Sunday, October 24, 2010

How much for that polar bear?

"The federal government wants to put a price tag on polar bears," begins this recent Globe and Mail article. It goes on to explain that Environment Canada wants to determine the socio-economic value of the iconic arctic species. This includes things like the bear's consumptive value, cultural value, scientific value, educational value, aesthetic value, existence value, and so on. How much does each "additional unit of polar bear" or each "additional hectare of habitat" bring to the nation?

Presumably, EC wants to include the polar bear in the economic analysis of climate warming. For example, ice melt in the North will open waterways and allow oil drilling (money in), but it will deplete polar bear populations (possibly money out).

Here's a revolutionary thought: polar bears (and the Arctic in general) aren't just valuable in terms of what they are worth to us. They are valuable in and of themselves. This is the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value, concepts central to the field of environmental ethics.

In this 2006 Nature article, McCauley critiques the growing trend of nature commodification. He asserts that ecologists and conservation biologists have "sold out on nature". Under the concept of ecosystem services, we have put dollar values on wildlife and wilderness in order to validate their existence to a market-based society. This has indeed given nature some wins, but not in the long-term and not honestly. Furthermore, it relegates nature to a position of instrumentalized subordination.

McCauley is clear about his beliefs: "Nature has an intrinsic value that makes it priceless, and this is reason enough to protect it." I tend to side with McCauley on this point, but I recognize that probably not all ecologists do, and probably not even all environmentalists do, and certainly not everyone does. The subject of nature's value is irrelevant for some, highly emotional for others, and is loaded with assumptions that require serious questioning.

Maybe polar bears are just worth their weight in meat. Maybe they are priceless. Maybe we should talk about it. Maybe the conversation should not be limited to environmental philosophers, but be open to everyone--including ecologists, even if it means taking off our scientist hats and revealing our moral selves.

Why do ecologists' views matter on such a value-laden issue? Isn't the job of ecologists to provide disinterested, impartial knowledge? Isn't it someone else's job to figure out what's right and wrong?

My three-part response (which I hope to develop over the next semesters):

1) Ecologists experience their study subjects or systems intimately. Their research usually includes field work, during which they spend time with nature, observe it, sometimes manipulate it. This process of studying nature facilitates the creation and strengthening of a relationship between the ecologist and the environment. I believe this relationship lets ecologists see, feel, and know things about nature that most other people do not have a chance to. Not just scientific things, but more abstract things that are learned from experiencing the natural world in a specific place and time. I believe this relationship bestows upon ecologists an additional responsibility (on top of their responsibilities as objective scientists) to actively think about and reveal assumptions that currently underlie society's moral attitude towards nature.

2) The public actually respects and will listen to scientists' opinions on environmental issues. Scientists hold a considerable degree of authority and are often sought for answers and solutions. Sometimes they are pushed beyond their sphere of expertise, for example, when they are asked to provide an answer to a moral question--what should we do? As my professor Tom Nudds would warn, "Science takes part, it doesn't take sides," and by taking sides, the scientist compromises him or herself as an objective figure.

Correct as it may be that science should not side with a particular outcome, I feel this is not a satisfactory response. It is not right for scientists to take sides and push personal agendas or opinions. But nor is it right for us to wash our hands of the moral issues at stake. I believe the stakes are too high for us to hide behind the veil of scientific impartiality.

The public wants to know what we ought to do; they are listening. Rather than become frustrated by their misunderstanding of science's epistemological boundaries, I believe this is a call for ecologists to expand their horizons, communicate the distinction between science questions and "ought" questions, then engage in a conversation about the moral issues, assumptions, and values at play. This is a critical invitation to participate in the process of ethical inquiry. By doing so, we grow as educators, learners, and as a society.

3) My hunch is that ecologists have strong feelings about nature's value but currently lack the academic language and space to frame their environmental empathy. Over the years, ecologists have worked hard to move away from the sentimentality of natural history to the empiricism of a "hard science". We assert that we are rational, not emotional. Quantitative, not qualitative. Ecologists, not environmentalists. We want to be taken seriously as scientists and in doing so, have divorced ourselves from the caring and compassion for nature that have led us to choose ecology as a vocation in the first place.

I would bet that ecologists do have feelings for nature, and these feelings matter a lot when it comes to the pressing environmental issues of our time. I believe we need to validate them and talk about them responsibly and openly, and that this is one important avenue towards environmental and social wellbeing. I believe there is a way to discuss nature’s value intelligently, without compromising our objectivity as scientists, but also without compromising our selves as humans who care for the "more-than-human" world.

Part of the solution lies in embracing ecology’s proximity to ethical issues. Rather than limit ecology to value-free science, we need to broaden ecology and borrow rhetoric and insights from fields that articulate moral, value-laden concepts. We need to create the academic space and support for ecologists to discuss those parts of their work that dip into non-science territory. I believe this would be a more fruitful endeavour than restricting our thinking to the value-free realm.

And of course, this is the perfect excuse to post Churchill polar bear pictures. Photo credit goes to Tim Bartley: