TOP 2021-04-18

Embracing Extinction

There is talk of a sixth mass extinction event underway, a “biological annihilation” caused by human activity. Total wild animal populations have declined by billions in recent decades, and extinctions are said to be happening at a faster rate than for millions of years[1].

People care about this chiefly because of the so-called “ecosystem services” that wild animals provide to human society, such as insects pollinating crops or decomposing waste, coral reefs protecting against tsunamis, and ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. The economic value of these services is estimated to run into the trillions (USD).

Yet a lot of the concern for “biodiversity” stems from a more sentimental, and in many cases entirely unscientific concern. The Guardian’s briefing on the biodiversity crisis[2] says “From an aesthetic point of view, every one of the millions of species is unique, a natural work of art that cannot be recreated once lost”, quoting Prof. Edward Wilson who described organisms as being richer than “a Caravaggio painting, a Bach fugue, or any other great work”.

Within the environmentalist movement there is in general a tendency to glorify, to idolise nature, testified in the popularity of organic food and the rejection of GM technology purely on the basis of its being “unnatural”. Other companies are still keen to capitalise by marketing their products as containing “natural ingredients” and eschewing “artifical” ones.

Nature, “red in tooth and claw”, is not something we should idolise. For the sentient individuals who live in the wild, life is a constant struggle for survival. Wild animals do not have doctors, painkillers and vaccines like we do - they suffer and die from diseases that humans would find trivial to treat. Wild animals live in constant fear of predation and starvation, and in the face of extreme weather events and natural disasters, they don’t have emergency services, helicopters and medics on hand to help them escape danger. Injuries that humans would consider minor can easily be fatal for a wild animal. Wild animals haven’t invented justice or the welfare state: in nature, might makes right and the weakest will die.

No animal on Earth invests as heavily in their offspring as humans do: for the vast majority of wild animals, once they are thrust into the world, they are completely on their own. The species only survives because each animal produces a large number of offspring - and only one of them needs to survive[3]. For most species of insects, fish and amphibians, that means thousands or millions of newborns die almost immediately after birth by starving or being eaten.

It is only by transcending, resisting and circumventing nature that humans have been able to create a society where most of us don’t need to live in constant fear, are not threatened by predators, and where disasters, disease and death - while still unavoidable - hurt us far less than they naturally would, lending human civilisation at the very least a veneer of comfort and security. This has been possible only by creating an artificial realm separate from the natural world, sanitised, sealed and climate-controlled, with medicines and inventions that fight, reject or reverse the course of nature.

Most of the calls to action around the biodiversity crisis are of course focused on how we can stop, and reverse, the population decline. But when we consider the immense amount of suffering we would be promoting, we should certainly be at least reluctant to adopt this approach. Instead, we should consider doing what we’ve traditionally always done, which is to use technology to circumvent nature, to embrace extinction, relieved that billions of individuals are saved the pain of a life that is nasty, brutish and short.

Indeed, when people talk about why extinction matters, a lot of it relates to our desire to cause animals even more suffering. For example, the same Guardian article suggests that we should care about wild animals’ continued existence because “wild varieties of domesticated animals … are also crucial as some will have already solved the challenge of, for example, coping with drought or salty soils”. In other words, we should want wild animals to continue to exist and suffer so that we can exploit their DNA, and use it to kill domesticated animals more efficiently.

Meanwhile Prof. Paul Ehrlich’s interview with the Guardian was sure to mention “supplying food from the sea” as one of the things we would miss if we let sea creatures go extinct[1]. Fishing - if that’s what is being referenced here - is an immensely cruel industry causing suffering and death to trillions of aquatic animals every year[4][5] - yet seafood is not even remotely necessary for human health and survival.

Evidently, some of the reasons cited for caring about the biodiversity crisis - such as its effect on our diet - are nothing even remotely like a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation” as claimed[2]. Instead of being sad about wild animals dying out so that we don’t get to kill them anymore, we can turn to technological innovations instead such as cultured meat and dairy products, which have the potential to produce meat products without the use of animals and all of the associated suffering.

But we do have a dilemma here. Given that hunting and fishing are among the drivers of the decline in animal populations, it’s somewhat paradoxical that this might actually reduce wild animal suffering in the long run. Yet it seems bizarre that we would support animal cruelty in order to oppose it. In my view we should just stop instrumentalising animals, whether it’s directly for their meat, whether it’s for their “ecosystem services”, or whether it’s for their aesthetic or sentimental value. Because then our interventions in nature can be focused directly on helping animals and reducing suffering, freed of ulterior motives. For that to be possible though, we would have to reduce our dependence on natural ecosystems.

Consider the case of insect pollination. It is disingenuous to suggest that the only possibility open to us is to reverse the decline in insect populations, much less that we should therefore save every possible species the world over because of their interdependence. Genetically modified versions of crops are being developed that are not dependent on insect pollination[6], and with more funding it’s at least conceivable that we can transition our food system in such a way as to eliminate our dependence on insects entirely. In the meantime, for many crops it is not impossible for human workers to pollinate crops manually, and there’s even the possibility of “robot pollinators” capable of automating this task[7]. New ways of producing food can also reduce our reliance on the soil and on the unpredictability of the weather, such as lab-grown meat or products like Solein[8], a high-protein flour made using microbes, water and air.

Of course this kind of approach could be extremely expensive - but I would argue that it is not obviously more expensive than the alternative, and that we should rather do the calculation on a case-by-case basis before dismissing it. The Guardian article cites technology ranging from “automatically identifying creatures using machine learning to real-time DNA sequencing” as initiatives that aim to solve the biodiversity crisis by protecting species. In other words, whether we respond to the crisis by trying to preserve nature, or by transcending it as I suggest, we are certainly going to need a huge amount of investment.

It is often suggested that we need to “internalise externalities” by including the value of ecosystem services in cost-benefit decisions, because market actors rarely have an incentive to care about these factors by default. I have another idea: if we could somehow put a value on the suffering our actions cause to sentient life, we might find that saving biodiversity is very costly indeed.