Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Anthropocentrism and saving the world

A recent posting over at Soc Images made me return to some of my ideas about justifications for a conservation ethic. In the post, lisa talks about how an ad pits hopelessness against hopefulness, using some false logic:
Saving the world isn’t easy. Saving a life is.
Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives.
The ad commits two fallacies.
First, it compares saving the whole world (or maybe every tree in the world) with saving just “a” life. Saving a life may, indeed, be easier than saving the whole world, but it’s not a fair comparison. Saving the whole world is hard, but about as hard as saving every life on it.
Second, it suggests that we have to choose. “You could try to save the world,” the ad says, “but it’s pretty hopeless. It’s much easier to save a life. So put down that tree and donate blood.” Giving blood, then, is placed in competition with environmental activism as if (or because) volunteerism is a zero sum game.
I'm not going to get into the arguments that people had about whether the ad as actually presenting logical fallacies or not. (You can look at that long thread of comments, if you really want to.) However, there were a few points that some commenters made that did make me respond. These were based on the argumentation that human life is fundamentally more important than other life.

One commenter (Perseus) left the following comment in response to a comment about the importance of trees on the quality of human life:
Have you considered that trees grow back, and that human lives are irreplaceable? Hmmm?
Another commenter (AR), who had actually started the thread, left the following comment in response to the same importance-of-trees comment:

Trees aren’t that important, to my understanding. Contrary to popular belief, most oxygen is produced from algae, not trees, and any sequestering effect trees have on pollutants is temporary since all of that gets released when trees decay. Indeed, they can even contribute to global warming, depending on latitude, because their relative darkness traps more heat from sunlight than would the green house gases they absorb, which are released when they die anyway.
But even granting for the sake of argument that all of that is false, you’re still back at saving human lives, not trees for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.
I won't discuss here the problems with AR's scientific understandings, but will focus more on his second paragraph, alongside what Perseus wrote. Although I answered both Perseus and AR, I will just present my response to AR:
you’re still back at saving human lives, not trees for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.
This is the same false equivalency that Perseus appears to make. You seem to be implying that humans’ unique, individual natures are what makes each human worth saving, as opposed to trees, for which you hold no value with regard to their unique, individual natures.
Of course, all of that is implied in your statement. However, change out the organisms (either with new ones, or by switching their place). Suddenly, you can see that the two categories are not equivalent:
“You’re still back at saving trees, not human lives for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.”
… but it does, AR, but it does.
Of course, being human, we are predisposed to thinking of each person as being unique and important (because of and in addition to our own “human-ness” and ability to perceive each other’s uniqueness). However, why is the intrinsic importance of one more individual in a population of 6,800,000,000 different when the next individual (the 6,800,000,001st) is an member of a species of tree, dog, or snake, instead of a human?
According to your apparent argument (and Perseus’ more heavily implied argument), the 6,800,000,001st human is fundamentally more important than the 6,800,000,001st tree, dog, or snake. But what makes that human more important? Is it because you are human that you make that distinction? If so, at what point does a tree, dog, or snake become more important than the 6,800,000,001st human? When there are only 2 left (hopefully a mating pair)? When there is only 1 left (and thus meaning that the species will be gone forever once it dies)? Or never? (And if the reason is not based on you being a human, then what is your non-anthropocentric reason for the intrinsic importance of humans that you imply?)
NOTE: I’m not a misanthrope, but I do see the implications behind your (and Perseus’) argument as being not fully thought out. If you have, however, thought out the implications of your stance, then you have “merely” presented what I perceive to be a gross error of argumentation, as outlined above.
And I really think that this is true: we justify the saving of human life over other life by implicitly giving it more value than other life (even the save-the-trees comment to which both Perseus and AR were replying based the reason on how it helps humans). Given a choice between killing a parrot (cue Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch) or a human (or even allowing one to die versus the other), I would choose to save the human, and I would imagine that most people would do the same. Never mind that humans number in the range of nearly 7 billion, and therefore the loss of one human is statistically non-significant to the population, whereas many species of parrots have near-extinct population levels, and the loss of one individual is statistically significant to the population.

This is one of the problems with many conservation movements: we need some reason to care about the protection of the environment, and the reasons that seem to create the strongest response (both for and against conservation) involve how action will affect "us" (either as humans generally speaking, or to "us" as a nation, region, or smaller group). The strong conservation organizations in the United States are based on hunting and fishing organizations -- groups of people who find utility in the outdoors, preferring more natural settings in which to do their activities. (Indeed, the implicit meaning behind "outdoor conservation" -- or similar labels -- in the United States is often that it is to protect the ability of the land and/or water to support certain types of human activity.)

One of the strongest images for environmental protection is the World Wildlife Fund's panda, and charismatic megafauna are commonly used to rally support for protection efforts. The reason why charismatic megafauna are important is usually not because of their position in an ecosystem, but rather because of their position within a social system, and how their perceived charisma can help create an umbrella of support for other organisms or ecosystems that need protection.

Even the various definitions of the popular concept of "sustainable development" is contingent upon human action. Indeed, the etymology of the phrase combines two very human concepts: sustainability -- which requires an understanding of resource (a human concept) management (a human concept) -- combined with development -- which requires a conceptualization of a desired future (based, likely, around a human conceptualization of what exactly IS desirable). In a recent article on the topic at Treehugger, Matthew McDermott points in the direction of anthropocentric justification when he describes what he calls the point around which sustainable development revolves:
All of human activity needs to stay within the ecological carrying capacity of the planet; it needs to not consume resources in excess of the ability of ecosystems (both planet-wide and more locally) to regenerate those same natural resources. Anything else compromises both the ability of the present generation to meet its wants and needs and the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
Of course, much this central point rests on the assumption that humans are somehow important, something that McDermott mentions in his article:
All of these factors contribute to a sustainable environment, but there's one other factor that is crucial and steps beyond many conceptions of sustainable development: The recognition that the planet and all species within it do not exist solely for human benefit and use. We may use them, within limits, but everything out there that is non-human is not rightly viewed through the lens of human utility.

We are part of the whole, not the sum of it nor separate from it. We cannot exist sustainably without it--in wonky terms, without the ecosystem services provided to us free of financial charge by clean air, clean water, clean and fully functioning habitats. Preservation of those, even at current levels (as degraded as they are based on what we know existed from historic record), is the big question that sustainable development attempts to address.
But although McDermott says that it is vitally important -- if we wish to have sustainability -- to incorporate this into the decision-making processes that run our (human) world, he doesn't attempt to answer how to strengthen non-anthropocentric arguments for conservation. I would argue that unless and until we can think beyond ourselves as towns, regions, and nations -- beyond ourselves as a species, even --we won't be able to really have sustainable development.

This could happen via technological fixes, all working to close the gaps caused by regional and nationalistic viewpoints. By closing all the holes by using technology, by linking human progress explicitly into the health of everything around us, we could potentially form a society that would be forced -- due to self-preservation -- act sustainably. However, that would still rest on an anthropocentric justification for action.

I don't know how one might transcend self-interest, let alone species-interest, to get toward a form of sustainability. Heck, in a time when we are living with intense nationalist fervor in several countries, I don't know how we can get beyond a tribalist viewpoint of the world... Perhaps Malthus will have the last laugh in the end: a post-world-wide population decimation (due to war, famine, disease, and death) to bring populations back in line with a regional carrying capacity. This would, too, be a form of sustainability, I suppose.

UPDATE: Perseus apparently wanted to respond to my comment. Here is what how he justified the relative importance of humans over trees:
Human lives are irreplaceable because the neural network in every human is entirely unique. The personality, the thoughts, the creativity and knowledge are like no one else. No other animals have that capacity, and trees are even far below animals. Trees can regrow, but nobody can replace a human brain. Trees also don’t have complex nervous systems. They can’t feel or think. They are simply reactionary things programed by their metabolisms.
I just couldn't leave it alone. Really, it reads (to me) like a serious jumble of circular logic based on false equivalency. So I decided to tell him so:
Your justification is that the human brain is unique (never mind the pedantic point that “entirely unique” is redundant). I will give that to you, while pointing out that every organism with a brain has a unique brain, thus making the presence of unique brains brain not — in itself — something special about humans. A poor opening salvo, but let’s see how you progress.
You point out that only humans have the capacity to have personality, thoughts, creativity, and knowledge like we do. However, that merely downplays the unique abilities that other species have that humans lack. I could easily say that only trees have the ability of making sclerenchyma and parenchyma (i.e., wood); photosynthesize across a wide array of photo-aspects and seasons, produce fruiting bodies to which many animals are evolved to eat; grow to heights unrivaled by other organisms in nature; etc. All of these reasons are just as valid for being characteristics of what is “valuable” as the ones you provide.
However, you base the remainder of your argument on the assumption that it is BECAUSE we have these traits, that we are higher than “lower” organisms like trees (and presumably other animals).
However, you present a false argument: humans are better than other organisms because they are the only animals that have human characteristics. This is circular logic.
You also fail to provide a means of classifying things that are not human into “higher” and “lower” beings. If things are to be classified as “high” or “low” based on how human-like they are (which is the only rule that I can divine from your statement), then how do you classify plants as “lower”, since they are of a different set than humans?
Such an classification of “lower” (and presumably, therefore, a presence of a “higher”) is based on a false equivalency and would be analogous to saying that pocket watches are better than DVDs because you can tell time using a pocket watch. The false equivalency of my statement is because I placed a member from another group in with the group for which I had a rubric for “being good.”
Seriously, if you just feel — axiomatically — that humans are better than trees (and there is nothing wrong with taking such a point of view: it’s perfectly natural), than just say so without trying to rationalize it, since when you do try to rationalize it, your logic fails because it is based on false equivalency and circular logic.
I really wonder if he will "get it" or not. If not, well, I suppose that's his problem. If so, then perhaps the next time will merely say, "Humans are more important than other organisms. Q.E.D." (or the like). Making an axiomatic statement like that is fine, since I haven't figured out a way of really justifying it -- or why people should save things that aren't human -- any other way, and if I can't come up with a train of logic that can justify it, then I shouldn't argue when someone else just cuts the logical reasoning and provides an axiomatic statement. (At least, I shouldn't argue until I am presented with a good one.)

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