March 6, 2024 | By:

The Ethics of Wildlife Conservation

“I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth . . .
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

This is the first in a multi-essay series concerning the ethics of wildlife and wildlands conservation, including the project of rewilding. There will be two or three additional essays in the series, each subsequent one building on the previous one. This first one sets the stage for those that will follow by clarifying certain basic concepts, including the concepts of ethics, wilderness, wildness, and wildeors. My point of departure, appropriately, is some passages from what Dave Foremen said about conservation and rewilding.

My sincere thanks to Fred Koontz, PhD and Michelle Lute, PhD for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Do we have an ethical obligation to conserve wild things; and if so, why?

There is a crucial difference between what ethics are and what ethics is. Ethics are such things as a list of religious commandments (the Ten Commandments), a code of behavior (the Boy Scout Law), and a description of how people normally behave or what they profess to believe regarding moral right and wrong. The seven tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation fall into this category, as do the principles of compassionate conservation and the postulates of conservation biology. Different lists will often be incompatible, suggesting that moral truth is elusive. By contrast, ethics is a branch of philosophy that inquires into what makes something morally right or wrong. It seeks an objective test that can be used to evaluate moral claims for truth, just as we might use vinegar to test for pure gold (if the specimen changes color when exposed to a drop of vinegar, then it is not pure gold). This is the kind of ethics that concerns us here. Whether there is such a test to be had, and how we can know when we have it, are questions that we will only be able to answer, if at all, when we reach the end of the inquiry.

It must be admitted that studying ethics will not necessarily make a person more ethical, so you might wonder why we should bother with it. My answer is that it is very important because an inquiry into the grounds of our moral judgments can not only help us improve them but empower us to be more effective in defending them publicly, and thus in shaping public opinion, government policy, and law. We will be better able to show the deficiencies in competing views compared to our own, which may well prove critical to our success as conservationists.

The problem

Within my lifetime (75 years at this writing), the population of humans on planet Earth has more than tripled and now stands at over eight billion! During the same period, half the world’s forestland has disappeared and the population of large mammals on the land and in the sea has declined by at least 70%. Species are going extinct at something like 1,000 times the natural background rate and the rate is accelerating. As if this isn’t bad enough, anthropogenic climate change is greatly exacerbating the extinction problem.

The good news is that by rewilding ecosystems we can not only stem the tide of extinction but also help stabilize the climate, all without harming the planet—indeed, by healing ecological wounds and restoring it to health. In fact, it is one of the least expensive, easiest, and most effective things we can do. There is no time to lose. The excerpts below are from a recent article in Rewilding Earth:

Karl Wagner, MD of the Global Rewilding Alliance, said: “For too long, policymakers have ignored wild, functional nature with an abundance of wildlife species as a climate solution. In fact, wild animals and their interaction with their environment can be considered as a missing link between biodiversity and climate. Bringing back functional ecosystems is one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective means of stabilising the global climate.”

Andrew Tilker of Re:Wild, co-author of one of the studies and speaker at one of the events, said: “Our study shows that the protection and restoration of the populations of just nine species/groups – marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolf, wildebeest, sea otter, musk ox, African forest elephants, and American bison – could collectively facilitate the capture of more than 95% of the amount needed every year to meet the global target of removing 500 GtCO2 from the atmosphere by 2100.” (Source: https://rewilding.org/bringing-the-elephant-into-the-room-at-cop28/)

The options

Broadly speaking there are only two paths that humankind might take in an attempt to restore and protect planetary health:

A: We forge ahead, continuing to rely mainly on technology to solve environmental problems.
B: We begin to rely less on technology, and more on changes to our individual and collective behavior, to solve (and prevent) environmental problems.

Option A views Earth exclusively as a bundle of resources for human use. It is rooted in an anthropocentric value system where what has value = what human beings value. And why not? After all, science and technology have allowed us to prevent diseases, extend life expectancy, increase harvests, improve travel and communication, explore the universe, and so on.

However, relying mainly on technology to help us avoid and solve environmental problems, many of which are themselves the result of applied technology, is foolish. By adhering to this strategy, we are quickly overwhelming the capacity of the biosphere to maintain itself in good functioning condition, as well as our ability to cope effectively with the resulting problems. We see this most dramatically with accelerating global warming and the havoc it is causing. So, even from an anthropocentric perspective, option A is bad medicine.

Clearly, option B is the only viable one. Unlike option A, it leaves room for a non-anthropocentric value system—something like Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic.” This is a crucial difference. Ethics requires us to have the right values—values that help us determine what we ought to do—which presupposes a standard of valuation that does not simply come down to what we (or the more powerful among us) happen to value.

Dave Foreman on the work of conservation

Dave Foreman said “The most needed and holy work of conservation is to keep whole the building blocks of evolution. Such is the true work of conservation, the goal of those who cannot live without wild things.” (My emphasis.)

We should first note that the work of conservation cannot derive its ethical significance from the fact that some of us cannot live without wild things. Similarly, many people cannot live without heroin, yet no one thinks we have an ethical obligation to produce the stuff. However, Dave is writing here about the goal of conservation, not presenting an ethical justification for pursuing that goal.

But what are the building blocks of evolution? The phrase “building blocks of evolution” is a metaphor. We are not talking about discrete entities of any kind. Dave gives his answer in his book Rewilding North America, where he asserts that “Nature reserves have to protect entire ecosystems, guarding the flow and dance of evolution. We have finally learned that wilderness is the arena of evolution” (p. 114).

Further, in Rewilding Earth Podcast Episode 1, Dave identified the building blocks of evolution as “native species, natural processes, large chunks of land and oceans and lakes and rivers that are off limits to industrial civilization.”

What must be protected and conserved, then, is the flow and dance of evolution, including native species, natural processes, large chunks of land and oceans and lakes and rivers. These must be off-limits to industrial civilization. This does not imply that they must be totally off-limits to humans or to human influences.

In addition, we have Dave’s answer to our question about ethics: Why ought we to protect and conserve these things? Answer: For their own sake! This evokes the notion of intrinsic value, but the more basic idea is that there is something about the things on the list that imposes a moral obligation on us regarding how it is permissible to treat them. In this and subsequent essays, I will be concerned with identifying and describing what this “something” is.

Wildness and wilderness

“Wilderness” is a place noun. It denotes a place or area that is wild. “Wildness” is a process noun. It denotes a process and secondarily a state or condition of being wild. (I italicize wildness so that it is more easily distinguishable from wilderness.)

Wilderness is the arena of evolution as Dave said, but it is also the home of wildness. Do evolution and wildness differ in some way? They are both processes, but the concepts are not identical: humans can alter the course of evolution—by causing species extinctions, for example—but we cannot degrade or impair it as we can wildness. By protecting wilderness, we protect wildness, but we cannot prevent evolution, only alter its course.

Some people argue that because human activity has directly or indirectly affected every region of the biosphere, there is no longer any true wilderness (and by extension, no wildness) left to protect—and hence that it is foolish to make protecting it a goal. This is an argument we often hear from Anthropocene boosters—or as Dave sometimes called them, anthropoceniacs. They like to view Earth as a big garden that we humans, by virtue of our presumed intelligence, knowledge, and power, are ethically free, perhaps even ethically obligated, to lord over. Consider this statement from some leading anthropoceniacs:

“The wilderness ideal presupposes that there are parts of the world untouched by humankind, but today it is impossible to find a place on Earth that is unmarked by human activity.  The truth is humans have been impacting their natural environment for centuries.  The wilderness so beloved by conservationists – places “untrammeled by man” – never existed, at least not in the last thousand years, and arguably even longer.” (Source: https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/issue-2/conservation-in-the-anthropocene)

In a perfectly mundane sense, the above statement is probably true; but even if there are no parts of the world untouched by humankind, it does not follow that there is no longer any wilderness unless we arbitrarily define wilderness as nature untouched by humankind. But I doubt if any wildlife conservationist or wilderness advocate has ever held this ridiculous view or taught that “untrammeled” means “untouched.” In any case, it would not follow that we humans are ethically free to assume the role of planetary gardeners or engineers, let alone that we ought to.

Still, defining wilderness as areas of the biosphere that have not been subjected to the forces of industrial civilization doesn’t tell us much about what makes wilderness wild. As a first step toward improving our understanding of what wildness is, let us assume for the sake of argument that pure wildness equals strictly natural conditions—conditions that have not been directly or indirectly affected by human beings. Thus, Earth’s biosphere was a realm of pure wildness before the advent of hominids. Go back as far as you like, it does not follow that there is no wildness now, but at most that there is no pure wildness now. This parallel reasoning helps make the point:

Pure water is H2O.
Therefore, a mountain stream that contains dissolved minerals contains no water.

Not so fast! The appropriate conclusion is that not all water is pure H2O, which is quite a different matter. Similarly, it may be that not all wildness is pure in the sense of being absolutely untouched by human beings, but it does not follow that there is no wildness.

We must recognize that wildness is not a fragile state of nature, but a complex and highly resilient natural process. As such, it can be compared to a tree. A tree undergoes continual change throughout its lifetime while remaining the very same tree. There is no single part of it that endures absolutely unchanged from beginning to end—hence, no single thing that can be done to it to deprive it of its “treeness” short of killing it—though to be sure it can be stunted or crippled. Wildness is similar. The upshot is that there can be degrees or grades of wildness.

So far, so good. However, we have not described in detail what wildness qua process is; nor have we shown why an anthropocentric value system is not acceptable, nor why a biocentric value system is superior to it, let alone that we have an ethical obligation to restore and protect lots of wilderness. No doubt about it, wild lands and waters are important for protecting biodiversity and maintaining healthy ecosystems, as well as for stabilizing the global climate. But, while this gives us a reason for restoring and preserving wilderness, it only does so assuming that’s what we want to do. And that’s not good enough to ground a moral obligation, no matter how fervently we believe we are right. For that, we need to show that we ought to do it. It is tempting to take our own conviction that something is true as evidence that it is true, but the history of ideas is littered with discarded false beliefs that millions of people were once absolutely convinced were true and were willing to fight and die for. As a minimum, we should require that our beliefs appeal to reason and not just sentiment.

Wolves & grizzly bear © Ben Bluhm

Wolves & grizzly bear © Ben Bluhm

Wildeors

One of the main reasons for conserving wild lands and waters is to conserve the wild animals that call them home. So, if we are obligated to restore and protect wilderness, it must be in part because we are obligated to conserve wild animals. What is it about individual wild animals or communities of wild animals that grounds the obligation? Dave describes wild animals as being “self-willed” and calls them wildeors. The word is Middle English denoting an uncontrolled or undomesticated beast, or beast of the forest—hence, a wild animal. Many domesticated and wild animals are easily seen as being self-willed. Like us, they are conscious, make choices, and act on them. Many of them exhibit innovation and creativity as well.

A creature can be self-willed without being a wildeor, for even domesticated animals are self-willed in the sense that they are conscious, make choices, and act on them. To be wild—and hence, true wildeors—self-willed creatures must live in the wild and the wild must be their natural home. (Feral dogs, cats, and horses are intermediate cases because they are from domesticated lineages, and so the wild is not their natural home.)

A word that applies to all self-willed animals—wild, captive, and domesticated—is “sentient.” Sentient creatures are in sensory contact with their environments, which contact is at least sometimes registered in conscious experience. Conscious experience mediates their movements and behaviors.

We can also see some inanimate “will-less” things as being self-willed in a metaphorical sense: a wild river is “self-willed” just by virtue of flowing freely. It does not need to be conscious or capable of volition for this to be true. But remember, this is “self-willed” in a metaphorical sense. Rivers are not living creatures, let alone sentient ones.

This leaves us with several interrelated questions yet to be addressed: What, specifically, is it about wildness that makes it important? What ethical implications does being a wildeor have for our treatment of such creatures? Does this have anything to do with an important fundamental difference between human beings and other sentient beings; and if so, what is that difference? And most important for our purpose, what has all this got to do with the ethics of wilderness protection and of wildlife conservation? I will take up these questions in future essays.

Read part 2 here.

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Dusti Becker
2 months ago

Great essay. Inspiring and informative. Thank you!

Kate McFarland
2 months ago

I am broadly sympathetic to the position presented in “Dave Foreman on the work of conservation” and following sections. However, there are some problems here. 

I disagree with the setup in “The Problem,” as I disagree with any rhetoric that frames rewilding instrumentally as a pragmatic solution to the extinction crisis and climate change, but I’ve written enough about that elsewhere (https://u.osu.edu/mcfarland.309/2023/03/10/rewilding-day-climate-change-and-why-we-rewild/) and it’s not the interesting part of this article to me.

I read this article given my interest in Dave Foreman’s comments on the ethical imperative to protect evolution. I share the intuition that there is something both correct and compelling about this approach to conservation ethics. However, Foreman is simply wrong in his characterisation of the “building blocks of evolution” as well as his claim that “wilderness is the [as opposed to ‘an’] arena of evolution.” One need only consider antibiotic resistance as a case-in-point. The true “building blocks of evolution” could be more accurately described as variation, heritability, and (genetic drift aside) selection pressures. It is absurd to suggest that non-native species can’t evolve or that anthropogenic processes can’t act as selection pressures — especially when the converse has already been well-documented. Indeed, the classic peppered moth example is also an exemplar of industrial civilisation as an *agent* of evolution.

Mark Fisher and I have written more about this issue in another article in Rewilding Earth: https://rewilding.org/rewilding-for-evolution-a-revitalized-approach

Foreman’s idea of evolution as a moral subject is a critical insight, but his own use of terms like “building blocks” and “arena of evolution” should not simply be accepted at face value. Incidentally, Foreman also has a problematic tendency to conflate the protection of said building blocks with the protection of the autonomy of evolutionary processes; I believe it’s the latter notion that it is truly important and novel, or at least underexplored in the literature in both moral philosophy and conservation biology.

To see why Foreman’s idea here is so important, let’s jump ahead to the big thing that Robinson gets wrong, in my view: “if we are obligated to restore and protect wilderness, it must be in part because we are obligated to conserve wild animals.”

The logical leap is head-scratching — where has Robinson argued for this?! — and (pardon the moral realism) the statement is plain false. Robinson apparently holds that the obligation to conserve wild animals is somehow a *necessary* condition on the obligation to conserve wilderness, but how many defenders of wilderness would be willing to grant that it’s okay to despoil a wilderness if it happened only to harbour plants, fungi, bacteria or archaea? Would it be morally acceptable to destroy an extraterrestrial ecosystem that contains only unicellular lifeforms? Would it be morally acceptable to exploit as much as Earth as we like if we could time-travel to the Cryogenian period (say) before animals evolved? Plausibly, plants and fungi colonised land on Earth before animals — would that make it okay for time-travelling humans to demolish early terrestrial ecosystems? For a more contemporary example, it seems morally exemplary to me that humanity decided to refrain from colonising Surtsey, the small volcanic island born in the 1960s, and decided instead to let nature take its course — but initially there were no animals on Surtsey, of course, so it must have been morally good for some reason *other than* merely conserving wild animals.

In my opinion, Foreman’s genius in articles like “Wild Things for his Own Sake” is his ethical insight — if maladroitly delivered — that humans have an ethical obligation to protect the autonomy of *not only* wildeors *but also* natural processes, including evolutionary processes most of all. He extends the scope of “wild things” to “ecological and evolutionary processes,” declares that “Evolution is good in itself,” and finally asserts that “we must step back somewhere (many somewheres) so evolution is free to unfold for wild things in its own unhobbled, eerie way.” The essay ultimately reads a clarion call to protect the autonomy of evolutionary processes at least in large areas of the Earth — because it’s intrinsically good that these processes unfold freely.

Sure, from the perspective of psychology or cognitive science, it is merely metaphorical to describe evolution as “self-willed,” but so what? Evolution is surely autonomous in a more general sense: it can and does unfold and produce limitless novelty without human intervention.

Foreman’s compelling intuition is that conservationists must preserve evolution’s autonomous creative productivity. Seen in this light, dark-morph peppered moths and antibiotic resistant bacteria are not counterexamples, because these are cases in which evolution does not occur autonomously, but only internal to the shackles imposed by humanity, where “adapt to us or perish” is the name of the game.

Furthermore, the intuition that we must protect the autonomy of evolution can explain why it also seems wrong (to those of us to whom it does) to raze life-containing extraterrestrial planets even if they lack eukaryotes, demolish biological communities of the pre-metazoan Earth, or plant our own seeds on Surtsey rather than stepping away to see what the waves wash ashore: in each case, we intentionally stymie the ability of evolutionary and ecological processes to unfold naturally.

Aside from Foreman, there is also an extant if minor tradition of professional philosophers who have argued that natural processes themselves have moral status and that, specifically, humans have an obligation to respect their autonomy (e.g. much of the work Eric Katz, such as the aptly named collection Nature as Subject, and the aptly named volume Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature, ed. Thomas Heyd). In my opinion, the area of ethical inquiry is still relatively novel, provocative, and underexplored, whereas sentiocentrism is well-worn and tired — not to mention intuitively closer to the truth.

Jeff Hoffman
2 months ago

As Aldo Leopold said in the Land Ethic, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” I really think that’s all the ethics we need.

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