Most people if asked might admit that they like, perhaps even love, wildlife and wild creatures; some may believe in the right of every other organism to just ‘be’ and value life (any life) for just that reason. A friend of mine, who harbours such feelings, confided that they felt pretty much part of a huge minority. Maybe less than 1% of people, they thought, might share similar sentiments. “I’m not morose that humans are selfish,” they said, “just pragmatic about how things are. Over the years I’ve ended up with utilitarian ‘labels’ on species so that they can pay their way within the human framework.”
Many would agree, and I too see the attraction of utilitarian arguments. I know they could make a difference if there is a decision to be made on whether to cut down trees or drain a wetland, but even so I distrust them. Partly it’s because I believe that, in time, they will be challenged and found wanting. Take the current trend in the conservation world – ‘ecosystem services’. Rain forests on hilly terrain provide a great ecosystem service for people living on the plains below: they prevent soil erosion during heavy downpours, hold water like a sponge so that it is available in the dry season, and release filtered water that is ready for household use. All this makes for an impressive argument, but terraced rice paddies also prevent erosion on steep hillsides and perhaps they also hold water like a sponge, or could be made to do so by planting some shade crops in between the terraces. Build a reed bed system at the bottom for filtration and you have the complete set of ecosystem services plus a valuable rice crop.
I once asked John Corner, an inspirational professor of botany at Cambridge at the time (now sadly departed after a long and creative life) why we should conserve rain forests. He replied, “If man was not so ignorant, tropical rain forests would be the wonder of the world”. That pretty much sums it up for me. But I would add one thing more. I really think individuals can make a difference simply by expressing their wonder and heartfelt feeling for the wild, and by standing up for the rights of other species. I believe we can lift Corner’s veil of ignorance and open hearts to nature, and that people will thank us when we do.
For those interested, here is a link to a paper I wrote in the 1980s after living in Malaysia for 2 years and visiting rain forests at every opportunity. It is about the reasons people give for conserving tropical rain forests. The last 2 or 3 paragraphs might be worth a look: http://www.mgmsolutions.com/publications/Murray_Rain_Forest_Values_Biol_Cons_1990.pdf