One of the most fundamental and enduring tenets of the global conservation movement is the idea that species have a right to exist. For some species advocates, this is the bedrock ethical principle on which their commitment to conservation is built. Because species have a right to exist, it follows that human beings, the most potent possible force behind species annihilation or species preservation, bear some obligation to honor and uphold that right.
Mere existence, however, sets an extremely low bar in terms of human obligations to species.
Many species protection measures are designed to protect, at most, the lowest population needed to avert the total disappearance of a given species from the planet. Often times, this minimum viable population is an infinitesimal fraction of the species’ historic numbers – perhaps 1% or 2% or 5% – clinging to existence on the species’ sparse remaining habitat. Thus far, this has been our prevailing answer to the global extinction crisis.
On some level, we must acknowledge that a daunting challenge has been heroically confronted when any impending extinction has been successfully averted. But it is also absolutely essential to understand that merely preventing the total disappearance of a species does not adequately provide what that species is truly owed – just as it does not maintain the many values and benefits awarded by that species. If we are genuinely concerned with issues like species rights, ethical obligations, and respectful conduct toward species, we may want to reconsider our conservation orientation.
Are we failing to understand what a right to exist truly signifies? Or, are we simply responding to that right in an imprudent fashion?
Do we need to rethink our framing of the extinction crisis?
Is absolute extinction really the only threat that should prompt discussion about ethics, species’ rights, and so forth? Or, are we in need of a broader consciousness about species’ rights and related ethical considerations?
Do species have a right to more than mere existence?
Our misguided treatment of the right of species to exist is somewhat forgivable given just how hard it is to understand what ‘existence’ even means in the context of species. The term ‘species’ itself is equally perplexing. One could easily argue that ‘species’ is merely a constructed concept. It’s an idea that human beings have devised to help understand the natural world. There is nothing tangible that we can point to and call a species.
Holmes Rolston III, a groundbreaking environmental ethicists, tends to characterize species as rather complex, multidimensional things. He views them largely from the perspective of relationships, not just in terms of their physical or biological makeup. Species, Rolston claims, are defined by their connections to certain places, environments, and ecological processes.
Other writers note that species are a unique composite of wide-ranging behaviors, diets, and morphologies – features that can often vary across the multiple ecotypes and geographic areas occupied by the species’ diverse and widely distributed populations.
The implication of both of these perspectives is that, when a species population declines to the point that the species no longer exhibits its longstanding qualities, diversity, or relationships, some core part of its being is lost. Perhaps below this population threshold, the species’ ‘right to exist' has not been legitimately upheld.
However, looking at some of the renowned cases of species that have been saved from extinction – the American Bison, the Gray Wolf, or the Black Footed Ferret – we can easily observe that species persist in a drastically altered, subdued, isolated, and confined condition. Some representatives of the species remain, but these species’ actual presence, identity, and being seem far from intact. Furthermore, current conservation plans seem little inclined to make them intact.
If we wish to revise our approach to ethics and rights questions concerning species, there are at least two broad options available. One is to expand our conceptualizations of ‘existence’ and ‘species,’ make them more inclusive, and thereby arrive at a more considerate ethical stance calling for more robust conservation and restoration measures. Presumably, this could more realistically serve species’ rights to exist by further enlarging populations and distributions.
This is probably not a tenable strategy: It would be extremely difficult to introduce such weird, expanded notions about ‘existence’ or ‘species’ to large scale conservation programs or to instill these ideas across a broad conservation community.
A second, and far simpler approach, is just to embrace the larger ethical truth that species have more than a right to exist. Indeed, species have a right to thrive and human beings bear some responsibility for enabling species to reach or maintain a thriving condition. Importantly, species should be allowed to thrive in such a way that they can express the fullness of their being, with all of its defining features.
A remaining upside of this kind of ethical principle is that it harmonizes with values concerns and other motivations for conservation that aren’t centered on individual species alone – things like ecological function, ecosystem services, and species interactions.
Ultimately, what we have been calling an extinction crisis is not only an extinction crisis. Declining species populations pose a grave threat to the identity, character, and natural role of several species worldwide.
Thoughts by ComET Research Associate LEE BRANN