Global Ethics Corner: Extinction

Sep 17, 2010

What should be the balance between preservation and consumption? Should there be a global ethic for protecting endangered species? If so, how should it be enforced?

This Global Ethics Corner is part of the Council's second annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, which kicks off a year of events and resources on sustainability. Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company. Is life sacred? We go to great lengths to protect it, as nations, in our communities, and with nature preserves.

Yet humankind is also destructive. The hunger for agricultural land has an increasing impact on our natural environment. Millions of acres of forest are bulldozed every year, mainly in tropical areas where species are most concentrated. Some of these plant species may have important medical or scientific applications.

Well known animals like gorillas are threatened with extinction, as are countless species that science hasn't even documented. We often don't know what we might be losing.

In some cases we do: conservation of the Atlantic bluefin tuna was voted down earlier this year at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. What should be the balance between preservation and consumption?

Some extinction is natural and happens all the time. Of the species that have ever lived, 99.9 percent are now extinct. Researchers estimate, however, that the extinction rate today is 1,000 times higher than normal, mostly due to habitat destruction and other human influences.

Climate change is predicted to worsen the situation, as weather patterns shift faster than creatures can adapt.

So on what scale should we protect life? Charismatic species? Whole ecosystems? Landscapes defined by political borders?

It may sound radical to think of protecting a useful soil microbe, yet the vanishing tigers readily inspire awe. While some work to save tigers, others hunt and farm them for cultural practices.

What do you think? Should there be a global ethic for protecting species? If so how would you enforce it?

By Evan O'Neil and William Vocke

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:Fionnaigh McKenzie Shawn Weismiller/ U.S. Army Chris Wong I Bird 2 Crystal Luxmore Steve Ryan Leonardo F. Freitas Katy Silberger Stewart Butterfield Rick Kim F Andrew Nicholson ILRI Mira (On the Wall) Pandiyan V Quim Gil Photofish12 U.S. Army Hector Garcia Catherine J. Hibbard/USFWS

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