Thought piece: does extinction matter?

© Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

An independent thought piece by Dr Niki Rust, Communications Consultant at the Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Today is Global Tiger Day. Tigers symbolise many things to many people: fear, dominance, beauty, death, spirituality, wilderness, terror and awe. Ever since early Hominids wandered into the territories of Panthera tigris tens of thousands of years ago, humans (and our predecessors) have had a complicated relationship with this big cat.

For people living with tigers, there are often great costs associated with this uncomfortable coexistence. Human-tiger conflict – where tigers killed people and their livestock and, in retaliation, people killed tigers – threatens the livelihoods of local communities as well as the very existence of this big cat. Whilst many conservationists focus on trying to highlight the benefits that biodiversity brings to humanity and the costs associated with biodiversity loss, we cannot escape the hard truth that some biodiversity is worth more to us than others.

So, here’s a heretic question: does it even matter if the tiger goes extinct? Indeed, the species has been extirpated from the vast majority of its previous range and yet the world hasn’t ended. Like the extinct thylacine (exterminated by humans), if the last tiger were killed, Homo sapiens have an immaculate ability to adapt and continue. Large carnivores have been removed from huge swathes of their historic territories, but life continues. Historically, widespread culling of predators by American pioneers was seen as a form of progress; as the number of predators declined, the number of livestock farms expanded. The uncomfortable reality is that, until very recently, humanity has largely benefited from the systematic destruction of much of nature.

Being from the UK, I am acutely aware that this small island used to be home to wolves, bears and lynx. Since these species were wiped out many moons ago, we do not appear to have noticed any negative effects. Yes, we have more deer in Scotland eating sapling trees than we would have had if we still had large carnivores; yes, the meso-carnivores, like badgers and foxes, might now have an easier time not being out-competed by bigger predators, but on the whole, life ticks on.

We must face the awkward truth that, despite widespread biodiversity loss, the UK has one of the biggest economies in the world. We have pillaged our environment (and those of many other nations) whilst reaping the benefits for ourselves. So, one has to ask: which species matter to humanity if they go extinct, and which don’t? And, furthermore, which species matter to whom? If it matters for all of us to lose biodiversity, why are we not seeing the costs of the biodiversity lost to date?  Is it because we are measuring and valuing the wrong things? Or because we have not yet reached a tipping point where biodiversity loss has created widespread negative costs for humans?

The rise of the term “natural capital” could be one way to realign our measurement system to ensure we are capturing the right values when assessing how much nature means to us. Yet, despite widespread lobbying by some environmental NGOs to adopt such an approach, most nations have yet to include any form of natural capital accounting in their nation’s asset calculations. Conversely, recent actions by some of the world’s most powerful leaders have sought to relax conservation regulations so as to mine even more natural resources, thereby causing further biodiversity loss. Have we therefore failed to come up with an effective way of showing the importance of what biodiversity means to us?

I am in no way promoting the idea that we should just sit back and wait for the tiger, or any other species for that matter, to be snuffed out. What I am trying to do is raise the notion that perhaps biodiversity may not have much clout in a human-dominated world where people are more concerned about their next paycheque or meal than they are about saving some aloof species that threatens their livelihoods and families.

Morally, conservationists may think we have the upper hand; “but these species belong on earth, they have intrinsic value, they have monetary worth, they are keystone species”, I hear you say. But, for the majority of humanity, we have failed to provide a way of valuing biodiversity and conveying that value to people, so that it means something to everyone. This is one of the biggest challenges that conservationists must address.

Moving forward, we must learn to find ways to make biodiversity matter to everyone. This, I feel, can be achieved through a focus on values, as it is these that guide human behaviour. We need to understand the diversity in values held by different people towards biodiversity, use holistic metrics to measure tangible and intangible natural capital, and nurture the values that intrinsically many of us have towards life on earth. If we do not value nature, how can we protect it?

Dr Niki Rust is a Communications Consultant at the Luc Hoffmann Institute and an environmental social scientist at Newcastle University.

The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.