Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” (Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947)

passenger pigeon

Carl Safina has been a loud voice for the natural world, which, of course, needs to be heard through human channels. Not that nature does not speak to us, literally. Even in the densest human habitations, we can hear the small voices of our pets, birds, rodents, and, in my neighborhood and others, wild turkeys, coyotes, and more. But that is not the kind of voice I mean. His speaks eloquently for the existential interests of natural things, living or not. I just read an opinion piece by him in Yale Environment 360, “an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues (from their website).”

With the provocative title of “The Real Case for Saving Species: We Don’t Need Them, But They Need Us,” he lays out a compelling (at least for me) argument why other species should be protected by us. The first half, roughly, of the article criticizes the usual argument made by conservationists for preserving other species:

For decades, many conservationists have been trying to sell a clumsy, fumbling appeal to self-interest: the idea that human beings need wild nature, need wild animals, need the species on endangered lists. “If they go extinct, we’ll go extinct,” is a common refrain. The only problem: it’s false.

The core of his argument is that, as long as other species are seen through a utilitarian lens, “we don’t need them.” Again, he writes:

On an average day, animals and plants must put up or be pushed out. In most countries, few wild things can “provide” to humans anything more valued than their carcasses. Many major American tree species have disappeared or nearly so (American elm, American chestnut, eastern hemlock, for instance). Ash trees are now disappearing and the main pain-point for humanity is nothing more than angst for the future of baseball bats. . . .The human juggernaut can continue to blow through rhinos, parrots, elephants, lions, and apes and hardly feel a breeze.

But then he shifts gears: “Lest anyone misread me: this predicament is catastrophic.” Measures of human need is a “poor metric” to use in comparisons to the value of preserving some living natural species. I have my own experience to relate to this point. Some 40 years ago, I was running a small federal/state water planning agency. We (and many others) were concerned that the Army Corps of Engineers’ Principles and Standards, the criteria used to justify federal action on projects like dam building, dredging etc., vastly underestimated the value of undisturbed ecosystems. Basically, this meant the Corps could do about anything they wanted. We were successful in changing the rules so that the Corps would have a much harder barrier to its proposed projects. Not perfect, but much better.

Safina argues further that wholesale human destruction of species is a moral, not an economic concern. Pointing to the US Endangered Species Act as an example of policy that is moral, not utilitarian in concept, he writes, “. . . it works because it doesn’t ask a species to prove its usefulness, what they’re good for, or how much money they’re worth. . . that we, the people, don’t let species go extinct, that this is who we are. It’s not about practicality; it’s about morality.” Then he goes on to make a case for why humans should be concerned about “life on Earth.” I agree with his point that we should, but not for the reasons he gives. He asserts that our Planet is the only place in the universe where life exists, and therefore the Earth is sacred. I was surprised by this, given its hubristic claim grates against the grain of the rest of the article. He adds that it is the presence of all life that creates the “beauty that makes life worth living.”

It matters not at all whether our Planet is the sole place where life as we know it exists or not. It can be said to be sacred merely by reference to the miracle that has brought forth all life on the Planet. And we do know that life is just that–a miracle, whether coming from some divine source or the very slow workings of evolution. I question his use of beauty as that “that makes living worthwhile.” He is on firmer ground when he writes, “We live in a sacred miracle. We should act accordingly.” I agree and more than just agree; I have written something almost exactly like this last thought in my new book, briefly capsulized in the next few paragraphs.

There is no inherent meaning to life; it simple exists. Unless you are a theist, which I am not, life is the result of random natural forces. That goes for humans and all other living species. There is no difference. To the extent it can be said that there is some purpose to life, it is simply that living organisms exist to maintain their viability, individually and as a species. Humans, with their unique brains and physical structure, have developed language, which allows them to tell stories about their experiences, stories which give meaning to that experience. But they are only stories! There is no beauty out there; it comes only in our words.

There is no meaning out there, neither is there any truth. The philosopher, Richard Rorty, has made the clearest statement about the later statement that I know.

Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.

Just substitute “meaning” or “beauty” for “truth,” and you will see where I am coming from. I disagree with Safina that there is some inherent connection between human existence and beauty. But there is in the particular form of human existence I call “flourishing.” Flourishing is a special form of human living that brings us ever closer to our potential as a species. Like all other life forms, we have a biological potential rooted in our genes, but also have an existential potential, by virtue of our social nature and the possession of language and a big brain. We are unique among species. Here is a quote from my new book:

For human beings, biological viability alone is insufficient to explain the centrality of the intentional, meaningful behavior that constitutes human existence. One needs some explanation of the origin of purposeful or meaningful human intentions, and of the many institutions and associated rules that underlie and hold together organized human society. Meaningful existence is unique to human beings, Heidegger, whose works were instrumental in establishing the field of existentialism wrote, in an atypically clear statement: “The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist (Heidegger).”

So, we do attribute meaning to our lives, but the specifics depend on the world we have been thrown into (again, Heidegger’s word). To the extent that we share a culture, we may develop similar stories and share similar values, like what is beautiful. But there is no ground for Safina’s claim that

Beauty is the single criterion that best captures all our deepest concerns and highest hopes. Beauty encompasses the continued existence of free-living things, adaptation, and human dignity. Really, beauty is simple litmus for the presence of things that matter.

I agree entirely with the thrust of Safina’s article, although I do not buy the metaphors he uses. I do think the difference is important because it opens up his claim to debate about the use of beauty when there is really no argument about his basic claim that all life on Earth should be held sacred in the sense that sacred things should not be violated. The miracle of amoebae is not difference from the miracle of human beings.

There is another reason for caring for all living species and that lies in the peculiar nature of human existence. Again, I will draw on a few excerpts from my new book.

For some existential philosophers like Heidegger, care (or, alternately, concern) is the foundation of the ontological structure that distinguishes human existence from that of all other living beings. . . . “Care” can also be regarded as another way to talk about the phenomenon of human consciousness and how it relates to the meaningful actions that humans perform. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes:

Consciousness is, in effect, the key to a life examined, for better or worse, our beginner’s permit into knowing about the hunger, the thirst, the sex, the tears, the laughter, the kicks, the punches, the flow of images we call thought, the feelings, the words, the stories, the beliefs, the music and the poetry, the happiness and the ecstasy. At its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex and elaborate level, consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.

The first sentence speaks about a “life examined,” reminiscent of Aristotle’s famous statement. This passage also echoes Heidegger’s most basis notion about the meaning of human existence. Of all living creatures, human beings are the only species that may confront the question, “What does it mean to be?” The self-awareness necessary to ask this question requires consciousness, as Damasio goes on to discuss in his book. Damasio adds that concern of self and others is critical to “the art of life,” another way to point to the necessity of authenticity for self and others to flourish.

You will have to read my book to fully get the thrust of these short excerpts, but the gist is that caring for the creatures of the Earth and for the Earth, itself, is a necessary condition for leading a flourishing life. It is obvious, given the callous and rapacious manner that human beings have treated and are treating both, that we strive much more to satisfy our “needs” than we seek to flourish. Those who have followed my blog or are familiar with of my work in general know that flourishing is my goal and that sustainability refers only to a world where creatures are indeed flourishing. Safina’s article, in essence, does make much the same argument, but, as I note, leaves open some doors to the disbelievers.

ps. The image shows the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in America, that became extinct in 1914.