In spite of all talk to the contrary, a conservation ethic is a long way from becoming a reality. We may be an enlightened race, but as long as the dollar ethic is more important that a conservation ethic little will be changed.
Just what is a conservation ethic? It is new or old, well known or merely estranged thought that has been strangled by media dominated by a focus on endless consumption.
A rudimentary conservation ethic was expressed by Gandhi in his comment that there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. Henry Thoreau, somewhat similarly contended that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can get along without.”
A grim reminder of the need to care for and cherish biological diversity was stated by Ken Brower in reference to the handful of remaining California Condors. “When the vultures watching your civilization begin dropping dead…it is time to pause and wonder.”
Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of the Jainist Buddhists gave in effect a single commandment: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torture, or kill any creature or living being.”
If readers would enjoy a philosophical journey through the history of a conservation ethic, Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” which might be interpreted expansively as the Way of the Cosmos, Nature and Accordant Life. Provides much to think about therein!
Unfortunately, the question of worth must become attached to all our deeds. That is one of the reasons why many conservation-oriented people have questioned the political and economic philosophy of our time, and asked whether it is committed to the long-term success of the race or only to expediency.
We are so busy pursuing the illusion of accomplishment that we fail to see ourselves in the world of nature. The symbols we substitute for more honest ones are measured in meaningless digits called dollars. By the number of these we can stack alongside ourselves, we measure our worth. The choice of the dollar as a measure of our value as humans, rather than a symbol of nobler merit is unfortunate; and perhaps depicts the yet primitive nature of the human beast. Dollars in the bank or bones in the cave are valued because the mind must measure in concrete terms and seems incapable of abstraction. It easily follows that a dead grizzly bear represents x number of dollars spent in its chase, while a live one has incalculable value because it is harder for statisticians to pin down cash value in an aesthetic framework.
Unlike those who believe that freedom is licence to turn all ends to their own gain, a conservation ethic involves sacrifice of present gain for future good. It involves a restriction of freedom. It involves recognition of the fact that the accumulation of wealth at the expense of ravaging the Earth is not justifiable. However, soothsayers of the modern age will have their way. They will avoid truth by citing half truths. The wrecking of some portion of the Earth for monetary gain or political capital will be smoothed over with neat packets of figures indicating how many people will be employed, how much a region will increase its net worth, or how much it will increase its tourist potential. The only answer to this kind of oratorical banditry is the adoption of a binding ethic – that immediate gain will not be justifiable when long range ecological damage may occur.
“Heresy!” will be the cry in the market place. Stupidly idealistic, the destroyers will chant. The canned answers are all available to be opened and thrown at anyone who proposes that something less than an ideal situation exists. Look at the Gross National Product will be the shout. How can we exist if we don’t continue the upward trend of the GNP?
The answer: better that the market collapse but the world still be able to exist. Better that the trees continue to grow on the slopes than that money stack up in the vaults of the already wealthy. Better that the birds return with the spring and that the people be poor than the Earth be saturated with pollutants and the people be dead! Better that we live a life of principle than that the rivers be great sewers. Better that we enjoy the awesome wonders of nature than proving that we know how to produce and export, while we wear gas masks in the smog.
In North America’s relatively short history of settlement, many species of living things have passed over the Great Divide and are now forever gone from the Earth. The passenger pigeons will no longer bow the branches beneath the weight of their flocks. The great auk, the Carolina paroquet, the giant sea mink, the heath hen, the Labrador duck and other species will never be seen again alive on Earth. Sadly enough, North America has lost more species in the last 100 years than Europe has in the last one thousand years.
Yes, it has also been suggested that another species be added to the list of endangered animals – this one is a bit more personal – for it is us – the species Homo sapiens.
Do we need a conservation ethic?– only as we need life. It’s Your World!
Bob Harrington lives in Nakusp, B.C. and will be speaking about what he has learned living close to nature and from scientists and philosophers who have done the same. Get High on Nature takes place at the Nakusp Public Library Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.