Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I often write about the systemic character of sustainability-as-flourishing, but it’s rare to read an article that presents this idea in stark, quantitative terms. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Pearson warns us about the dangers of accelerated species extinction.
NEARLY 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild. That’s according to the most authoritative compilation of living things at risk — the so-called Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
This should keep us awake at night.
If we are concerned about sustainability, we should be worried about this simply on its own, but Pearson goes further and suggests we have a stake in the potential loss of so many species.
It is often forgotten how dependent we are on other species. Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies.
These systems provide food, fresh water and the raw materials for construction and fuel; they regulate climate and air quality; buffer against natural hazards like floods and storms; maintain soil fertility; and pollinate crops. The genetic diversity of the planet’s myriad different life-forms provides the raw ingredients for new medicines and new commercial crops and livestock, including those that are better suited to conditions under a changed climate.
I don’t think we are at the same point that the dinosaurs were when they disappeared, but that’s not an excuse for failing to pay attention here. Beyond an awareness of the benefits pointed out just above, we are not some alien species visiting the Earth with our scientists, probing the natural world and making the discovery reported here. We are part of the same eco-system that these other species belong to. We share the earth and depend on each other for existence. It may not be a matter of ecological urgency when a single ant variety goes absent, but it is an important reminder of our interconnectedness to all creatures, large and small.
When we see the richness of the world out there diminished in any way, we are diminished as well because, try as we might to place us outside of that world, we cannot. It is good, on the one hand, to connect the disappear to its economic consequences. But, by reducing the existence of all life to some economic equivalent, we blind ourselves to the connections we share.
These ecosystem services are commonly considered “public goods” — available to everyone for free. But this is a fundamental failure of economics because neither the fragility nor the finiteness of natural systems is recognized. We need markets that put a realistic value on nature, and we need effective environmental legislation that protects entire ecosystems.
Putting a “realistic value” on nature will make our economic system more mindful of protecting and nurturing these resources, but it is only a Band-aid. The real problem is not some market failure. It’s the attitudes that dismiss the natural world as foreign and apart from us. It our economistic way of giving meaning only through some monetary equivalent. It’s a cultural issue springing from the way we have come to know the world standing apart from it and learning about it by looking through soda straws. It’s inevitable that doing this for hundreds of years would create the unconsciousness that ignores this observation as something of only economic consequence, the value of the services we get from nature each year. Kant’s moral rule was designed for humans but can be extended to all life. He wrote “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Simply replace “humanity” with “all life” and “person” with “creature,” and the moral dimension of the extinction will pop up.