Oh, I hope so. But then I am but a humble plant ecologist. Natural resource management is challenged by the human destruction of resources placing species at risk of extinction. One potential ‘solution’, upon which I have written, is Assisted Migration (AM). AM is deeply dividing the conservation community. Proponents argue that we need to deploy AM to reduce the magnitude of future extinctions. Opponents argue that it is too risky, not likely to succeed, will cause another suite of problems, or is ethically misguided. It is the ‘ethically misguided’ that is at the core of this essay.
I am an opponent of AM. I have authored several publications with a team from the perspective that acknowledges the following: (a) anthropogenic drivers of extinction are substantive; (b) society accepts responsibility towards stewarding nature and striving to reduce extinctions; and (c) the consequence of that responsibility is that people, individuals and institutions, feel a need to act, hoping to minimize damage in any way that they see favorable to their worldview. The consequence is that some individuals, sanctioned or not, will engage in AM. Creating policies that allow individuals to be held culpable for their AM actions is what I seek. After all it has been individuals, not institutions, that are responsible for our world’s massive invasive species problems.
This morning I read “Assisted migration in normative and scientific context” by Maier and Simberloff. This is a fantastic article. Like many other of my blog posts, I read this because fellow Nature’s Confluence blogger Matt Williamson suggested I do so. Fair warning, it is long and the second half is largely a rejoinder to Palmer & Larson’s call to engage in AM for whitebark pine (ie–less interesting).
Fundamentally, I agree with Maier and Simberloff. They make exquisite arguments about why most authors promoting AM make scientific blunders cherry picking evidence to support a personal worldview and make ethical mistakes in asserting a moral acceptability of proposed actions based on stakeholders.
Their strongest arguments are:
1. AM proponents are wrong in suggesting that AM can help save biodiversity.
2. AM proponents mis-calculate costs and benefits.
3. AM proponents mistake stakeholder assessments as meeting some ethical threshold.
4. Any ethical justification for AM is vacuous because species have no special ethical status.
I am fully on board with these authors on points 1-3.
On point 1, we fail more than we succeed with translocations, the biodiversity crisis involves millions of species, we could only hope to conduct successful AM for an inconsequential fraction of a percent of species (relegating people to species bigots who choose to save species we particularly like, and we probably ought to recognize this as the motivation). We aren’t saving biodiversity this way; perhaps we are placing a finger in a very leaky dike. By the way, these are paraphrasing Maier and Simberloff’s arguments.
On point 2, it is scientific hubris to think that we can truly calculate risks and potential costs; Maier and Simberloff argue that it is an ethical fallacy to think that there is a benefit to preventing a species extinction (see #4), and that even if there was a benefit, all metrics of measuring that benefit (e.g., ecosystem service value) are deeply flawed.
Point 3 refers to the distinction between social science and ethics. Just because stakeholders agree, doesn’t make it right. Maier and Simberloff are on safe ground pointing out that measuring stakeholder endorsement for any particular action as a proxy for ethical correctness is not defensible. Yet, society does this all the time. As an example think: is _________________[armed conflict or your choosing] justified?
We usually consider the costs of the war (human lives and $) relative to the benefits (human lives and $). Societies (the stakeholders) come to conclusions. We would not, however, mistake this for an ethical rendering on the acceptability of war.
Point 4 is where I get stuck. Classical ethics, I have been told, gives standing to individuals, not collectives of individuals (e.g., species). Hence, if you believe it immoral for me to poke you in the eye for my pleasure, than you would also believe that this would transfer to a dog, parakeet, or turtle as long as you felt that the individual felt pain in the same way you do (a defining criteria of a “sentient” being). However, a species holds no special place in this ethical framework. Shooting the last Carolina parakeet is no more, or less, ethically wrong than killing any preceding Carolina parakeet. One can see an elegant simplicity to this ethical framing: it is wrong to wantonly and knowingly do harm to an individual who feels that harm.
However, we overwhelmingly behave in a manner that does, in fact, value the collective. The Endangered Species Act is an explicit charge to protect species from extinction. It is written from the perspective of having an ethical responsibility to species (ie, species don’t have to meet any measure of value to gain protection), not individuals within the species.
In a different context, we strongly value cultures, another emergent property of a collection of sentient beings. As an example, I would wager that you consider ethnic cleansing more reprehensible than plain and simple slaughter of one's enemies (albeit, both are pretty bad).
If we don’t think this way, then why do we care that languages have a ‘living’ existence, or that we should build cultural centers, or protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities? Presumably it is because we value the collective property more than the simple sum of its constituent parts. Is this an ethical imperative, or a social preference to live in a more varied, and interesting world? Does it matter?
Here is where I see an ethical hole, and a challenge to Maier and Simberloff’s argument. Simberloff studies the ecological impacts of invasive species. One of the main critiques of AM that Simberloff has used is that our meddling with species has created numerous harmful invasive species. Virtually every argument that Maiers and Simberloff make, however, could be flipped upside down to argue that the persecution of invasive species on ethical or normative grounds is, likewise, flawed. Arguing for invasive species control for cost / benefit reasons would be vacuous, for example, if the benefit of eradication is predicated on saving other species or saving some ecosystem function. I hate the idea of thinking that way.
I am comfortable living in a world where my moral compass places a value on species. I prefer that world. I need help defining a solid ethical basis (ie, based on principles, not empirical evidence) for my belief that species, in fact, have an ethical value, a right to exist. Otherwise, Maier and Simberloff’s arguments appear to challenge invasive species management as much as they do AM.
If you made it to here, Maier and Simberloff have a great reference to Buridan's Ass. Check that out.
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