As sometimes happens, I have been involved in discussions at other blogs that have produced more writing of substance than I would otherwise have on offer here today. So let me commend to you Dan Trabue's engaging post and its commentary on the Unintended Consequences of human activity and the choices we make as individuals and as nations; Terry Cowgill's post and its commentary on the politics of climate change in A Lot of Hot Air; and Biotune's post and its commentary entitled "Are Humans Natural?" Alas, I cannot recommend the quality of my comments at Tigerhawk's link to their sister at BioTunes, as against my better judgment I have taken the bait and gotten involved in a smackdown with some anonymous and unverified climate change deniers: not my proudest moment, but satisfying in its unproductive way. If you'd care to wade in with a well reasoned argument one way or the other and save me from myself you would be most welcome.
The thread that links these varied conversations and issues together is the question of intrinsic value and human values. Here is some of what I wrote along those lines in response to what these bloggers have posted and their commentators have shared:
"One cannot speak of either conservation or consumption without attending to the overarching question of values. By this I mean not merely value in the monetary sense, for there are qualitative vales that do not so easily compute on a balance sheet.
Values are either intrinsic - the right of coexistence for a species' own sake regardless of its utility or impact on other things we humans may value - or values are defined by our own species and inform how we perceive our environment and the choices we make about it...
Very few of those who advocate on behalf of biodiversity conservation have a problem with managing individual species that threaten the resources we value, and this includes human health and wellbeing as well as broader ecological considerations. No one that I work with believes we need to reintroduce smallpox as a globally endangered organism worthy of conservation. But we are inclined to insist that human beings, the greatest change agent in this period of Earth's history, make informed choices that look beyond the short term about what we choose to conserve and what we consume.
We are, so far as we are aware, the only intelligent agent of global change to have acted on the world stage at this scale and magnitude. One does not expect an asteroid to choose where it impacts the surface, but our species has its much vaunted free will, and as such the question of both value and values is paramount."
"...I suspect much of the resistance to "government interference" comes from folks whose experience of government is as a bureaucratic meddler, an inefficient implementor, a poor steward, an uneven enforcer, and even a perfidious collaborator with polluters (think coal, Kentucky). Government can be all of these things, but they are not the limit of its capabilities and some of these safeguard all our interests. Those that pertain to shared resources and our natural heritage are a critical element of any conservation effort.
Advocates of landowner rights place a premium on the choices made by the individual private property owner, regardless of unintended consequences, the impact of these choices on shared resources, the size of the management unit, the short and long term objectives of the land owner, and may not account for the qualitative values of the land that do not so easily tally on a balance sheet. Before the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, private ownership and decentralized regulation lead to extraordinary levels of pollution and environmental degradation. Before the Endangered Species Act, private ownership and the unrestricted free market allowed for the rapid extinction of the single most abundant species on earth (the passenger pigeon) and the near extinction of American bison and many other species. In the global marketplace our resources are treated as fungible, so who needs temperate broad leaf forests in the eastern US if we have them in China and Japan? The scale of the problem is greater than private individuals or non profit agencies to deal with, nor is private ownership the best tool to safeguard the resources on which all life depends.
There are three ways to change behavior: voluntarily, through incentives and subsidies, and coercively through regulation and law. Voluntary action does not occur at the scale and scope required to address the issues of climate change and natural resource management alone. A combination of all three, applied appropriately, is what the situation will require."
"...I will offer one piece of anecdotal observation which you may treat as such. On January 6th of this year, three timber rattlesnakes were observed outside a den site in the mountains of Eastern New York. Normal emergence for this species is mid April, and this is the only record of them ever emerging in January in this region. On this same day, maple sap was running in trees that are usually dormant for another two months. By any modern measure, these are unprecedented events for the prevailing climate conditions of this area and outside the “normal range of variation”.
One data point (and anecdotal at that) does not a theory make. But there is a great wealth of verifiable data that change is taking place - however we may quibble about the relative contribution of our species’ part in it. I dislike smug scientists and simplistic political opportunists just as others do, but that does not address the consequences of our actions or inactions. It seems to me if we are going to reject some courses of action in favor of others it should be an informed (and timely) choice...we would do well to try and get the best picture possible on climate change in the time we have and respond decisively. Even the Marines aim for the 70% solution."
These last two paragraphs are actually recycled commentary originally appearing in response to Sissi Willis' post last month at Sisu - "When consistency is obtained, the hypothesis becomes a theory" - but it made the point rather well, I thought, and worthy of reprise, if not without reprisal. I'm usually well behaved in other people's houses, just as I would prefer that you did not foul the air we breathe and water we drink on which all life depends.