Sunday, March 1, 2009

Your Right to Nature

For many people the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of nature, wilderness, and wildlife are one and the same. In light of this, what more compelling reason is there for the conservation of habitats and their organisms than to insure the rights of citizens to enjoy them? The traditional arguments for preserving biodiversity are wearing thin, yet human rights issues remain at the forefront of international agendas.

One standard plea of conservationists is that wildlife and the biosphere should be protected for future generations. Unfortunately, this does not emphasize the urgency needed in addressing the problem of endangered species, or reflect the fact that numerous extinctions are occurring in the lifetimes of present generations. Furthermore, we owe as much to previous generations as we do to our heirs. Will we continue to ignore the wisdom of Audubon, Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson?

Scientists point to the ecological services provided by species, such as pollination, nutrient cycling, and other life processes, but these concepts are often too abstract and complex for the general public, and government policymakers, to grasp. For urbanites especially, who may spend little time in the wilderness, the function of ecosystems is too far removed from their personal experiences to be a major concern.

More relevant to society are the utilitarian values we place on different organisms. However, this argument suffices for only a few species like honeybees, silkworms, and plants that yield substances of medicinal importance. The utilization of a species can also be abused. This is especially true for vertebrates, like the rhinoceros, valued for their horns to be ground into aphrodisiacs or fashioned into dagger handles. We also alter the molecular fabric of some species to exaggerate those features we find desirable, resulting in genetic corruption and domestication. Other useful species are often introduced abroad where they become pests in their adopted homeland. Finally, for purists, wildlife managed for human consumption and exploitation ceases to be truly wild. It is hard to look at a trout these days without seeing a fish hatchery.

Some animal activists believe that non-human life has rights of its own. This is a noble thought, but difficult to prove. Besides, society has been reluctant to recognize the rights of women, minorities, and other members of our own species.

The idea that we have an inherent right to experience other organisms in their natural habitats is not a new one. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold stated “The chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” Howard Evans, in Life on a Little-Known Planet, asks “…I happen to like yellowjackets; do I not have a right to yellowjackets if my neighbor has a right to a cat?” He continues: “If freedom means anything at all, it means the right to choose one’s environment and one’s friends.” Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas proposed no less than A Wilderness Bill of Rights. Parts of its preamble, composed by Douglas and Helene B. Hart, speak for children of all ages who delight in nature: “We believe in the right of children to an understanding of their place in nature’s community, of which they are a part…We believe in their right of discovery and adventure in nature’s world,…”

Allowing the continued extinctions of fauna and flora would be an insult to all scientists, lawmakers, and philosophers, many of whom, like Dian Fossey, George and Joy Adamson, and Francisco Mendes, have given their lives in the fight to preserve natural diversity. If we cannot value wildlife for its own sake, we can at least value our scholars who do.

Conservation is thus truly a human rights issue. Ornithologist Nigel Collar provided an assertive summation of this thesis in his paper “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (American Birds, vol. 42, No. 1): “…if the quality of our lives is to be ransacked no further, then we must be ready to stand up for the earth and for ourselves (italics his).” Only then can we guarantee that in the future our happiness will not entirely elude our grasp.

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