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The current debate about whether or not “we” should eliminate the last two lab samples of smallpox has me thinking more widely about the issue of species extinction. Also, I am in the middle of this book at the moment (my favorite nugget was his discussion of how a typical plant only converts 2% of the sun’s available energy into growth – a very “inefficient” engine so to speak). Now there are good reasons to respect the enormous diversity of species that are out there – not just because it is a wonder, and many are intriguing and beautiful in their own special ways, but because of both known and unknown ways in which species diversity contributes to the “health” of the planet and of course to human well-being.

Now I could be trite and repeat a line I use in class, but am actually not much enamored with – clearly not all species are equally valuable, indeed, we TRIED to eradicate smallpox, and we are surely a species ourselves that would like to see certain forms of bacteria eradicated. Many people also make it a point to try to eradicate entire species of insects that are harmful to human health or food production or both. But instead of that point I’d like to make a non-research empirical observation, perhaps motivated by me staring out my window at the moment to see a lawn full of starlings and house sparrows – perhaps the two most common birds we have in this part of America.

About 100 years ago, the Passenger Pigeon was hunted to extinction. This is somewhat shocking particularly given how abundant the species was in the late 19th century – with estimates, if I recall correctly, of their numbers swelling well into the hundreds of millions. Yet in a matter of a few short decades we managed to kill every last one of them – that’s pretty impressive. Now here is where the dinner table invite is rescinded. What, really, has been lost? I love birds as much as the next person, and I hope I don’t need to have to prove that to you, and I would surely love to be able to see a Passenger Pigeon today. But I cannot see it. But how damaging has that loss been to the ecosystem at large? Yes, some things it fed on now do better, and some species that preyed on it now do worse, but in terms of the overall “health” of the world we live in, has their eradication meant anything? And are there empirical papers demonstrating the environmental harm due tot he extinction of this species, aside from the lost amenity value? I don’t think so. Furthermore, my impression of people, even ardent “E”nvironmentalists is that any particular species is a substitute for others. Why? Ask people if they care deeply about conserving the spiny headed desert slug. And then ask them if they care about conserving the smooth headed city slug. And so on. My sense is that as we ask more and more questions like this, the amount of resources even they would be willing to dedicate to protection and conservation is limited. My point is that I don’t think people care as much about any particular species as our rhetoric and news stories say they do – but they do generally care about “species” existing qua species. And yes, I understand that there are some species that are indicator species and others that are the foundation for enormous food chains and oxygen production and so on – not all species are created equal. But, really, what has the loss of the Passenger Pigeon meant? And going forward, are we vastly over- or under-estimating the impact of species declines and extinctions on our well-being? None of this is to suggest, again, that species are not important, but we should also try to keep in mind that it is simply not plausible that all species are equally important (our pursuit of the eradication of smallpox demonstrates this) and furthermore that as we get a little brighter and more technically sophisticated, it is not at all clear that there are not more substitutes for “natural capital” than some folks assert.

9 Responses to “Uninvited from the Environmental Dinner Table”

  1. Harry says:

    PETA, by implication, would be happy if domesticated cattle would have the same fate as the Shakers. The literature they pass out argues that meat and milk production consume too much grain, which could be better allocated by the commissar toward people making their own tortillas and soy burgers. The farmers would grow the crops, keep a share for their needs, and give the rest to the other people in the world according to their needs, and voila! World Hunger would end, and we would have healthier diets, reducing health care costs worldwide. No more hamburgers or cheese pizzas.

  2. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    I don’t disagree that you would be uninvited from any black tie gathering of limousine liberals with such questions, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the burdened of proof falls on the lunatic throwing paint on my chinchilla fur coat to show that extinction of the passenger pigeon is necessarily a bad thing (in terms of the overall “health of the planet”). As you acknowledge, the ecosystem is infinitely complex, just like human action and interaction. Just as I would challenge any fool who thought they could determine what the supply of a good would be for utility to be optimal, I would challenge anyone who believed that there was no harm in a species becoming extinct. I think Taleb treats these questions fairly in “Antifragile” when he says that when we deviate from any environment that is the product of natural selection and trial and error, whether it’s bureaucrats trying to plan markets, inhaling smoke into our lungs, or wiping passenger pigeons off the face of the earth, the burdened is on us to show that these actions are not harmful.

  3. Speedmaster says:

    For decades I’ve been told that earth is a very delicate balance, if we lose anything then it will all start to fall apart.

    A couple thoughts on that.

    1. I’ve read/heard that something like 97% of all species that have ever existed on earth were gone before humans even arrived. If true, doesn’t that blow up the argument above?

    2. And doesn’t it seem arrogant to assume that they way things are right now, is the ideal or “correct” state of the planet?

    • Scott says:

      Exactly. Isn’t extinction a part of nature?

    • Harry says:

      Great points, Speedmaster. I thought of “the butterfly effect”, a notion that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings in a particular direction and its polar opposite (the other wing) has a profound effect on everything, including but not limited to the global climate and political and economic events, like Oswald’s being on time at the Texas Book Depository.

      We all can identify with happenstance; I would have never met my wife if I had done x, y, and z twenty years earlier because of a,b, and c, which would have been different if d were different. Yet the butterfly effect has been one of the arguments to sell the idea that insignificant conditions, along with convenient assumptions and a sufficiently inscrutable computer model will predict whatever catastrophe one wishes, particularly when big money (Quadrillions of dollars?) are up for grabs.

      Now, I am not for exterminating entire species. I am for cutting down the ground hog population to two per ten square miles.

  4. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    1) Not necessarily. The argument isn’t that losing the passenger pigeon will cause an unraveling of the habitable earth as we know it. It’s that the burdened of proof isn’t on those who believe it’s bad to cause a species to go extinct, but on those who believe there will be no consequence.

    2) Yes, but when I say correct I don’t mean ideal. I assume that evolution, which works like any market, will yield the correct outcome. Thousands of years of trial and error will likely yield a more robust environment than on sculpted by central planners. Not to say that the government told everyone to shoot all of the passenger pigeons they could, but I think man causing a species to go extinct is akin to the rapid changes markets endure when a bureaucrat is calling the shots. Evolution is specific knowledge, and man is averages and standard deviations.

    • Harry says:

      Evolution, selective breeding, and today genetic engineering yields an outcome we hope will be beneficial; but not necessarily is it in the right direction.

      Take roosters bred for cockfights, and the closely-bred, presumably aggressive hens that laid the eggs from which the roosters hatched. (The Fighting Bantam is the mascot of Trinity College). What would be lost if they were to be wiped out entirely? (I know they are not a species, but might be classified as a sub-species.)

      Ah, you say, this is an example of man interfering with nature. But if somebody interested in cockfighting found a wild bird that looked enough like a fighting cock to enter it and get the betting going, it would be tried, especially if the bird had a chance.

      Then, on the other hand, the cockfighting lobby would get involved, arguing that the sport provides pleasure and profit to enthusiasts, and that the birds are protected, since some of them are used as sacrifices in religious observances (First Amendment) and who are we to say what is right when it comes to messing with Mother Nature?

  5. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    To be clear, this is not an anti-humanist argument. I don’t think eradicating smallpox requires complete justification of the first, second, third,…level consequences on a micro level. I also don’t think we should ban fossil fuels because we can’t show with certainty what the consequences are. If we had to kill 95% of the species on earth to save 50% of the human population, I would say that it would certainly be worthwhile. I just think it’s a little unfair to suggest that one who advocates for preservation of a species has to prove that the benefits outweigh the costs, especially because I think save for certain bacteria/virus’ (smallpox, e coli, etc.) the benefits from are not obviously large, and the costs are unseen and impossible to measure.

    • Wintercow20 says:

      I don’t disagree with Gabe. My emphasis was that in this particular case the extinction seems to not have been very consequential.

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