As comments to a recent entry, I’ve had an interesting discussion about environmentalism with a friend. We both agree that biodiversity and ecological systems should be preserved. But we disagree as to the reason for this.
If I understand my friend correctly, her opinion is that we should preserve biodiversity because it is precious (or even holy?) without reference to the needs and wishes of humans. Let’s say she feels biodiversity is an abstract good.
My opinion is that there is no such thing as abstract good. My reason for thinking we should preserve biodiversity is that it would be dangerous and aesthetically dissatisfying for humans if we lost it. I believe that the concept of value is only at all applicable from the perspective of an intelligent observer.
Consider the planet Octavia, far, far away. It sported a radiant ecosystem with innumerable species of exquisite beauty — until yesterday. A nearby star and the local black hole bumped uglies, producing an extended shower of hard radiation, killing every living thing on Octavia as the planet rotated. The planet now has innumerable fossils of exquisite beauty. And in a few years, Octavia’s entire star system will be swallowed by the black hole, obliterating it.
Now, is this a tragedy? No. It’s a non-event. Let me add two crucial pieces of information.
1) The smartest being that ever evolved on vibrant Octavia was a blue armadillo-like creature with the brains of a fish. And it didn’t suffer one bit when the radiation hit it.
2) No intelligent being from another star system ever came close enough to Octavia to even notice that it had life.
Or consider a species of yellow toad restricted to a single valley in Papua New Guinea. Its habitat is severely threatened by logging, and chances are it’ll be extinct in a few years. The passing of this rare toad species is of no practical concern to humans, and the locals won’t miss it. But people in the West, like me, will mourn the toad. Not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was a fun animal to study.