Balance as important as human life

Friday , July 18, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Lee Badger

Mark Saal asked for things more important than a human life (“Slayings too hard for my heartstrings,” July 13). I'll start with the ocean. Without it, this would be a dry, hot planet with no phytoplankton to help convert our exhaust fumes into the oxygen we need to survive.

Or, how about our Wasatch Mountains that hold winter snows to become summer irrigation to green our desert valley, or the Ogden river to funnel that snowmelt down here, or the fertile top soil to grow our food? Or, how about the Grand Canyon, the declining elephant population, or the last wolverine or chestnut tree?

I know. I know. How could I possibly equate the value of a canyon, animal or tree to a human? I'm not. I'm asserting that a world with a balanced value of humans, wild species, biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem is superior to one where human value trumps all others.

For too long humans have been a chest-pounding species - "Me, me, me - I'm the one." Well, we're not. We thought we were the center of the universe until Copernicus and Galileo showed we weren't. We thought God gave us a special creation, but that didn't happen; our species evolved into existence like all the rest. When the whites among us thought they were meant to be masters over the blacks we eventually saw the error. When we Americans cried "Manifest destiny!" to justify populating this continent and crowding the natives onto slivers of reservations - well I'm not sure we've admitted that error yet, but that admission (and debt repayment) is overdue.

And now it comes to everything in nature. We're number one. It seems no landform, plant, animal, water or atmosphere can be our equal. Well, I say we overvalue ourselves.

Thinking we were tops wasn't so toxic when we were a small species struggling for survival, but we're way beyond that now. Our big brains and energy capture have given us massive power. Our population ruled the earth a century ago and has doubled more than twice since. Our huge population combined with our propensity to consume gives a footprint of nearly two earths - it would take the on-going output of two earths to keep us going at our current level of consumption. Now said consumption is changing the climate and not in a favorable way. It wouldn't be so bad if it were just us who depended upon a friendly climate - we deserve what we knowingly cause - but many other species are going to suffer with us and for them it's not just an inconvenience - many will go extinct.

"So what's the big deal?" you may ask, there have been huge extinction events before. Yes, but only because of natural causes - massive, multiple volcanic eruptions or the earth colliding with a huge astroid. Do humans really want to bear responsibility for a cataclysm such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs? Wouldn't we then be even more culpable than when we enslaved the Africans or herded Native Americans onto reservations?

But most probably, we won't screw things up that much. Maybe life just becomes a little harder and more uncomfortable for us humans and we extinguish only a few species. What's the problem with a warmer earth, an ice-free arctic and no penguins?

I personally don't want a world without the great species we grew up with; that would be a very less valuable earth for me. But I don't know an ethical argument against causing species extermination, nor do I know the economic valuation of a species that seemingly has no human value. Most, if not all, ethical arguments and economic valuations are human based. Well there you have it - us putting us in the center again - me, me, me.

But there is certainly a purely human benefit in caring for nature. Ecologists don't know how interconnected our ecosystem is, but it seems that as they learn more, it moves in the direction of evermore interconnectedness. So there is a point - it may be near or far - beyond which we could so debase nature that our own support system collapses. And even if we aren't near that point, it would seem wise to maintain and improve the health of the foundation of our existence.

So, Mr. Saal, there are things more important than a human life; I see them daily. Of course I do understand your point - each little girl, each old man, each Jew, each Palestinian is important. The goal is, yes, to value each human life - but also to recognize that we need to limit our human influence on, and become a cooperating part of, nature.

Albert Einstein said it well: "A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of liberation and a foundation for inner security."

Badger, of Ogden, is a professor emeritus of mathematics at Weber State University.

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