We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, October 14, 2013

What is it We Want to Preserve?

An Isle Royale gray wolf
Source:  blog.nature.org
In a posting entitled, "Should We Let the Wolves of Isle Royale Disappear?" science writer Matt Miller raises some difficult philosophical issues concerning the wolves of Isle Royale National Park.  Isle Royale is, of course, an island located in Lake Superior.  For decades, naturalists have studied the pack of gray wolves that inhabit the island, but now that pack is in danger of dying off.  The question is, what to do?

Saving the pack would seem like a no-brainer for conservationists, but things are not that easy.  Evidently, the wolves arrived on the island only in the 1940s.  They are not indigenous.  The island, furthermore, is changing, and it is an open question whether or not it will be able to sustain its wolf population naturally in the future.  The deeper question is how to define the "natural state" of Isle Royale.  What state is it exactly that needs to be protected and even reclaimed?  Some of the most important older inhabitants of the island—caribou, coyotes and lynx—are gone.  Perhaps the wolves and moose, another Johnny come lately species on the island, should be allowed to die off and the older species reintroduced.  The posting makes the point that islands are tricker than mainland ecologies because they are limited in size and resources. Miller's solution to these difficult questions is to,
Let Isle Royale’s fauna continue to come and go as it has for thousands and thousands of years. And let’s continue studying this national park, learning how fauna and flora adapt, change, survive and disappear over time. And who knows? Maybe wolves will find a way there on their own. Or maybe lynxes will return. Or a new animal. Let’s just see what natural forces bring, on at least this one island. Around the world, conservationists will face choices like this. There often won’t be easy answers. It may not be comforting to let a population of charismatic animals disappear, but sometimes it may be the right choice. (emphasis in original)
Most readers of this blog would agree that we want to conserve and where possible restore our natural environment to the greatest extent possible.  But what does that mean?  Global warming is radically altering those environments, and there is no going back.  Evidently, the North Country of New York is going to become the new North Carolina within several decades.  What then do we want to preserve?  We can't go back to the "natural environment" of the so-called Little Ice Age, which was the pre-Invasion natural state of North America, even if we wanted to do so.  Should we be protecting species whose environments are undergoing significant change?  Or should we just reduce pollution as much as possible and let the species fend for themselves "naturally"?  The answers to these questions is evidently contextual and subject to revision as events and trends develop.  What we require is not just data and knowledge.  We also need wisdom.  Amen.