the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Anthropocentrism versus biocentrism
The question of what is good can only be answered within a particular set of values. Humans have values; nature does not. Nature does not care what exists or how it exists. And there is no set of circumstances that is better or worse for nature. Destruction of an ecosystem isn’t good or bad. Extinction of a species isn’t good or bad. In fact, nature makes some of these things happen, and does so frequently. And then it works around them: it creates a new ecosystem; it allows a new species to thrive in a vacated ecological niche.
And humans, at least from the self-interested point of view, are not invested in the survival of ecosystems or species per se, and they are certainly not interested in biodiversity; they are interested in ecological stability, in the continuation of the ecological state in which we evolved, or to which our cultures have created technological adaptations. To the extent that human actions make the survival of individual humans, groups of humans, human cultures, or the species as a whole more difficult, those human actions run afoul of human self-interest.
This anthropocentric view, of environmental actions through the self-interest of humans, is itself a human value, though, something that some humans believe in but others do not. Just as in other realms, self-interest may be contrasted with altruism, or concern for other(s). Treating nature as the other in an altruistic view of the environment is contrasted as “biocentric”. The biocentric view is that nature has worth in itself, and that humans are morally obligated to protect it not for any benefit to humans, but simply to benefit nature.
The US was the locus for much of the development of the modern environmental movement, so it serves as a useful example. There is an identifiable dichotomy in the history of the movement between anthropocentrism and biocentrism. Anthropocentrism tends towards the utilitarian; nature is for use, and the measure of nature’s value is how useful it can be. Biocentrism, while rhetorically oriented around nature, often tends effectively towards the human aesthetic; nature is thus for human appreciation. Typically, though, biocentrists resist any measure of nature’s value. (In this context, some people make a distinction between “conservation”, which for them is the protection of nature for anthropocentric or utilitarian reasons, and “preservation”, which is the protection of nature for its own sake. For most speakers of English, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ are used interchangeably to mean “taking care of nature”.)
Two central figures in the US environmental movement were contemporaries who embodied this debate: Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), an anthropocentrist, and John Muir (1838-1915), a biocentrist. Pinchot was the head of the agency that oversees the National Forest system (when it took its current form, the US Forest Service); Muir was the leading advocate of the establishment of the National Park Service, with a particular interest in Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada (for which the Sierra Club, founded by Muir, was named). Accordingly, the National Forest and National Park systems reflect the dichotomy. The National Forest system is essentially a national timber reserve, though efforts have been made recently to preserve undeveloped areas in forests within the system; the National Parks are generally closed to development, and managed towards recreational uses. Within the US government, the Bureau of Land Management is even more utilitarian, while the National Wilderness Preservation System (managed by multiple agencies, including the NPS, USFS, and BLM) is even more biocentric, as even recreation is restricted to low-impact activities like hiking.
Ecosystems don’t have clear borders. Any two ecosystems, however defined, are likely to meet in a gradual transition zone, known as an ecotone, with characteristics of each, where the systems blend and species from each ecosystem are present. This creates an edge effect on each ecosystem, since some of the more sensitive species from each ecosystem may not be able to inhabit the ecotone. This becomes important as the size of a preserved ecosystem shrinks. Imagine, for example, that the typical ecotone between an oak forest and the anthropogenic ecosystem of a farm field is ten meters. The ecotone is an absolute size, because the species themselves (such as the oak trees) are an absolute size; the ecotone doesn’t expand and contract with the size of the forest. As the oak forest (dark green) is habitually contracted on each side from expanding farms, the ecotone (light green) takes up a larger and larger proportion of the non-farm land. If the intention is to preserve the forest ecosystem in its natural state, a reserve of 30 meters square will only preserve 10 meters square of the forest; the rest would be ecotone. Species that need to exist in the deep forest will likely not survive.
Apart from size itself, the fragmentation of undeveloped land limits the conservation value. Even with no ecotone, two parcels of ten acres would not be as valuable to species as one parcel of twenty acres, because individual organisms would be confined to half of the total preserved land. Assuming that it is impossible to set aside larger parcels, a partial solution is to connect the parcels by means of greenways (or wildlife corridors). In general, a greenway is linear open space; as a wildlife corridor, a greenway must be a linear version of the same species mix as the ecosystems it is connecting. This allows animals and even plants to migrate between the two parcels in safety and at their own pace. That, in turn, effectively doubles the preserved habitat for the individual organisms and species, and limits the possibility of genetic isolation; the full genetic material from both parcels is available to the reproducing populations, or, if one population should die off, it can be replaced by migration from the other parcel. Below are a variety of corridor options, of increasing value to migrating species (left to right at top and then at bottom).
Protecting rivers is important for wildlife as well as humans (for instance, as a common source of drinking water). Simply setting aside the precise width of the drainage path is typically not sufficient, though. The riparian corridor (from Latin RIPA, “river bank”) that develops along a drainage path (prior to human modification) is not only its own ecosystem, but serves an important function for river-ecosystem health, operating as a filter as water drains from the surrounding land. If the riparian corridor includes trees, as many do, the shade and detritus (fallen leaves) will both be important elements of the riparian ecosystem. Riparian corridors frequently serve as natural greenways connecting other open space.
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