September 15, 2014

What is useful anyways?

Although I understand why it happens, I frequently find myself asking "why?" Why are humans so self centered? Why does nature have to benefit humans to be valuable to us? Why is the anthropocentric world view so common and socially acceptable? 

"Oh, it is just human nature." "All species worry about themselves first." "That's natural." 

Maybe to a certain respect it is natural, or at least makes sense on some primal level. It makes sense that someone will worry about their daughter more than an insect, and how a flower may cure their cancer more than a "useless" minnow swimming in a stream. But shouldn't what sets humans apart from other animals allow us to think more deeply and broadly about the value of nature?

I can't help wondering why our consciousness, our understanding of how the world works, and our ability to flourish on this earth rather than just survive doesn't leave room in the human mind to appreciate and value all living things for their innate worth. Let things live for their own sake. Attempt to protect living things for their own right to live. Do we really need more than we already have, more space, more water, more forests, more resources? Or can we understand that our ingenuity is all we need to be perfectly satisfied with what we have and still continue to raise our standard of living in order to leave plenty of space and resources for other life. 

We have all we need in intellectual capitol to live amazing and beautiful lives today without taking away from other living things. Yet, somehow, we still have to convince people to care about the natural world only through describing how the natural word will benefit them in some tangible and utilitarian way. 

Below is an article from New York Times blogger Richard Conniff addressing just this issue. I really appreciate this article and the questions that it brings up. For my last project, that involved raising awareness about 50 species affected by climate change, I thought about this a lot. I chose some species that conjure up sympathy from people, such as the panda bear and the holy cocoa tree. Since I feel pretty passionate about all living things being equally important in the unbelievable complex network that is the biosphere, I consciously chose other species that people usually don't recognize like zooplankton, chytrid fungus, and pine beetles. 

With regards to environmental art, the idea of how to frame environmental conservation and how to get people's attention are central to how to be effective. What do you want your main message to be? Do you want to "market" the environment in order to "sell it better?" Or, do you want to be more raw, crunchy and lean towards deep ecology? Maybe the inherent worthiness of nature doesn't quite sell as well to society. 

Life on earth and all her interconnections are too complex for us to fully understand. Who are we to judge what is important and more worthy of life? Given that we all evolved here together shouldn't the miracle that life is, be enough?

Useless Creatures
September 13, 2014

This article contains no useful information. Zero. Nada. Nothing. If usefulness is your criterion for reading, thank you very much for your time and goodbye, we have nothing more to say. The truth is that I am bored to tears by usefulness. I am bored, more precisely, of pretending usefulness is the thing that really matters.

I mostly write about wildlife. So here is how it typically happens for me: A study comes out indicating that species x, y and z are in imminent danger of extinction, or that some major bioregion of the planet is being sucked down into the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care, even as they are racing to catch the 7:10 train, or wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s (or last month’s) rent.

My usual strategy is to trot out a list of ways even the most obscure species can prove unexpectedly, yes, useful. The first effective treatment that turned H.I.V. from a death sentence into a manageable condition? Inspired by the biochemistry of a nondescript Caribbean sponge. The ACE inhibitors that are currently among our most effective treatments for cardiovascular disease (and which have lately been proposed as a treatment for Ebola)? Developed by studying the venom of the fer-de-lance, a deadly snake found from Mexico to northern South America. The new medical bandage that’s gentle enough for the delicate skin of newborns and the elderly? Modeled on the silk of spider webs.

Every time I begin this line of argument, though, I get the queasy feeling that I am perpetuating a fallacy. It’s not that I’m telling lies; these examples are entirely real. But given, for instance, that three-quarters of our farm crops depend on insect pollinators, or that more than 2.6 billion people rely directly on seafood for protein, it seems a little obvious to be reminding people that wildlife can be useful, or, more to the point, that human survival depends on wildlife. Without saying so out loud, the argument also implies that animals matter only because they benefit humans, or because just possibly, at some unknowable point in the future, they might benefit humans.

You don’t have to look too far to see how silly this can get. In truth, I don’t have to look at all, because university press offices fill my inbox with examples every day: The Harvard scientists who hope their study of cuttlefish skin will “inspire improved protective camouflage for soldiers on the battlefield.” The Berkeley team that thinks studying the genetics of blubber-eating polar bears could help us learn to live with our bacon-wrapped, wide-load lifestyle. And the wonderful folks at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, who believe “Squid sucker ring teeth material could aid reconstructive surgery, serve as eco-packaging.” (And you thought they were good only for calamari.)

I don’t entirely blame the scientists. Their research often depends on taxpayer funding, and their dreams are haunted by the ghost of United States Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award. That award garnered headlines by ridiculing outlandish-seeming items in the federal budget, and animal behavior studies were a juicy target. So now people doing that kind of research all feel obliged to imply that they are two steps away from a cure for the common cold. No basic research here, Senator, sir, no idle curiosity. Useful “R” Us. (They also delight in pointing out that one of Mr. Proxmire’s targets — a $250,000 investigation into the sex life of the screwworm fly — has yielded $20 billion in benefits to American cattle farmers by enabling control of a major insect pest.)

Improbably, wildlife conservationists now also often hear the call of the useful. Along with a large contingent of eco-finance bureaucrats, they try to save threatened habitats by reminding nearby communities of all the benefits they derive from keeping these habitats intact. Forests, meadows and marshes prevent floods, supply clean water, provide habitat for species that pollinate crops, put oxygen into the atmosphere and take carbon out, and otherwise make themselves useful. In some cases, conservation groups or other interested parties actually put down cash for these ecosystem services — paying countries, for instance, to maintain forests as a form of carbon sequestration. The argument, in essence, is that we can persuade people to save nature by making it possible for them to sell it. They can take nature to the bank, or at least to the local grocery. They can monetize it. (The new revised version of Genesis now says, “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, and he said, ‘Let them be fungible.’ ”)

I understand the logic, or at least the desperation, that drives conservationists to this horrible idea. It may seem like the only way to keep what’s left of the natural world from being plowed under by unstoppable human expansion and by our insatiable appetite for what appears to be useful. But usefulness is precisely the argument other people put forward to justify destroying or displacing wildlife, and they generally bring a larger and more persuasive kind of green to the argument. Nothing you can say about 100 acres in the New Jersey Meadowlands will ever add up for a politician who thinks a new shopping mall will mean more jobs for local voters (and contributions to his campaign war chest). Nothing you can say about the value of rhinos for ecotourism in South Africa will ever matter to a wildlife trafficker who can sell their horns for $30,000 a pound in Vietnam.

Finally, there is the unavoidable problem that most wildlife species — honey badgers, blobfish, blue-footed boobies, red-tailed hawks, monarch butterflies, hellbenders — are always going to be “useless,” or occasionally annoying, from a human perspective. And even when they do turn out, by some quirk, to be useful, that’s typically incidental to what makes them interesting. Cuttlefish do not fascinate because their skin may suggest new forms of military camouflage, but because of the fantastic light shows that sometimes play across their flanks. Spider web silk doesn’t intrigue because somebody can turn it into bandages, but because of the astonishing things spiders can do with it — stringing a line across a stream and running trotlines down the surface to catch water striders, for instance, or (in the case of the species named mastophora dizzydeani) flinging a ball of silk on a thread like a spitball to snag moths out of the air.

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

And that should be enough.