Monday, 15 April 2019

Wiping Out 60% Of Animal Populations May Not Be A Bad Thing

I read a report that says humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, and that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation. Now this immediately sounds like bad news, and it may well be bad news, but it may not be. The information in the article is insufficient to tell us one way or the other.

Perhaps the entirety of human progress and all that created value and happiness has been worth the price of eradicated life forms. I think it probably has been worth it, but perhaps not. One thing is sure though; if you want to defend a particular view, you ought to have a good argument about the pros and cons of human progression, and devise a proficient metric for establishing which has greater precedence. In other words, you mustn’t (as many people do) just read a headline like “humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970” and assume it’s a bad thing, because it may not be.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the language they use is set up to make you feel like it’s a bad thing - where terms like ‘wiped out’ connote some kind of allusion to genocide or bacterial eradication. A much more sensible analysis might conclude something like “During the unprecedented explosion of human progression in the past few hundred years, compared with the hundreds of thousands of years of human plight and suffering that preceded it, many species have been unable to co-exist alongside that progression, sometimes due to human activity and sometimes not”. That’s a much better way to phrase it.

This is especially relevant given that palaeontologists estimate that 99% of every species that has ever lived has now become extinct, and that the vast majority of those extinctions occurred long before humanity came on the scene. Most species died out in the natural fight against nature’s oppressive forces - severe weather, biological competition for survival, natural disasters, and so forth - so the narrative that the animal kingdom was a safe, stable place before rotten humans came along to spoil everything is, at best, hugely exaggerated, and at worst, a very unfair reflection.

Here's a novel way you could think about it. You could note that endangering the existence of things for human benefit is a dominant part of our existence. Measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox and polio have been prominent in human history, and thanks to medical advances, their existence has been endangered for the benefit of humanity. We are glad these diseases have been eradicated because they bring about impediments to human progression.

It isn’t, therefore, a huge category leap to say that we could ascribe overall positive benefits to humanity’s progression, even though many species have been unable to co-exist alongside that progression. In other words, if we can be reasonably glad that diseases have been eradicated because their survival brings about impediments to human progression, it’s not self-evident that we shouldn’t be able to put up with other living things being eradicated because their survival brings about impediments to human progression, as long as the benefits outweigh the costs.

To do a proper cost-benefit analysis, you would have to assess how much humans value the gains against the losses of extinct species. An argument can be made that as part of the analysis we must include the cost of life to the species themselves, but that’s hard to measure, and it’s not obvious that the way we may attempt to assess it is in any way meaningful to human minds.

All we can do is have a stab at measuring the costs to humans of other species’ extinction, and even that is difficult. What price would it be worth to humans, for example, to preserve lions on the planet? If every human had to pay out 25% of their annual income as a one-off payment to guarantee the survival of lions, is that too much? It sounds like a lot too much. What about 25% of their annual income to save lions, tigers and elephants? It still sounds like too much. What about 0.01% of our annual income to save all mammals? That doesn't sound like too much at all. What about if the cost of saving lions fell to one individual, and he wasn’t allowed to receive any financial help? Would a one-off fee of £50,000 be worth it to save all lions? Maybe it would for Bill Gates, but wouldn‘t for a minimum wage worker.

The upshot is, there isn’t an easy way to measure whether the sum of human progression has been worth it for the cost of the extinctions of other life forms - but given how much humans value their own lives, it is at least reasonable to consider that it might have been a net benefit to the world to bring about such a huge sum of human happiness. When thousands of tiny creatures die in order for a single house to be built, almost nobody doubts that the value for the inhabitants outweighs the cost to all the living things in the soil. It’s possible that that truth could be equally well extended to the sum of human happiness.

And if you think it’s difficult to measure the value of a human life, you only need to look at how humans behave to see how much we do value it. According to Steven Landsburg’s research on this matter:

“A standard ballpark figure for the value of a life is about ten million dollars. What this means is that empirically, people are willing to pay about $1 to avoid a one-in-ten-million chance of death, about $2 to avoid a one-in-five-million chance of death, about $10 to avoid a one-in-one-million chance of death, and so on for various other small probabilities. (Theory tells us that willingness-to-pay to avoid a probability of death should be some constant times that probability, as long as the probabilities are small. Data tell us that the constant is somewhere around ten million dollars.”

If every life is worth 10 million dollars (by the way, it’s not self-evident under this metric that every life is worth the same in economic value, but let’s assume it is for the sake of argument), and there are 7.5 billion people in the world, then humanity being alive compromises an aggregated value of at least $75,000,000,000,000,000. That is 75 quadrillion dollars!

So while it isn't factually accurate to say that "humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation" - because it involves many false attributions of causality - perhaps an aggregated value of 75 quadrillion dollars has been worth the price of some species being unable to co-exist alongside us, or perhaps it hasn't: but it's the epitome of lazy thinking to just assume it hasn't and not bother to consider the situation with a proper cost-benefit analysis, as so many do.

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