Values again

Values again

What do you value most?

Your loved ones, your health, Sheba the cat, your favourite cashmere jumper or even, perhaps, your screen time.

If you think about it, even for a moment, lots of things are likely to be on your list of valuables.

Alloporus has discussed this kind of thing before. And in thinking about how we perceive value, concluded that value is always relative and personal.

The question here is how far down the list of things we value is nature?

You know, all the plants, animals, hills and streams, the flowers that bloom and bees that buzz, the cute and the cuddly, and even the icky bugs and slugs, together with all the vitality that they bring.

I side with’ is a website aimed at increasing voter engagement in issues of the day. It’s ‘popular issues’ page lists 100 most popular issues filtered from, they claim, a million unique survey answers per day.

When I had a look at the site a few months ago, just 8% of the issues listed were nominally about the environment and none were directly about nature (note that this is an active polling site, so the current lists may differ substantively).

‘Environmental regulation’ makes the front page but you have to scroll down to find ‘mining water use’, and further still to ‘foreign land ownership’, ‘plastic product ban’, and ‘nuclear energy’. Way down the list we get ‘whaling’, ‘fracking’, ‘GMO foods’, ‘coal seam gas’, and ‘nuclear waste’.

More popular than environmental regulation when I looked were equal pay, gay marriage, abortion, mandatory vaccinations, terrorist citizenship, LGBT adoption rights, and welfare drug testing.

Let’s just pause a moment for this to sink in.

Nature, the cornucopia of organisms, services and wonder that gives us clean air, fresh water, food, and any number of raw materials that collectively provide us with the opportunity to contemplate values, does not make the list of 100 most popular issues of the day.

This is not an isolated finding.

Nature languishes way down on many lists of environmental issues even though aspects of nature are implicit in so many of our most acute challenges, not least in providing solutions.

Somewhere along the way we have become so disconnected from what nature does for us that we do not even think it is important.

This is quite remarkable.

I’m going to give in to my incredulity and harp on this one.

Our collective term for the very thing that sustains us, the place we evolved into and shaped our characters, beliefs and our psyche, is not even on our intellectual or moral radar.

Let’s just consider one of the things that happens in nature each and every moment of every day and what would happen if it stopped.

Decomposition is the process by which complex organic material is broken down into its constituent parts. These chemicals become available for recycling by plants back into organic matter or, if you like, food for heterotrophs including people. Bacteria, fungi and a host of invertebrates in soil and leaf litter are responsible for this natural process that only keen gardeners and farmers are likely to notice.

What if decomposition stopped? In a short time we would be knee deep in dead things. None of the carcasses would smell of course because the process of decomposition releases the odorous gases of decay. Instead they would just pile up along with the dead plant material.

In dry periods the most likely outcome would be fire. A sobering proposition given the heavy fuel load of dry biomass.

But this is not the half of it.

Without nutrients there are no building blocks for plants. Once the burst from nutrient stored in the seed is over, seedlings would simply stop growing. Deciduous trees would not flush and evergreen plants would become dormant.

Photosynthesis would shut down and oxygen production would slow to a halt. Oxygen deficits would compete with starvation as the means to kill off all the animals.

In just a few months most of nature would be changed forever. Humanity would not survive.

Of course this is not going to happen because it is impossible to stop decomposition. Bacteria and fungi are way too pervasive for that.

And maybe this is it.

We believe that nature is unbreakable. It has so much built in resilience and redundancy we see it as a perpetual motion machine that can never stop.

But human actions can slow nature down by drying out soil, changing vegetation, over-exploiting the soil nutrients, reducing soil organic matter or through pollution.

Our actions also channel nature into delivering the products we need. Nature becomes fields, farms, plantations and reservoirs. Places where we convert nature into commodities. This reduces overall redundancy and resilience because so much of the energy and nutrient flows are directed into things that humans need.

We value these things of course, only not in quite the same way as we value nature. Commodities are literally valuable because we convert them into cash. Land is valuable because it can be used to generate commodities. Soon we are down with the dollar.

The reality is that the economic focus is with us, stuck like araldite to our present and future. There is no credible alternative or, more significantly, no credible way to transition to an alternative, that can give us back a focus on nature without looking through a commercial lens.

So, for now at least, we do not value nature. It’s not on our radar and that is a big problem.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

The global wheat crop is decimated by a fungal disease that is immune to all attempts to control it. After three years of next to no wheat anywhere, there is a food crisis that affects everyone, even those who shop for their food in supermarkets. No bread, no pasta, no cake and no wheat beer. All the gluten free alternatives are consumed by the rich.

In a remote part of Australia, an organic farmer called Bruce is the only producer still growing wheat. His crops remained healthy even after all his neighbours went out of business. Soon he was spending way to much time describing his methods to a succession of scientists and media. The world got into the way Bruce did things, his pasture cropping approach, his decades long attention to building soil carbon and his attention to slowing down runoff all across his landholding.

Bruce became a new kind of celebrity. He was world famous as the saviour of bread but he stayed calm and matter of fact about it all. He kept growing wheat even when there were many other easier and more lucrative options.

What did happen that nobody expected was that his style and his humility touched people. What was happening on his paddocks went viral. Everyone became aware of how important it was to grow food with empathy for nature.

Instead of ignorance and apathy people paid attention to where their food came from. They asked questions about how food was grown. Did the farmer do it like Bruce? They paid realistic prices for produce because it was obvious that cheap meant mining the nutrients and water out of the system just to break even. It was a tsunami of change.

The wheat cropping system recovered but the health benefits of going without wheat meant that most consumers stayed with alternatives.

What happened though was that organic became mainstream because everyone now knew it was about carbon and not yoga and dreadlocks.

Conservation questions

Conservation questions

The current loss of biological diversity is a problem that calls for a collective characterization of what we want to protect and conserve and of what biodiversity we value. Should the focus be on local or global biodiversity? Should alien species be eradicated to protect ecosystem integrity and endemism? Should mammals be favored over plants? Should priority be given to useful species over useless ones? Should natural diversity be valued per se, or should it be valued on the basis of the goods and services it ensures? It is likely there is no one answer to any of these questions; rather, different contexts will give rise to different outcomes. Conservationists should tackle this kind of uncertainty and attempt to bring to light and discuss the moral values at stake. Maris & Bechet (2010)

What an extraordinary set of questions. Ask any one of them in the pub late on a Friday and you will start a ruckus. There will always be a least two individuals with diametrically opposite answers and any number of weird and wonderful interpretations given half the revellers will not understand what on earth you are on about.

Ask the same questions at an ecology conference of learned academics and you will get equally passionate answers. The lecture hall will buzz with erudite responses argued from one or other theoretical position with responses debunking each one as simplistic or impractical. And just like in the pub the answers will be interpretations rather than definitive inference because each question is contentious in its own way.

Here are a few examples.

Local or global becomes… I really want to see the sea eagle when I go to my favourite beach and have no trouble with it being on the list of threatened species. Only this species is distributed widely from Mumbai to Melbourne and is often locally common and the IUCN list it under the ‘least concern’ category.

Aliens becomes… We really should remove willows from creeks across the Australian countryside as they are a nasty invasive alien species. Only when they are removed and not replaced habitat and water quality declines and erosion can accelerate to the point where multiple values are degraded.

Mammals obviously… If the koala goes then it’s just not the same to have its food trees around the place. Plus if you keep the koala you also keep the trees and the umbrella works to protect more than just the animal.

Useless species… No species is completely useless because they all have existence value and a moral right to be, except in the minds of those people who believe that human beings are the apex of evolution and the moral right to lord over nature.

Services take precedence… Given there are so many people and with people coming first it is impossible not to value services over natural diversity. Unless we can use species somehow, directly or indirectly, there is no point in keeping them in a crowded world where every single patch of land and water has to do something for mankind. After all what is nature if it is not in the service of humanity. Only without nature there would be no humanity.

Questions of value

There is contention everywhere because whilst the questions appear scientific, the answers are all about values. Even in a room full of experts loaded opinions flash from every corner with no obvious way to separate them or decide which has the most to offer.

I doubt that conservationists have any idea about how to tackle this value conundrum any more than the average Joe. My experience is that they jump onto values and run with them without even realising there was any uncertainty in them. They also seem intent on the dichotomy as the wrong that only their opinion puts right.

Inevitably they will be up against those who see nature as a resource for humans to exploit, the gift that was given to mankind that no other creature ever has or will possess.

Context will favour one or other view as more logical or moral, consequently, as Maris & Bechet (2010) conclude “there is no one answer to any of these questions”. In other words each question has an uncertain answer.

Recognition of uncertainty would be a major advance but I doubt that holders of strong opinions, especially when claimed as the moral high ground, easily conceded their answers in a values argument.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in values debates is some objectivity.

This begins with recognition of all answers to the various questions and of the plurality of values. Objectivity would also recognise that if we land on one or other side, then the other side has compromised, often massively. Same for plurality. If you want to keep koalas, then the objective arguments says that this cannot happen everywhere, choices must be made on where effort is put to keep them alive. In other words morals are compromised to let some of them go.

Objective answers should let everyone one win, some of the time, in some places.