites]


I think it's quite likely that, in the next 100 years, the combination of climate change and ocean acidification is going to have devastating effects on the phytoplankton that provide around 40% of our oxygen and are the base of the marine foodweb, which is the primary protein source for around 60% of the people on earth. After that, after the famine, after the giant population crash, we may survive as a species. But it's going to suck. And I feel awful about that. So I spend time doing what I can to try to prevent it, or at this point, honestly, mitigate it.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


Let's just burn down the Sistine Chapel while we're at it because there are plenty of artists today and I don't understand the economic benefits that the building provides.
posted by one_bean at 11:43 AM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


j03: " How can you suggest that *not* taking action is somehow the path of least harm?"

I am suggesting that we change our objective from "protecting biodiversity" to "protecting humans" with humans including the poor. In my opinion, the discussion around protecting biodiversity should be around protecting humans actually.

I don't think that means not taking action. i am suggesting that a different set of actions are needed. e.g. stop spending resources in preserving pandas or ensuring that tigers are able to survive or posting guards for the last white rhino. Instead act on humans so that they dont need/want to poach rhinos.

dialetheia: "The real issue is a bunch of rich westerners who feel like they get to harvest every single usable resource on Earth for themselves as quickly as possible, which creates environmental catastrophes which are mostly borne by poor people."

And its the rich westerners who are focusing the discussion on "protecting biodiversity" instead of "protecting humans".

And, I hope you realize that almost everyone in this thread is a "rich westerner" if you include 7 billion humans when categorizing rich.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:47 AM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


World biodiversity is simply dropping to the level which has been the norm in Europe for centuries. A lot will be lost, but it will not be as extreme as some forethink.

This is incorrect. It would be a huge deal for the tropics to sink to the level of biodiversity characteristic of a temperate region that was already relatively species depauperate and has seen even further reductions in biodiversity due to human activity.

We call Homo Erectus as extinct or dinosaurs as extinct but homo sapiens and birds, respectively, have a large part of their DNA. I am not sure if we have a clear definition of what extinction means for a species or a genetic line.

This is WILDLY incorrect and makes zero biological sense.

I don't think biodiversity has any value "for its own sake".

It must be strange to live in a world without any ethical meaning whatsoever outside of human beings. I guess life gets a lot easier if you have no compunctions about destroying the planet that supports your existence as long as you can still get bottled water or whatever.

By aiming to preserve all species existing today, we are trying to convert a living, breathing, changing ecology into a museum and are preventing new species from coming up.
The ecology would sustain.. there will be new species. Life finds a way, so to speak.


Listen, I'm going to try to say this respectfully, but you clearly have no idea what you are talking about. Nobody with even a cursory grounding in biology would say that we don't have a clear definition about "what extinction means" - there may be a couple of different kinds of extinction (a species can be functionally extinct before it's 100% extinct) but your comment is total nonsense. You also clearly have no idea about the conditions and time frame that are necessary for speciation and the development of new species, much less the rate of change on Earth that would be balanced against that rate, and it is fundamentally wrong for you to come in and pretend that you do. You don't know what you're talking about.

And, I hope you realize that almost everyone in this thread is a "rich westerner" if you include 7 billion humans for estimating who is rich.

Of course I do. Dude, I'm an actual ecologist. So are a few of the other people in this thread trying very hard to convince you that you have no idea what you're talking about even as you dominate the shit out of this thread.
posted by dialetheia at 11:51 AM on June 22, 2015 [41 favorites]


And its the rich westerners who are focusing the discussion on "protecting biodiversity" instead of "protecting humans".

You continue to make distinctions where none exist.

I don't think that means not taking action. i am suggesting that a different set of actions are needed. e.g. stop spending resources in preserving pandas or ensuring that tigers are able to survive or posting guards for the last white rhino.

Ohhhhh... I see. You've just decided that "preserving biodiversity" literally means preservation of narrowly defined species. Which is something literally no one has claimed and has very little to do with actual biodiversity projects which are almost entirely about changing human behavior.

Instead act on humans so that they dont need/want to poach rhinos.

So you're saying you want to preserve biodiversity just like we have been saying this whole time.
posted by j03 at 12:01 PM on June 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


dialetheia: "Nobody with even a cursory grounding in biology would say that we don't have a clear definition about "what extinction means" - there may be a couple of different kinds of extinction (a species can be functionally extinct before it's 100% extinct) but your comment is total nonsense."

for your consideration, a definition of extinction

"Extinct (this one seems so obvious, and yet it presents numerous problems):

no member of the species remains alive anywhere in the world.
This is an obvious definition, but how do you apply it? To use an extreme example, the coelacanth (a lobe-finned fish close to the lineage which gave rise to amphibians) was believed to have gone extinct during the Cretaceous (more than 65 million years ago) until a small population of these fish was found off the coast of southeast Africa. Other species believed to be extinct are occasionally sighted (although most of these sightings are unconfirmed). To avoid this problem, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has come up with the following definition of "extinct":

those taxa that have not been definitely located in the wild during the past 50 years."

This doesn't seem to be a very clear definition of extinction ... its legalistic and retrospective.


Don't you think that its fruitless to accuse someone that they don't know anything about a subject? You can either provide me information to show me where I am wrong or you can just ignore me. Just saying that I don't know anything reveals stupidity regarding how a discussion happens.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:09 PM on June 22, 2015


hydropsyche: "I think it's quite likely that, in the next 100 years, the combination of climate change and ocean acidification is going to have devastating effects on the phytoplankton that provide around 40% of our oxygen and are the base of the marine foodweb"

We suggest that contemporary evolution could help to maintain the functionality of microbial processes at the base of marine food webs in the face of global change.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:15 PM on June 22, 2015


The problem with framing things as beneficial to humanity is that that is how things got to be the way they are. We have long been an anthropocentric species assured of our own self importance. The reality of course is that we are not separate from our environment. We cannot change it without changing ourselves. If we do want to preserve ourselves, the first step is to admit that we are not alone on this planet and that the our needs are intractably tied to the needs of the fishes and phytoplankton and forests and wolves and permafrost and bellybutton bacteria. That is why we say "preserve biodiversity" and not "preserve humanity."

We have been "preserving humanity" at the expense of everything else in the world for hundreds of years. Now is the time to leave that ideology behind.
posted by j03 at 12:15 PM on June 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


So, when we transform ourselves, using genetics into creatures which can live underwater or be 10 feet tall or be resistant to radiation or get energy directly from the sun ... or upload our brains into machines, would humans have gone extinct?

In a mass extinction event like the one we're talking about, the extinctions are the end of the line rather than some intermediate station on the way to some exotic barely imagined future destination.

If everything was evolving into myriad new forms, increasing the biodiversity of the planet as a whole even as the older forms are lost, it would presumably be called a mass speciation event instead.
posted by dng at 12:15 PM on June 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


So it's okay to wipe out the entire rest of the ecosystem, as long as WE survive?

Does 'WE' include everybody? All humans? What if we can't save all the humans? I mean, we CAN'T. Obviously we would if we COULD... but since we can't...

Since some people are going to get wiped out anyway, no matter what we do, don't you agree it seems like a shame to disrupt the activities which drive the economy?

Humans are just another kind of animal. Once you start deciding which animals are going in the lifeboat and which animals are going in the cold cold water, you don't have to tweak the parameters very much before you arrive at the real horror show.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:17 PM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


j03: "u've just decided that "preserving biodiversity" literally means preservation of narrowly defined species. "

No.

j03: "So you're saying you want to preserve biodiversity just like we have been saying this whole time."

No.

I am saying that preserving biodiversity should be (or likely would be) a possible outcome. It should not be a goal or an objective.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:17 PM on June 22, 2015


[TheLittlePrince, it feels like you are digging in awfully hard on this thread and at this point I think it'd make sense for you to leave it at your position having been stated a few times and just giving the thread some room to breathe now. "Show me where I'm wrong or ignore me" may sound good in principle but in practice you need to show a little more awareness of when you're leaving an outsized footprint on a thread.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:17 PM on June 22, 2015 [11 favorites]


We suggest that contemporary evolution could help to maintain the functionality of microbial processes at the base of marine food webs in the face of global change.

Yes, a study has suggested that E. huxleyi may be able to adapt to changing ocean pH and continue to form its test. That is a long way from saying that all marine phytoplankton will be able to simultaneously adapt to changing pH and temperatures, or that the die offs that occur along the way (because that's how evolution works: some things die at a higher rate than other things) will not have the devastating effects that I was referring to.

(sorry, cortex. Letting it drop, but not with bad science)
posted by hydropsyche at 12:23 PM on June 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Gregory Bateson in 1970:

If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable in the precybernetic era, and which were especially underlined and strengthened during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have twenty or thirty years before the logical reductio ad absurdum of our old positions destroys us. Nobody knows how long we have, under the present system, before some disaster strikes us, more serious than the destruction of any group of nations.
posted by mariokrat at 12:47 PM on June 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


^Bateson is correct. To solve the current crisis, biology must be completely restructured. Specifically, the theory of evolution needs to be discarded and replaced with a foundation that recognizes the intelligence inherent in all life-forms.
posted by No Robots at 12:59 PM on June 22, 2015


Estimates of the total number of species that inhabit the Earth have increased significantly since Linnaeus’s initial catalog of 20,000 species. The best recent estimates suggest that there are 6 million species...

We have no credible way of estimating how many parasitic protozoa, fungi, bacteria, and viruses exist. We estimate that between 3% and 5% of parasitic helminths are threatened with extinction in the next 50 to 100 years...

Recent studies of food webs suggest that 75% of the links in food webs involve a parasitic species; these links are vital for regulation of host abundance and potentially for reducing the impact of toxic pollutants. This implies that parasite extinctions may have unforeseen costs that impact the health and abundance of a large number of free-living species (PDF)
It'll be a shame that all this stuff will likely disappear before we have time to study it. The decline of bee populations demonstrates that we don't understand food webs nearly well enough.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:02 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


TheLittlePrince >

Taking a concrete example, many forests in India are protected from human encroachment with the objective of protecting a particular species or keeping a particular ecological niche safe. Preserving ecological niches is a noble objective.

The problem with this objective is that it forgets what happens to the humans who are driven out of the forest or are not allowed to hunt or chop trees. Protecting humans becomes secondary to the "protect tiger" or "protect rhino" objectives. And the objective is not achieved anyway because the poor will, anyway, try to chop trees for wood or hunt the tiger to protect livestock or to get money.


This doesn't make a lot of sense. Yes, protecting ecosystems means prioritizing them; what else could it possibly mean, really? If your objection is that it's effectively impossible, I don't even know what to say except that we can either hit the brakes or fly off the side of the mountain, but complaining that you really want to go fast and that braking is such a hassle are fatuous objections without merit.

If the approach was changed to "protect humans" the solutions would focus on helping people reduce their dependency on forest. If we are able to lift these people out of poverty and have a comfortable life, they would be much more likely to use the environment sensibly and in a sustainable way. Meanwhile, tigers might become extinct because they cannot co-exist with humans and they cant evolve fast enough, then so be it.

I think you're missing the scope of the problem.
posted by clockzero at 1:09 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Specifically, the theory of evolution needs to be discarded and replaced with a foundation that recognizes the intelligence inherent in all life-forms.

Sorry, not following you here?
posted by agregoli at 1:09 PM on June 22, 2015


^Bateson is correct. To solve the current crisis, biology must be completely restructured. Specifically, the theory of evolution needs to be discarded and replaced with a foundation that recognizes the intelligence inherent in all life-forms.

I'm not sure I'm reading you correctly. Are you saying that we need to replace the theory of evolution (the backbone of modern biology) because you believe it includes some inherent teleological framework wherein "less evolved" creatures have less intelligence or are less worthy of ethical regard? Because that isn't how it's taught or practiced by biologists. I've taken a lot of biology classes and I'm pretty sure that the teleological argument has been explicitly disclaimed in every single one of them. You're correct to identify the idea as you framed it as problematic, but if anything, I think the idea that all life has to be "intelligent" in some human-defined way in order to be valued is a much more problematic ethical framework.

We don't need to throw out the entire concept of evolution to respect all of the other life on this planet - we just need to be more explicit that evolution is not a goal-oriented process and that there is no such thing as "more evolved", only better adapted for a specific set of conditions. However, I think biologists who are actually familiar with evolutionary theory already do that; it's the popular conception of evolution that we need to work on, if that's what people are taking from it.

Ultimately, though, no framing from biologists is going to overcome the simple fact that we undervalue all life that isn't human. That is a question of values and society, not biological theory.
posted by dialetheia at 1:13 PM on June 22, 2015 [15 favorites]


devastating effects on the phytoplankton that provide around 40% of our oxygen

Normally I tend to think that humans going extinct any time in the next 10 thousand years is very unlikely. Massive population crash, lots of famine and death, of course that is probably inevitable at this point, but we're not going anywhere near actually extinct unless something unexpected happens. The current ecological catastrophe leading to a new balance of life in which the oxygen content of the atmosphere is too low is one way it could happen. At the rate it's going, O2 levels would be down by 1% in five hundred years, maybe enough for people to take notice. If that rate accelerates, maybe enough for people to panic. It's still pretty unlikely, and we've got more immediate threats to worry about, but you know, just saying, there's one more little reason not to work so hard at killing every other species we can't domesticate.
posted by sfenders at 1:13 PM on June 22, 2015


Why is 10,000 years your magic number, sfenders? Just the rate of oxygen depletion?
posted by agregoli at 1:18 PM on June 22, 2015


What about the ocean dying for example...a lot sooner than 10,000 years...
posted by agregoli at 1:22 PM on June 22, 2015


(And apologies, the subject of human extinction and people's attitudes towards it is fascinating to me, a weird sort of hobby, if you will)
posted by agregoli at 1:28 PM on June 22, 2015


Not a magic number, just a big number picked out of the air to contrast with the one from the first comment in this thread.

If 95% of everything dies, the unfortunate human survivors will find a way to live on whatever is left. Even a rather tiny fraction of our current population is still huge compared to species at risk of extinction.
posted by sfenders at 1:29 PM on June 22, 2015


I think the idea that all life has to be "intelligent" in some human-defined way in order to be valued is a much more problematic ethical framework.

The idea that everything is alive and thinking is an ancient one, part of many systems of ethics. It is also a principle recognized by many activists in the green movement:
This position, that all nature contemplates, is also known as panpsychism. This is basically the philosophical ground that Deep Ecologists say is required in order to found a biocentric ecological ethic. Panpsychism can be arrived at through reason and through the aesthetical disclosures of feeling, but much more fundamentally it is a revelation of gnosis or contemplation.--Revisioning Environmental Ethics / By Daniel A. Kealey, p. 90e
Biology that reduces all life-forms to mechanistic automata, while exempting human consciousness, is at the base of all our problems with the biosphere.
posted by No Robots at 1:33 PM on June 22, 2015


No one said automata, but not all life has intelligence, is all. That doesn't mean biodiversity isn't important.
posted by agregoli at 1:35 PM on June 22, 2015


The position that the discipline of biology is somehow the real source of all of our problems with the biosphere is incoherent: in fact, biologists have been identifying and describing harms to biosphere from human activity (as in the linked article) for decades now. There is also nothing inherent in the discipline of biology that carves out human consciousness or intelligence as somehow exceptional; if anything, the opposite.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:55 PM on June 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


Biology that reduces all life-forms to mechanistic automata, while exempting human consciousness, is at the base of all our problems with the biosphere.

I mean, I agree that Descartes' automaton framing is and has been a huge problem, I just don't agree that the foundations of this can be found in modern evolutionary theory, or that modern biologists even buy into that framing. I know a lot of people who are ornithologists, for example, and while they might have a lot of scientific knowledge about what constitutes bird intelligence, how it compares to human intelligence, etc., they still believe in the fundamental rights of those species to survive and be able to do their bird things without undue harm from humans. I know people who work on soil biota and while they probably don't think a lot about the 'intelligence' of those species, they definitely respect and think deeply about those species' importance in the soil community, the ecological services those species provide, their keystone role in the ecosystem, etc. I get that panpsychism is one way to make the argument for deep ecology, but I don't think it's the only way. For me, the simple principles of interconnectedness and humility get me most of the way there.

I can see your point that framing everything in terms of how it benefits humans is a lot of what got us to this point - and I don't even disagree! - but I don't think it's really fair to point the finger at biology when that framing is mostly promulgated by industry, not science. Yes, biologists investigate physiology, but I don't know of a single physiologist who isn't also convinced of the inherent dignity of the organisms they study. I could agree with you in a limited sense, where biologists maybe have a much more complex view of things but that their science is often warped or taken out of context to benefit and prop up industry arguments. But to point the finger at biologists instead of industry or any of the other big drivers of our modern western societies just seems kind of myopic to me.
posted by dialetheia at 2:01 PM on June 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Even with respect to soil biota, whether or not you want to call it "intelligence" or something else, the study of biology reveals that those microbes certainly are very good at integrating signals from their environment, making decisions (like whether to form a biofilm or sporulate), communicating with each other (even across species), and participating in complex interactions with species from other domains of life.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:09 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah, I wouldn't call any of that intelligence, because that has a specific meaning in biology, and none of that rises to that level. Microbes and plants are not intelligent. They are neat, though.
posted by agregoli at 2:38 PM on June 22, 2015


My point was more that biology has actually provided a lot of evidence against human exceptionalism, because it has shown that many of the behaviors naively thought to be specific to us or to creatures in our general lineage are actually found across the tree of life -- there are a lot of analogies between things that microbes do and things that neurons do, for instance, even at the level of molecular mechanism. That's not to argue that those things in themselves necessarily constitute "intelligence" per se (though I do think the definition of intelligence is less cut and dry than your reply suggests).
posted by en forme de poire at 4:08 PM on June 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Arguments against the exceptionality of humans certainly don't do much for ecology. Nature is nothing if not red in tooth and claw. If humans aren't exceptional, they have no obligation to nature (other species, and other people, outside of their own bloodline) besides eating it and avoiding being eaten by it.
posted by MattD at 4:13 PM on June 22, 2015


If humans aren't exceptional, they have no obligation to nature

Believing that we've been ordained by God to take care of the earth is one possible motivation for trying not to wreck it too badly. I'm not convinced there aren't others.
posted by sfenders at 4:43 PM on June 22, 2015


If humans aren't exceptional, they have no obligation to nature (other species, and other people, outside of their own bloodline) besides eating it and avoiding being eaten by it.

Well, conversely, that also means they have no reason to presume that they are more important than others. But anyway, the specific comments I was responding to were claiming that modern biology and the theory of evolution somehow necessitate an anthropocentric philosophy. I think that's inaccurate for the reasons I pointed out, but even if you only care about nature in anthropocentric terms, there are still very good reasons to be concerned about diminishing biodiversity, as others have pointed out extensively both ITT and in attached articles, etc.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:11 PM on June 22, 2015


I meant nothing cut nor dry, but this is far too nebulous a discussion when the post is about the realities of species loss.

Also, I hope you're not sweeping me under your umbrella of anthropocentic folks, because that's a bit hilarious considering my focus in my creative work. I am anything but championing humankind.
posted by agregoli at 6:18 PM on June 22, 2015


Arguments against the exceptionality of humans certainly don't do much for ecology. Nature is nothing if not red in tooth and claw. If humans aren't exceptional, they have no obligation to nature (other species, and other people, outside of their own bloodline) besides eating it and avoiding being eaten by it.

Ecology is the branch of biology that studies the relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environment. Arguments against the exceptionality of humans are actually part and parcel with the science of ecology. Many many of us study humans as just another organism involved in those relationships.

The word you are looking for is 'environmentalism'.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:31 PM on June 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


His voice somehow did not carry conviction. Alvarez was sure he did know why this year was different, and he said softly, "This year we've reached the goal. The birth rate now exactly matches the death rate; the population level is now exactly steady; construction is now confined to replacement entirely; and the sea farms are in a steady state. Only you stand between all mankind and perfection...

"Because of a few mice?"

"Because of a few mice. And other creatures. Guinea pigs. Rabbits. Some kinds of birds and lizards. I haven't taken a census-"

"But they're the only ones left in all the world. What harm do they do?"

"What good?" demanded Bunting.
-2430 AD
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:37 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, I hope you're not sweeping me under your umbrella of anthropocentic folks, because that's a bit hilarious considering my focus in my creative work.

Definitely not trying to say anything about you personally, I'm just responding specifically to your comment that "[intelligence] has a specific meaning in biology," which I think is an oversimplification. Also, maybe you have me confused with another poster but I'm not attempting to make any kind of umbrella statement of "anthropocentric folks," nor have I even said that anthropocentricity is morally good or bad -- just that modern biology does not necessarily entail it, and that modern biology undermines certain aspects of an anthropocentric world-view. But I agree, this is sort of off-topic here.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:26 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Our research tells us that biodiverse communities are more productive (i.e., more total biomass of stuff), more consistantly productive from year to year, and more resilient to disturbances like fires, storms, droughts, and floods than less biodiverse communities.

As someone working on the applied side of ecology, I wish more projects focused directly on adding resiliency, rather than assuming that it will be a byproduct of other approaches.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:55 PM on June 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


i'm all for not privileging humans (not specieist!) like i'd take some comfort in wasps, ants or bacteria sticking around -- nevermind all the charismatic megafauna :P -- but being human i guess i'm more on board the pro-human 'team' that considers itself a part of a larger network;* william lecky's program of widening our circles of concern for us to grow as a species (and then perhaps to transcend it? that or like the end of vonnegut's galápagos ;)

anyway fwiw, for a great meditation on biodiversity (and our place in the 'mandala'!) i'd recommend _the forest unseen_ by david george haskell:
First, to unravel life’s cloth is to scorn a gift. Worse, it is to destroy a gift that even hardheaded science tells us is immeasurably valuable. We discard the gift in favor of a self-created world that we know is incoherent and cannot be sustained. Second, the attempt to turn a forest into an industrial process is improvident, profoundly so. Even the apologists for the chemical ice age will admit that we are running down nature’s capital, mining the soil, then discarding spent land. This rash ingratitude, justified by the economic “necessity” created by our ballooning consumption of inexpensive wood, seems to be an outward mark of inner arrogance and confusion.

Wood and wood products such as paper are not the problem. Wood provides us with shelter, paper with nourishment for the mind and spirit—unarguably wholesome outcomes. Wood products can also be much more sustainable than the alternatives such as steel, computers, and plastic, all of which use large quantities of energy and nonrenewable natural products. The problem with our modern forest economy lies in the unbalanced way that we extract wood from the land. Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over all other values. It does not have to be this way. We can find our way back to thoughtful management for the long-term well-being of both humans and forests. But finding this way will require some quiet and humility. Oases of contemplation can call us out of disorder, restoring a semblance of clarity to our moral vision.
oh and btw, i'm also reading ramez naam's 'infinite resource' now (speaking of the pope's latest encyclical :) and i thought he made a pretty good point on pg. 134:
Whenever the need has been great, or the financial rewards high, inventors have come calling. And innovation has allowed us to find substitutes for every resource that's come into short supply in the past. The combined global brain of humanity, mediated by the institutions of science and the market, and by our ever-increasing ability to communicate with one another, is more than just Darwinian. It doesn't just randomly combine ideas to get new ones and select for those that are useful. It anticipates problems and directs resources to solving them.
now he's an admitted optimist but from what i've read so far he's also a realist -- including biodiversity as a 'resource' -- and doesn't gloss over the immense challenges -- including market dysfunction, which chapters i haven't gotten to yet -- but the call to action is even more pressing knowing that solutions are readily available and, indeed, already proposed...

---
*re: "knowing how the network functions," network theory overview!
posted by kliuless at 11:42 PM on June 22, 2015


Yeah, en forme, you've totally lost me, sorry. I feel like you're arguing against things I didn't know were part of the convo, so I must have missed something.
posted by agregoli at 5:17 AM on June 23, 2015


As Global Population Grows, Is The Earth Reaching The 'End Of Plenty'? - "So 9.6 billion people is their median level, which is typically their most accurate, by 2050, rising to almost 11 billion by the end of the century. So we are looking at, you know - as one planet reader at Purdue University said, we're looking at having to grow as much food in the next forty years as we have since agriculture began 10,000 years ago. It is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced, and we have to do it without destroying the water, the oceans, the soils, that we all depend on. It's just - it's a staggering challenge."
posted by kliuless at 5:32 AM on June 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


obligatory
posted by kisch mokusch at 8:01 AM on June 23, 2015


Still, scientists say, it’s possible to avert their gloomy predictions. They give us about a generation to make the changes needed to slow the rate of species loss.

But our (extinction) debt must be paid.
posted by congen at 9:06 AM on June 23, 2015


The New Abolitionism - "Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth."

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math -"Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is" July, 2012.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:54 PM on June 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Humanity will go extinct within the next few hundred years. It is inevitable at this point. Intelligence was a maladaptation.

Fingers crossed.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


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