Monday, June 22, 2009

'Values and stories'

Remarks by Caspar Henderson for Panel 1, "The necessities of conservation" at The Open Ground, 20 June 2009.


I didn’t have to think for very long about the title of this panel before I realised that the questions it raises are too difficult for me. So instead here is some recent news from a parallel universe:
Dateline: Earth. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore—who for the past three decades has unsuccessfully attempted to warn humanity of the coming destruction of our planet, only to be mocked and derided by the very people he has tried to save—launched his infant son into space Monday in the faint hope that his only child would reach the safety of another world...

In the final moments before the Earth's destruction, Gore expressed hope that his son would one day grow up to carry on his mission by fighting for truth, justice, and the American way elsewhere in the universe, using his Earth-given superpowers to become a champion of the downtrodden and a reducer of carbon emissions across the galaxy.
OK, that’s enough from The Onion.[1] Speaking seriously now, the issues require much greater knowledge and understanding than I have. My fellow panelists Sam Turvey and Emily Nicholson have already outlined more than a few of the rudiments, as well as some warnings. Still, in the few minutes available I want to make a some remarks that I hope will help open space for thought and exchange in the discussion that follows. I want to say something about values and stories.

1. Values on shifting ground

I can think of at least two sets of questions relating to our title, ‘the necessities of conservation’. First, what is needed in order to conserve threatened species and ecosystems (not to speak of cultures)? In other words, how do we do it? Second, what are the reasons we need conservation? In other words, why do we do it?

I suspect that for many people here the answer to this second set of questions seems obvious, and goes something like this: even where we do not depend directly on threatened species and ecosystems for our life and well-being they have absolute value as a source of beauty, wonder and potentiality; we and the world are better off merely by the fact of their existence. [2]

I want try and explore what an answer like that really means. It’s not that I don’t endorse it. I probably do. It is, rather, that I think we need to look deeper and further ahead if an answer along those lines is going to stand up in a world that, as we’ve been hearing, is already greatly impoverished in its biodiversity and where things look likely to get worse.

In the cultures of contemporary industrial capitalism, and in other cultures, we make a distinction between on the one hand things and beings that are instrumentally useful (that is, entities that may be used or consumed), and on the other hand things and beings judged to be of absolute value (entities that may not be used or consumed, or at least only used or consumed in specific and limited ways). So, to take a trivial example, a cool drink on a hot day has value in use, in consumption: it is instrumental in quenching thirst (and, maybe, providing a pleasurable taste). By contrast, the well-being of my little daughter is -- for me, and in law -- an absolute good. I can ‘use’ her by asking her to fetch me a cool drink, but I will not exchange her for a cool drink, at least not today!

In our society, and in others, the line between what is instrumentally useful and absolutely valuable shifts over time. Think of the institution of slavery and laws on human rights or even animal rights. This line, or borderland, remains a matter of intense negotiation and debate. [3] But in every culture, as far as I know, there are things and beings that are considered absolutely valuable (or sacred) and which cannot be wholly consumed or exchanged for things that are of only instrumental value. [By the way, if anyone thinks this last assertion is wrong I’d be fascinated to hear the argument.]

With regard to conservation today, there comes a point -- or so many conservationists and others believe -- when instrumentality goes too far, and you have to make a stand for the absolute value of you seek to protect, no matter what the cost. Where ‘nature, like liberty, has no price tag …[and] species are priceless, as are human dignity and freedom’.

That assertion, made by the prominent conservationist Richard Leakey in 1997, is taken up by another, a bird man named Nigel Collar [4], in a paper published in 2003 titled ‘Beyond Value: biodiversity and the freedom of the mind’.
The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man. Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate, erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately the greatest feature of our human identity. This is not to say that we should never seek to provide justifications for conservation based on precise, measurable benefits to mankind at whatever scale. It is, however, to say that we should also and primarily have the courage and honesty to assert that the reason biodiversity matters is because it confers on us an imprecise, unmeasurable and immeasurable well-being that is located in the spirit rather than in the wallet.
Fine words, you may think. How well will they fare against the challenges of the 21st century?

Your answer will depend in part on what you think those challenges are. I will assert, rather simplistically, that they are of two kinds. First, there are the obstacles presented by people and institutions in our own society and in others who simply do not accept the claims made by Leakey, Collar and others, either because they are indifferent or because their sense of what is absolutely valuable does not extend to threatened ecosystems and species. To take just one example, there are those whose “deeply embedded view is that Christ is returning soon, so why should we care about the environment?” The good news, I think, is that while overcoming these kinds of obstacles will be far from easy and is not guaranteed, it is -- other things being equal -- achievable. [5]

But, of course, other things are seldom equal, and this is where we come to the second set of challenges, which may be deeper and more intractable. I’m thinking of the challenges presented by rapid environmental change and the consequences for ecosystems and human behaviour.

Exactly how these changes manifest now and how they will manifest in future is something on which reasonable people disagree, up to a certain point. Quite a lot is unpredictable and/or depends, at least in part, on decisions not yet made. Nevertheless, a powerful body of evidence indicates that, in addition to the ‘normal’ encroachments and impacts of economic development (which by themselves can collapse a fishery or eliminate up to 80% of wild orangutans in a decade [6]), human activity is also leading to turbulence in the biogeochemical cycle greater than at any time in hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. This is likely to lead to large scale displacement and/or extinction of plant and animal species (creating space for other ecosystems and species). We may also see large scale social disruption: mass migration [7] and conflict as societies seek new coping strategies or fail to cope.

However complex the picture is already, there are further uncertainties. We may well see new ways in which human beings become resourceful. There is the possibility of ‘game-changing’ advances in science and technology (including but not limited to step changes in information-, energy- and biotechnology). There may be surprises, for good or ill, that we have hardly imagined.

This second set of challenges and what flows from them is, I think, likely to alter the ground, both literally and figuratively speaking, on which our values lie. Our sense that there are some things that are absolute goods may not change, but our sense of what they are may well do so.

2. New stories

One of the important ways in which values are communicated and tested is through stories. I’m using the word story here in a very broad sense -- governing myths and narratives, and the many ways people string events, ideas, symbols together in fiction and other arts, marketing [8] and propaganda. The poet Muriel Rukeyser was largely not completely wrong when she said “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms."

Here’s another quote: "If Lévi-Strauss is right, myths are constructed by a universal logic that, like language itself, is as characteristic for human beings as nest-building is for birds." [9]

So wrote Lewis Thomas, a noted American physician and essayist who died in 1993. He continued "our powerful story [today], equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution. Never mind that it is true whereas myths are not; it is filled with symbolism, and this is the way it has influenced the mind of society."[10]

Thomas’s contention is nicely illustrated by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. In an essay titled Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, he recalls how his mother helped to open a new way of looking at the world to him:
While most of the flowers in the garden had rich scents and colors, we also had two magnolia trees, with huge but pale and scentless flowers. The magnolia flowers, when ripe, would be crawling with tiny insects, little beetles. Magnolias, my mother explained, were among the most ancient of flowering plants and had appeared nearly a hundred million years ago, at a time when "modern" insects like bees had not yet evolved, so they had to rely on a more ancient insect, a beetle, for pollination. Bees and butterflies, flowers with colors and scents, were not preordained, waiting in the wings -- and they might never have appeared. The would develop together, in infinitesimal stages, over millions of years. The idea of a world without bees or butterflies, without scent or color, affected me with awe.

The notion of such vast eons of time, and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds -- worlds of enormous richness and variety -- was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a Divine Plan had never achieved. The world became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life...
Evolution is one of the big stories in our society and in others over the last 150 years or so. But it is not the only one. Another -- older but no less potent for that -- is what Mankind does with the powers it acquires. “Our quest, as a civilisation”, says Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of ‘virtual reality’, “is to answer the question, how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves?”

Contrasting future scenarios are captured in the terms ‘Eremozoic’ and ‘Ecozoic’.

The Eremozoic means the ‘age of loneliness’. The term was coined by the entomologist E O Wilson , who had in mind the prospect of a biological age after the sixth great extinction when life on earth will be greatly impoverished as a result of human activities. John Gray, the political philosopher famous for his pessimism, picks up and runs with the term:
It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodeled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be as a result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate.
The Ecozoic, by contrast, is ‘happy time.’ Thomas Berry, an eco-theologian and deep ecologist who died aged 94 at the beginning of this month, defined it as:
the future period when human conduct will be guided by the ideal of an integral earth community, a period when humans will be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner. [11]
Those two scenarios (cartoon-like in how I present them here) lie towards the extreme of a continuum where outcomes are more mixed and murky. And it’s somewhere in this middle of this continuum, unsure of how things will go, that we actually live and tell our stories.

I am writer, not a conservation practitioner. (My experience of actual conservation work is pretty much confined to planting trees in rain and mud!) At the moment I am working on something called The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. It’s a 21st ‘bestiary’: stories about unlikely animals and other beings that share the continuum with us. I use the word ‘stories’ advisedly. All of the animals I am writing about are real, and all of the stories are true. But why write about animals at all? Part of the answer is that (to quote the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once again and very much out of context ) “animals are good to think with.” [12]

Here are a few examples (not necessarily covered in the book):
The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis

An example you may be familiar with, not least thanks to a recent article about extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert published in the New Yorker. This remarkable amphibian was used for the first widespread pregnancy tests in the early 20th century after it was discovered that the urine from pregnant women induced oocyte (female germ cell) production in the frog. The frog was distributed to physicians offices all round the world. Unfortunately, it looks as if Xenopus Laevis had a hitchhiker: a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis which causes it no harm is fatal to many other amphibian species: global amphibian crash.

‘Blood falls’, Antarctica

Not an animal but surely one of the strangest life forms on the planet [13]. Get a bit weird here: in a thousand years will humans or their descendants living in Antarctica (contra Stephen Pyne End of the World) [Try not to sound insane]

The Honey Badger

The ‘fiercest mustelid.’ Widespread dryland distribution. Interaction (debated) with Honeyguide in East Africa. Hadza people of Tanzania. The ‘man-eating badgers’ of Basra urban legend in 2007, and the British armed forces forced to deny responsibility (comedy). Serious point: the badgers may have been fleeing the newly re-flooded wetlands that Saddam had drained to eliminate a haven for his enemies.

The Japanese Macaque

Those are the characters you see in hot springs in the mountains of Japan. They are the northernmost member of the genus Macaque, which are the second most widespread primates after man. Macaques are not especially intelligent, but they do have particular kind of cunning, sometimes termed Machiavellian intelligence. The behavioural biologist Dario Maestripieri writes: By the time human beings start the global nuclear war that will destroy our civilization, there won’t be any great apes left for Earth to become the Planet of the Apes. But chances are there will still be plenty of rhesus macaques around.

Pacific Salmon

Pacific Salmon can distinguish a single drop from their own river among 8 million litres of seawater. When they arrive at their home rivers some of them swim as much as 2,000 miles upstream. They move against strong currents with little effort, much as a yacht tacks into the wind. And these are animals we now farm in cages.

The White-naped Crane

Something like 5,000 individuals remain in the wild. IUCN classes it as vulnerable to extinction. Breeds in Mongolia, China, and Russia (Khinganski Nature Reserve). One of its few remaining overwintering grounds is the DMZ in Korea, one of the world’s ‘Involuntary parks’ (other examples include the closed zone around Chernobyl). A beautiful and rare bird’s survival is at least in part down to multi-decade phony war that, even now, could spill into nuclear conflict. [more on ‘the dark side’].

A happy ending

Barack Obama’s remarkable speech in Cairo. [14] Crucial, he said, respect the dignity of all human beings. Conservation mission: extend recognition of dignity, glory (?!) (but not equivalence) to a wider-range of beings and earth system processes.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times. [15]


1. Al Gore Places Infant Son In Rocket To Escape Dying Planet. The Onion, July 30, 2008.

2. In an old trope, failing to protect the rain forests is like allowing a library to burn down without having any idea of what’s in the books. Perhaps this image is obsolete in the electronic age.

3. See, for example, Michael Sandel, Reith Lectures 2009

4. Leventis Fellow in Conservation Biology, Birdlife International, Cambridge University Dept of Zoology

5. See The Eco Evangelist. The Observer, 7 June 2009. Craig Sorley an American evangelical Christian and head of Care of Creation Kenya. Selected as a ‘hero of the environment' for 2008 by Time Magazine.
Sorley's primary occupation is to use the Bible to make an environmental case: God delighted in his creation (Genesis 1:31) and put man in his garden "to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15); Jesus found more glory in the wonders of nature than in the constructions of man (Matthew 6:28-29); all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Colossians 1:16). Conservative Evangelicals are far more receptive to an environmental message, explains Sorley, when it's presented to them in "the language they appreciate most ... the language of the Bible."
6. Among examples in the media in just the last few days: Mekong dolphins ‘almost extinct’ (BBC 18 June 2009): Pollution in the Mekong river has pushed freshwater dolphins in Cambodia and Laos to the brink of extinction, the conservation group WWF has said. Only 64 to 76 Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the Mekong, it says

7. See, for example, Making the Case for Climate as a Migration Driver by Tom Zeller, Green Inc, 15 June 2009 (thanks to Benjamin Morris for this link);The Human Tsunami: How Climate Change Will Move Masses -- Ghana’s Environment Refugees, Financial Times, 19 June 2009. Many parts of the world start from a position of high vulnerability. See: World hunger 'hits one billion', BBC online 19 June 2009

8. Marketing is now “the most dominant force in human culture,” claims Darwinian psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

9. See On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd (2009)

10. from Some Biomythology published in The Lives of a Cell (1974).

11. Happy as it may be, it doesn’t come without work. As one commentator on Berry’s work puts it:
the perspective of evolution provides the most comprehensive context for understanding the human phenomenon in relation to other life forms. This implies for Berry that we are one species among others and as self reflective beings we need to understand our particular responsibility for the continuation of the evolutionary process. We have reached a juncture where we are realizing that we will determine which life forms survive and which will become extinct. We have become co-creators as we have become conscious of our role in this extraordinary, irreversible developmental sequence of the emergence of life forms.

[12] "Animals which are tabooed are chosen…because they are good to think, not because they are good to eat." Animals that are good to think. What exactly does this mean? In The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, the anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood explain:
If it is said that the essential function of language is its capacity for poetry, we shall assume that the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense… Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing, and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.

13. Glacier "Bleeds" Proof of Million-Year-Old Life-Forms National Geographic News, April 16, 2009
Gushing from a glacier, rust-stained Blood Falls contains evidence that microbes have survived in prehistoric seawater deep under ice for perhaps millions of years, a new study says. The colony of microscopic life-forms may have been trapped when Antarctica's then advancing Taylor Glacier reached into the ocean 1.5 to 4 million years ago. What's more, the tiny organisms' feeding habits apparently give the falls their shocking color.
14. Barack Obama concluded:
All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort -- a sustained effort -- to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.
15. the UK Sustainable Development Commission report Prosperity without growth

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