Saturday, July 7, 2007


During a recent interview on the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal, famed naturalist Edward O. Wilson brought to a national TV audience his warning that by the end of this century, if we don’t reduce our consumption of resources, half of all species will be extinct or on the verge of extinction. We will then have had an impact on life similar to that of the asteroid or comet that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Moyers brought up several arguments used to counter the need to do anything to stop the killing of other species. One of these arguments, which President Reagan subscribed to (and possibly George Bush also believes), is that Jesus will be returning soon, so it doesn’t matter what we do. Another argument is that it is human destiny to rule the Universe, turning our own planet, and then others, into artificial environments.

The first argument assumes that (1) Jesus exists; and (2) that he wouldn’t care that we’ve exterminated so much of his father’s creation. I personally believe that both of these assumptions are patently false, but the second one is the most important. Wilson’s latest book is a plea to evangelical Christians to respect other species because God would want them to.

When I heard the second argument, it disgusted me, and I finally understood the similar reaction I received from the Worldwatch Institute’s Christopher Flavin when a few years ago I suggested that the space community and environmentalists have common ground in promoting the long term survival of life. There is in fact a long standing debate among proponents of space exploration and settlement involving the ethics of terraforming (making other planets, such as Mars, hospitable to Earth life by changing their atmospheres and seeding them with life from Earth that is either natural or artificially modified). To my knowledge this debate is far from settled, but the issue may be moot: we are already “terraforming” Earth, fiddling with its ecology and climate in uncontrolled ways, including introducing artificial organisms into the environment.

Wilson offered several reasons for stopping our destruction of other species. One of these was economic and another was ethical. The rest of the biosphere provides free services such as climate control, food production, and pharmaceutical development that have been estimated to equal, in monetary terms, the total economic production of humanity. To eliminate these services would be, well, stupid. Our history and identity is directly tied to the rest of Nature; and as the newly evolved “brains” of the biosphere, we can appreciate its value both intellectually and spiritually (emotionally). We should therefore protect and preserve it for its own sake.

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