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Should We Conserve Nature for Nature's Sake, or for Our Own?

02/20/2015 02:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

The heavyweights of conservation have weighed in - Peter Kareiva, Michael Soule, Jane Lubchenco, Gretchen Daily, and others. Their positions were reported in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Nature, and elsewhere.

An important stance on this question is that human welfare is so important and profoundly threatened by environmental deterioration that we cannot afford concern for nature's interests. We must focus instead on conservation that serves our self-interests.

The poverty of that stance originates with the question itself, which is a bit like, have you stopped beating your spouse yet? Both questions, in their presumptuousness, are misleading. The question we should be asking is, what aspects of nature deserve to be treated with concern for its welfare or in a just manner? In other words, what aspects of nature possess intrinsic value? The answer, it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the importance of humans or the predicament we created by abusing nature.

Nature's intrinsic value can be understood by knowing what traits humans possess that imbue us with intrinsic value and what else in nature possesses such traits. One such trait is the capacity to experience pain. Mammals and birds certainly possess that capacity. By this reasoning mammals and birds possess intrinsic value. The science and reasoning are unequivocal.

Insects and mollusks cannot experience pain - at least not anything like that experienced by mammals. Plants certainly cannot experience pain. Nevertheless, living creatures can flourish when treated well and languish when mistreated. That capacity to flourish and languor may imbue the things of nature with intrinsic value.

Do collections of organisms - species and ecosystems - possess intrinsic value? An analogy clarifies the question: Aaron Rodgers possesses intrinsic value by virtue of being human, but do the Green Bay Packers possess intrinsic value? Does the group itself possess intrinsic value? Despite its arcane appearance, the question carries considerable import. Increasingly, conservation conflicts with the welfare of many living creatures. We kill barred owls to save spotted owls in the Pacific northwest, kill wolves to save caribou in southern Alberta, kill brown-headed cowbirds to save songbirds, and in myriad other cases we kill organisms in the name of conservation.

One view on the value of species and ecosystems goes like this: You are a member of a community and your interest to be treated with respect and concern for your welfare as a community member obligates you to treat other community members the same. In short, community membership may imbue the things of nature with intrinsic value.

A critic might highlight uncertainties. Does an ant, for example, really possess the kind of welfare that merits our concern? It is far wiser to presume the existence of intrinsic value in living things until reasonably demonstrated otherwise. The risk of gratuitous care is much preferred to unjust disregard. Fish illustrate the concern. If not for recent advances in science, we would seriously doubt a fish's capacity to experience pain. Now we know the earlier science had been wrong.

Another critic might object on grounds that caring for nature for its own sake is misanthropic. The objection is misplaced because misanthropy involves disparaging the intrinsic value of humans. Humans are quite capable of caring for many more than one kind of thing, in this case humans and the rest of nature. To think otherwise invites the suggestion that honoring our ethnicity obligates us to racism.

Others think the issue is entirely moot because many important conservation actions - fighting climate change, reducing pollution, etc. - can be motivated by concern for humans or nature. True, but many aspects of nature do not serve human welfare in any significant way. An example being nearly every one of the thousand species protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Caring for humans and nature, each for their own sake, leads to wildly different planet than caring for nature only so much as it serves humans.

Some are sympathetic to nature's intrinsic value but believe they are among the few who feel this way. They shun nature's intrinsic value in favor of something more persuasive. That sense of pragmatism is woefully misplaced because sociological and cultural evidence suggests that nature's intrinsic value is widely acknowledged. More importantly, our first obligation as moral creatures is figure out what is right and then behave accordingly. Our second obligation is work like hell to persuade recalcitrant non-believers. But failure to persuade is not reason to abandon the first obligation.

But we cannot save everything. The resources at our disposal are far too limited. We must triage the crisis and that means human interests first. And, with that simple logic we land right back on the impoverished stance that began this essay.

Crisper logic is called for. Of course, each of us individually has limited resources. Institutions, no matter how large, have limited resources. Individuals and institutions must decide how to manifest their care for the world on the basis of their abilities and the world's needs. One might help the food pantry (or be the food pantry). Another might help the land conservancy (or be the land conservancy). Neither can rightly critique the other.

Extend that logic. We - as a human race, even as an American people - have plenty of resources to conserve nature both for its sake and ours. We are short on willpower, not resources. Triage cannot be rightly invoked in response to a shortage of willpower.

Our humanity distinguishes us from the rest of nature. That humanity depends on acknowledging nature's intrinsic value. The only appropriate response to this essay's title is to shout with moral outrage what a sick tragedy it is to trade our humanity for survival when it is not necessary to give up either. All the while, do whatever you can to make the world a better place.

This essay was co-written with Michael Paul Nelson (Oregon State University) and Jeremy T. Bruskotter (Ohio State University). For a technical treatment of these ideas see "Evaluating whether nature's intrinsic value is an axiom of or anathema to conservation," published this month in Conservation Biology.