March 23, 2000.
Equating Human Interests with Interests of Non-Humans
I am now aboard the Caledonian Star the ship that will take me to the Antarctic, South Georgia and beyond. While I was flying here I read an article by Karl Rabago in the Harvard Law Review about the numbers of fish that are killed by those pumps which carry cooling water to power plants (billions of fish die annually). In it he discussed the problem of how difficult it is to balance the different needs of the environment with the needs of power plant operators; customers who want cheap, abundant electricity; and local fishermen who want more fish to catch. He proposed that when one has to make a decision fraught with such conflicting agendas, that a good strategy is to turn to some, as he says, "...rational decision-making method designed to optimize all relevant environmental and social values" [Pg. 452]. When I first read that passage it seemed like the kind of approach I'd be grateful to see my political representatives take. But after mulling it over I realized that it contains the same flaw I alluded to in my last piece: it assumes that "human social values" can be traded like poker chips for "environmental values." But such logic is based on the assumption that human social values have an importance at least equal to environmental values, else we would not be able to make a trade-off between an environmental value and a human social value. That is because we must never lose sight of the fact that we are a subset of the environment, a servant of it, not its ruler. If we intend to have any future in the long term, the strategy of opting for placing the interests of other species as equal with our own will always be in our best interests. Until we step back into line, and realize that environmental needs are uncompromising, and that they ignore the complaints of those who think such needs are frivolous or can be postponed, our future is bleak-in fact we have no future.
Every time we compromise the environment we limit our future options and put a further squeeze on whatever slack remains in the system, thus limiting what slack there can be for the next crisis or occasion. Every such compromise weakens the system, contributes to a kind of death-by-a-thousand-cuts. We need to get our priorities straight. They are the environment above all, with us accommodating our wishes and desires to that harsh fact.