The rights of polar bears

Why we have a duty to save the polar bears and other species.

In what I named the “dumbest blog post of 2011“, economist Karl Smith conceded that

There will be large environmental costs associated with climate change includ[ing] a very rapid increase in extinctions

but we should ignore this and

pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North America[n] regarding fossil fuel production


there are hundreds of millions of very poor families around the world right now, who would benefit enormously from lifting the energy constraint on growth.

So many species should go extinct for the greater good of man. Bye, bye polar bears.

Smith shrugged off my accusation of “yahoo values”. It may be sadly necessary to make a formal argument for the polar bears and lemurs and hundreds of other species. BTW, I stand by my language. Quite mild really. If you threaten a man’s grandchildren – which is what denialists and do-nothings are up to – around the Khyber Pass, he doesn’t say nasty things about you on a blog, he comes after you with a sharp knife and a plan to remove various body parts.

So here’s the argument.

First, wildlife is valued by all children and most adults. Smith only gets one minority vote for his strange preferences. Wildlife generates substantial economic activities of tourism, species-watching, fishing and hunting. These direct values are associated with the economic benefits of the ecosystems that support wildlife, in water conservation, carbon sequestration, commercial fisheries (such as salmon) and forest products. Its value is not limited to them: simply knowing that whales and rainforests exist gives great pleasure to many, and their reduction and risks of species extinction generates pain. It’s mere ignorance to claim that wildlife is valueless, even on the narrowest economic calculus. Smith’s claim would require research he hasn’t done, even leading aside his incredible claims that deregulation of US fossil fuels would magically solve the global peak oil crunch that is ruining the growth prospects for the LDCs (which would be news to India and Brazil).

A second line of inquiry is the direct moral claim that the welfare of animals makes on us. Smith is, like most economists, very probably a utilitarian. Now as Bentham observed, animals suffer too. The basic physiology of pain and pleasure is found throughout the animal kingdom in anything that has a nervous system. It looks as if Schiller was right:

Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben.

The nervous system of a nematode

Photo credit
For now, we’ll forget about fish and lobsters. Polar bears, lemurs, dogs and cats certainly feel pain and pleasure, and Descartes was just wrong to deny it. For a utilitarian the implication is inescapable: we should avoid causing higher animals unnecessary pain.

The dramatic reduction in Arctic summer ice and its possible elimination is putting the polar bear population under severe stress. The distances between ice floes are becoming too far to swim. Many polar bears are dying of starvation, and their reproduction is problematic – bear cubs need two years’ training by their mothers to have a chance of fending for themselves. This stress, caused by human AGW, imposes net suffering on the bear population compared to the steady state.

What about the seals they prey on? By Ecology 101, the seal population is determined by its food supply not by predation. What predation affects is the average age and health of the seals. Absent polar bears, seals will die of disease, degeneration from age and ultimately starvation. I suggest it’s better for an ailing seal to be killed by a polar bear than to starve, so removing the bears probably lowers the seals’ welfare from the steady state. Removing the ice also makes their reproduction problematic, so the seal population will be lower than the steady state. Overall we are looking at an Arctic world with fewer and more miserable bears and seals. That’s a welfare loss. On any plausible accounting, if policymakers had to choose between the lives of the last 1500 polar bears and those of another retired blogger or assistant professor of right-wing economics, Smith and I should not expect to make the cut.

But how on earth are we to weigh this loss seriously against human welfare? Hard, but not impossible. After all, we have no foolproof way of measuring and weighing the welfare of our fellow-humans, and so resort to dubious proxies like per capita GDP, or even Smith’s “growth”, forgetting the inconvenient truths of Bernoulli and Ricardo on diminishing marginal utility, confirmed by the literature on happiness. By analogy, we should look for a not-too-awful proxy for a direct weighting of animal welfare.

One way of approaching the problem is just to note that global warming places an unknown but large welfare burden x on polar bears and Arctic seals, and try to measure what the countervailing benefits to humans y might be. If we know this y, then we can try to strike the balance. But if these net benefits don’t exist, the problem may go away. I have yet to see any solid argument that inaction on global warming is in the interests of humanity, unless you either take silly zero-risk real social rates of discount over 5% (implying the lives of our great-grandchildren are of no importance), or are wedded to a prospect illusion that magnifies the burdens of any significant current reduction in consumption and occludes the discounted burden of future disasters.

There are parts of the world where such tradeoffs may be real: consider the lemurs in the forests of Madagascar, shrinking under the pressure of a rising population of subsistence farmers. The right policy there is to reduce the population pressure by empowering women to have no more children they they want, and introducing more land-efficient agricultural techniques. Easier said than done, but feasible and win-win. Which shows more real concern for the Madagascan poor: pushing for aid for such policies, or consoling them with the thought that they are more important than the lemurs?

Utilitarianism isn’t the only ethical game in town. You can place humanity on a pedestal and say that what matters isn’t our animal capacity for pain and pleasure, but our supposedly unique intelligence and moral sense. Ultimately this claim to uniqueness is a religious position, as science can find no such unique characteristics. Everything in our makeup is just an extension or development of features found in related species. We are much better at thinking and language and cooperation than chimps and ravens, not radically different.

But here’s the catch. Suppose that humans are unique as self-conscious moral agents. That uniqueness does not give us license to destroy other species on a whim. It comes with a unique burden of duties, not a free lunch. The Tanakh overwhelmingly treats man as a steward of nature, not a slaveowner with a license to torture and kill his property. Mainstream Christianity has long outgrown the Thomist position that animals have no moral claims on us, rejoining Hinduism and Buddhism in respect for the environment. The “domination of nature” reading of parts of the US evangelical right is strained and in global terms very eccentric.

On a deontological theory, we have duties to the global poor, to posterity, and to the natural world. In this framework, the natural view of polar bears is that destroying them is a violation of duty as it is under utilitarianism.

Either way, it’s ethics versus yahoos.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

26 thoughts on “The rights of polar bears”

  1. A key way in which humans are just like the other creatures of the earth is that we will persist in overgrowing our niche unless and until a countervailing force prevails. An optimist would hope that given the predictive powers of humanity’s collective frontal lobe, we would be capable of predicting the outcome of our actions, and would act to prevent our reaching the limit of our now-global niche, but it appears that we are no more likely to achieve this than is any other creature on this planet.

    I think it comes down to a clash of world views similar to that of flat vs. spherical earth, except that today’s derives from one side’s blindness to the fourth dimension.

    Denialists’ arguments generally boil down to ‘things are what they are, and thus they will always be, and we humans are insufficiently powerful to change this in any way (and this is simply as God’s wills, many would add).’

    To recognize that climate change is occurring requires the ability to think scientifically and to rationally evaluate scientific evidence, something beyond the inclination (or capability) of far too many. Also required is the ability and readiness to take the long view of the history of life on earth (which itself is also denied by many who deny climate science).

    There is a vast chasm dividing thought that is science-based and thought that is faith-based, and although this may label me as a pessimist, I do not believe the two will ever meet in any meaningful way, on this or on many issues. When a serious candidate for U.S. President rants: “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is!” it’s clear that the discourse has reached a hopeless level.

    Short version: I don’t think it’s ‘ethics versus yahoos’ but rather ‘rationalism versus entry into a new Dark Age’; the little optimism I have remaining allows me to hope that, just maybe, I am wrong.

    1. Vonnegut brought up many of these points in his books. He concluded that our bigbrains have no clear survival advantage, judging from history. I’m a glass half-full kinda guy, but the glass is half-full of tainted groundwater.

    2. I waited to see how the “debate” here panned out and really there is none. The wingnuts don’t have this kind of long range thinking available. See Tyler Cowen’s myriad posts on the importance of being polite to the Kochtapus. As they put it we need to be concerned RIGHT NOW with the hurt feelings of the fly-by-night extractionistas.

      So. I agree with you. I am heartened by the increasing frequency of non-careerist commenters to speak up.

      Well crap I admit it I am happy to see more women commenting.

  2. Even from Karl’s perspective, he is an idiot. Global warming is also likely to cause mass extinction of human beings, located in uncomfortable watery places like Bangladesh. I suppose if 100 million poor people drown, there will be less global poverty.

    1. I think that we won’t be wiped out completely. Our numbers will he hammered hard, but we are too clever to suffer extinction. A few could easily continue after a hard landing.

      1. True enough – but will it count as civilization in any form that we would recognize it? And the transition will be hard. Suppose that the earth could fairly comfortably support – comfortable for the earth and comfortable for the human and other inhabitants – a population of, say, 2 billion people. How do we get in any acceptable fashion from the crrent 7 billion to there? Or even to 4? or 5? That’s a drop of more than any war or pestilence has produced in recorded human history, though the Black Death had something like those effects for one area of the earth – and its name is still known 700 years later…

        1. These are the big questions in Transition and the consequences of energy descent. Remember: when asked what was a sustainable human population, EO Wilson answered: if they have the consumption levels of the US and Japan, 500 million. Economists have a term that ecologists are starting to use: hard landing and soft landing. Its up to us to choose.

    2. Given that for about 90% of human existence, there has been a slab of ice about a mile thick over New York, in the long term, we have more to fear from cold than heat.

      1. Yes, and the universe with all its galaxies will continue even if humanity destroys itself and, indeed, all life on earth.
        What’s your point again?

  3. “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. ”
    Aldo Leopold, _Round_River_, 1953

    1. Yes, this is a much better way than I was going to put it. An important argument against these jokers is that we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t, and we don’t know what we don’t know. It is beyond stupid to take such risks with this great little planet that we can’t replace.

  4. …there are hundreds of millions of very poor families around the world right now, who would benefit enormously from lifting the energy constraint on growth.

    There you go again.
    Why should I care about that?
    If we are going to do policy solely to lift people out of poverty we open a Pandora’s box.
    What’s next? Will Karl Smith insist we raise the payroll taxes on the rich so that this doesn’t happen?:

    A rigorous 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the program, calculated that each 10 percent cut in benefits would lead to a 7.2 percent increase in poverty.

    Do I need to remind people that we (Conservatives with a capital C) aren’t really the party of Jesus?
    We are the party of me first. Me second. And me last.
    So yes by all means drill the fug out of the planet, polar bears be damned to helicopter fun.
    But stop using the argument that we need to do this to help poor people out of poverty.
    I am not my bother’s keeper. We don’t need to go there.

    1. “Assume a can-opener”. Pretty much forever, “mainstream” economists have gone by the assumption that proper distribution happens in that unspecified “and then a miracle occurs” step of their proof. See, for example, the argument for “free” trade based on the notion that the gains of winners are more than sufficient to compensate the losers. Where in fact what happens is that the gains of the winners are more than sufficient for them to buy legislation and other conditions that make the condition of the losers even worse.

      Sure, if we drilled and mined and burned everything in sight, the additional short-term profit would be enough to lift hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty. Chance that the money would actually go to that end? Slim just left town.

      But yeah, in general, this “who cares about the rights of polar bears” line sounds a lot like a coal-mine manager disparaging the rights of canaries.

  5. Is all this fossil fuel magic free of the cataclysmic climate damage from extreme tornado/hurricane/typhoon weather, massive flooding, desertification of arable lands, coastal flooding and erosion, mass extinction of the things that sustain whole societies?

    Here in America, a very rich country, BTW, we find it very expensive to have whole towns wiped out. How much more fun will it be to have whole countries wiped out?

  6. I think that “ethics versus yahoos” puts the choice as precisely as possible, given that preserving RBC’s reputation for good manners in the face of bad manure (sorry, hard to resist) is a Good Thing. I don’t think that Karl Smith is an idiot, but he seems perfectly willing to accept the consequences of bloody-mindedness, as long as the physical effects manifest themselves somewhere far from his garden. What this makes him I don’t know, but whatever it is, an “idiot” (as in a simpleton) would be a distinct improvement.

  7. Commenters here are getting at what a Princeton prof I worked with asked: What makes us think we humans will be the last species to go?

  8. All those flooded Bangladeshis can just migrate, no? And if they have no bread, well, they can just eat cake!

  9. Yep. Seriously, read Aldo Leopold.

    “Thinking Like A Mountain
    …I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

    I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

    We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run….”

    Then read the recent science, e.g.

    BioScience 55(7):613-621. 2005

    Linking Wolves and Plants: Aldo Leopold on Trophic Cascades

    William J. Ripple
    Robert L. Beschta


    Aldo Leopold, perhaps best known for his revolutionary and poignant essays about nature, was also an eloquent advocate during the 1930s and 1940s of the need to maintain wolves and other large carnivores in forest and range ecosystems. He indicated that their loss set the stage for ungulate irruptions and ecosystem damage throughout many parts of the United States. We have synthesized the historical record on the potential effects of wolf extirpation in the context of recent research. Leopold’s work of decades ago provides an important perspective for understanding the influence of large carnivores, via trophic cascades, on the status and functioning of forest and range plant communities. Leopold’s personal experiences during an era of extensive biotic changes add richness, credibility, and even intrigue to the view that present-day interactions between ungulates and plants in the United States have been driven to a large degree by the extirpation of wolves and other large carnivores.

    1. That’s a good comment. John McPhee, a writer who would yield to no one in his love of and subtle knowledge of the environment, called deer ‘rats with antlers’. The predator niche is a vital one, though humans tend to over-fill it…

  10. Leopold was amazingly long-sighted. This quote has never been more apposite :

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
    _A_Sand_County_Almanac_, 1949

    although I fear that this more recent quote, by Kurt Vonnegut, will be our epitaph:

    “We could have saved the world, but we were too damned cheap.”

    1. It is not a question of cheapness. It is a question of REDUCING OUR NUMBERS.
      Claiming it is an issue of money and economics is a fine way to blame someone else (“the rich” and there’s always someone who is richer than me) for the problem. Admitting the truth — that even replacement rates of two children per couple is too many, right now — means that, oh dear god, I and my friends are among those responsible, and god knows we can’t have that.

      Kathleen is absolutely correct, except that her guarded optimism is wildly misplaced.

      1. Maynard :

        I agree. Contraception is the highest-leverage green technology.

        Isn’t it amazing that some of our “leaders” are still trying to make it less accessible ?

    2. One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds

      The good earth! We could have saved it, but were too damned cheap and lazy.

      Rare is the day where someone writes in with two of my favorite (and most-used) quotations in one comment. Rare as in never before.

  11. “BTW, I stand by my language. Quite mild really. If you threaten a man’s grandchildren – which is what denialists and do-nothings are up to – around the Khyber Pass, he doesn’t say nasty things about you on a blog, he comes after you with a sharp knife and a plan to remove various body parts.”

    You’re the standout RBC contributor as far as combining insight and invective. But oh please! If you’re going to be abusive in your language, then just do it. Don’t say you’re doing it for the grandchildren. Your posts are often mean and off-putting across a range of topics. That’s how you choose to present yourself on RBC.

  12. What is so crazy about the debate is how folks
    about the debt we leave our grandchildren, but don’t seem to understand that CO2 can not be erased quite as easily as debt.

  13. You people need to wake up.. Polar bears are only threatening when there own home is invaded… that is why they invade ours… get a life bueaty made by god is not ment to go exstict just because we ( the selfish human) needs gas for there car or other wise .. there are other ways to keep warm and get places .. geeze it makes me wounder how our 4 fathers get around. Think about it!!! I am totaly against the drilling .. I would rather invest in a fireplace for my home and cut down a few trees than risk the life of a bueatiful animal with possible least a tree can be planted in the one that was just distroyed .. but you can’t make life happen if there is nothing to bring it to life..

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