What, exactly are our moral obligations to the sooty tern? Some ruminations on our ethical responsibility to maintain a world that does not totally suck.
The Sooty Tern • From the title of the talk, you may have guessed that the sooty tern, Onychoprion fuscata, is endangered. • It isn’t. • It is, however, a very cool bird. • It is one of those animals that lives an interesting and complicated life, and in many ways, interacts with aspects of the environment we might, as humans modify, and in the future, lead to its extinction. • I think it might be a good idea to think about how to save it NOW, before its extinction is even in question. • It is probably too late to save pandas.
The sooty tern is actually one of the most abundant seabirds on the planet. • It is very widely distributed on tropical islands, especially coral atolls, it migrates large distances at sea, hardly ever coming to land, and eats fish. Since the last ice age, this species has actually rebounded from much smaller numbers. • This bird is migratory and dispersive, wintering more widely through the tropical oceans. Sooty Terns breed in colonies on rocky or coral islands. It nests in a ground scrape or hole and lays one to three eggs. It feeds by picking fish from the surface in marine environments, often in large flocks, and rarely comes to land except to breed, and can stay out to sea (either soaring or floating on the water) for between 3 to 10 years. • It belongs to the family Sternidae, which has 44 species, within the Charadriiformes order, class Aves, phylum Chordata. • Our common ancestor with this species probably lived about 280 million years ago. It is part of an adaptive radiation of birds that began in the Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago, and continues today….and will most likely continue with renewed vigor after we are gone, as ecological opportunities opened by the extinctions we create allow for the adaptive radiation of new birds.
Among the terns, there are some birds that are endemic to very small regions. • For instance, the Inca tern, Larosterna inca, nests on a few islands of the coast of South America, is restricted in its foraging to the Humbolt current, is dependent upon the nests of Humboldt penguins, and eats anchovies and lobsters, both of which are species that humans exploit. • Right now, the Inca tern, is near the point at which people might start calling it threatened, but not nearly so much as many other birds. • In fact, it has many attributes which potentially put it in the path of the human mass-extinction event at one point or another. • If we are to save the Inca tern, I think it is imperative that we start thinking about it now if we want that species to survive.
The Inca tern is a very cool bird, it is one example of the extent to which life on this planet is not identical from one place to another, it is an example of global biodiversity. • If this species ever goes extinct, we will have truly lost something beautiful. • From a taxonomic standpoint, we will have killed off the unique outgroup of all the other terns. • From an aesthetic standpoint, we will have extirpated something that is very beautiful, and exists completely independently of our needs and our creative processes. • From a global standpoint, we will have lost one more cog in the biosphere, though other species, including the sooty tern, will pick up the slack. • In short, during our lifetimes, this bird may go extinct, and in passing, the world will go on as before. Humans will not be impacted in a practical way, and yet, the world will suck a little more than it did when there were Inca terns.
This species is cool and very endangeredIt is the San Bruno Elfin, Callophrys mossil bayensis, a butterflyendemic to a particular set of hills I used to play on as a kid.This particular butterfly hadn't been documented in the area for many years, bit was was rediscovered on a particular hill I used to visit, last May • It belongs to the Lycaenidae, the second-largest family of butterfllies, with about 6000 species worldwide. • Many of these are endangered because of the very things that make them cool, their intricate coevolution with ants. Some are parasites of ant colonies, some may be mutualists, but the larvae need ants to raise and protect them, and particular host plants upon which to lay their eggs.
Lycaenid larvae are often flattened rather than cylindrical, with glands that may produce secretions that attract and subdue ants. • Their cuticles tend to be thickened. Some larva are capable of producing vibrations and low sounds that are transmitted through the plants. They use these sounds to communicate with ants.
The San Bruno elfin is part of an adaptive radiation of herbivorous insects that began 120 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, with the evolution of flowering plants. It is part of a very old adaptive radiation that has played out over vast periods of time.
Part of that adaptive radiation took place in California, the place I grew up. As tectonic activity pushed the ocean floor up against North America, abundant coastal hills provided ideal conditions for speciation. California harbors tremendous biodiversity, much of it endemic, most of the endemic biodiversity is threatened.
It is probably too late to save the San Bruno elfin. • It lives in such a restricted habitat, has special ecological needs, and of course a great metropolitan area has grown up to encompass most of its former home range. • When it goes extinct, the planet we live on will suck, just a little more than it did before. • The biosphere will get by without it. It is a minor player, and the communities it occupies will probably reorganize in such a way as to get by without ant-lycaenid mutualisms. • I chose this last example because the particular habitat in which it exists, is the habitat I came to know and love, and a world without San Francisco would definitely suck ass.
This, of course brings me to the true point of the talk. • I have chosen three species, one very common, one less so, but not endangered yet, and one critically endangered. • The efforts we would need to make to save each species are not the same-to save the elfin would involve major economic sacrifice, to save the Inca Tern would involve public concern, protection of habitat, and sacrifices by fishermen that may not see the tern’s survival as a major priority. To save the sooty tern, we must look into the future and simply not destroy the oceans, and the functioning of their ecosystems. • The biosphere can get by without all three species. If we loose the first two, we can say to ourselves that those species were particularly extinction-prone anyway. If we loose the sooty tern, we will probably not be affected directly in any practical sense, but it would be an indication that the biosphere might be heading for collapse. When species that abundant go extinct, something is wrong.
Which brings me to my next point: • What, exactly, are the ethical justifications for conservation? • How can we justify annihilating a species that has existed for million years in terms of human self interest? At the same time, when is it reasonable for us to expect sacrifice?
Self Interest • Compassion • Aesthetics • Obligation to Future Generations
Human centered Aesthetical Recreational Economic Scientific Life centered Nature centered (Holistic) Theistic Justifications for Biodiversity Conservation
Food Medicine Materials Water supply Climate regulation Science & technology A rationale for biodiversity conservation: the selfish obvious
Recreation Inspiration Spiritual stimulation Contemplation Peace of mind
Ethical arguments for biodiversity conservation • 1. Every species has a right to exist. • 2. The custody over nature is an agreement with God. • 3. All species are interdependent. • 4. We have obligations toward our neighbours. • 5. We have obligations toward the next generations. • 6. Respect for human life and diversity is compatible with respect for biodiversity. … a sufficient justification for biodiversity conservation? …
Views on nature conservation: ethics • “For the Kuna culture, the land is our mother and all living things that we live on are brothers in such a manner that we must take care of her and live in a harmonious manner on her, because the extinction of one thing is also the end of another.” Kuna delegate -4th World Wilderness Congress, 1987