Split Decision


Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy. An Introduction . Sarkar, S. 2005 . Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology , Cambridge University Press , New York , NY . 274 (xvi + 258) pp . $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-521-85132-7 .

This book divides neatly into two halves. The first explores ethical justifications for biodiversity conservation, the second some important theoretical and practical issues facing the discipline of conservation biology. The author, a philosopher of science, appears well grounded in the conservation biology and philosophy of science literature, but poorly grounded in recent philosophical literature in environmental ethics. Hence the second half of the book is more interesting and plausible, whereas the first accomplishes relatively little.

The ethical half of the book “… attempts to present a coherent anthropocentric position in environmental philosophy that nevertheless emphasizes biodiversity conservation” (p. xiii). Part of this project involves evaluating arguments for biodiversity's intrinsic value, which Sarkar finds wanting (chapter 3). The discussion here, however, is marred by the short, impressionistic discussion of the arguments considered and by the author's ignoring the best (Rolston 1988) and the best recent (Agar 2001) arguments in favor of intrinsic value. Perhaps the most disappointing, from the point of view of readers of this journal, is the failure to discuss the intrinsic value arguments most resonant with many conservation biologists: arguments based on, for example, living nature's complexity and ancient genealogy.

Rather than relying on biodiversity's intrinsic value, Sarkar appeals to its value to us in order to justify its preservation (chapter 4). After a short, skeptical discussion of attempts to justify biodiversity preservation economically, Sarkar makes the case that it is biodiversity's “transformative value” that best justifies its protection. Biodiversity provides both aesthetic and intellectual benefits to human beings—that is why we should preserve it. Just as “… the owner of a Picasso painting may not harm it” because of the loss that this would represent to the art-loving public, so “… the owner of a piece of land may not harm an endangered species on it” (p. 93) because of the resultant loss to scientists and bird watchers.

This focus on biodiversity's “transformative value” is a good idea, but it is not a new or neglected idea, as Sarkar contends. Many philosophers and conservation biologists emphasize the role that preserving biodiversity can play in sustaining and enriching human cultures and human lives, and they have developed this theme more systematically and convincingly than Sarkar (Wensveen 2000; Primack 2006). And of course, conservationists have long appealed to the scientific, aesthetic, spiritual, and recreational values of biodiversity to protect wild places and wild species.

Recent philosophical work in environmental ethics emphasizes the complementarity of intrinsic value and enlightened humanistic arguments for protecting biodiversity (Sandler 2007). Sarkar instead seems determined to drive them apart, insisting that we must choose between an approach that recognizes nature's intrinsic value and one that recognizes its value to us. This view is mistaken, for at least three reasons.

First, as a practical matter, we need all the arguments we can muster to preserve biodiversity. Second, as a matter of logic, there is no reason biodiversity cannot hold both intrinsic and instrumental value. Third, locating great value in science or the aesthetic experience of biodiversity, while finding biodiversity valueless in itself, is odd. If I told you that I greatly valued my friends, but solely for their ability to make my life better, you would rightly wonder whether I understood friendship or had found what was most valuable about it.

Sarkar argues that science itself is the most important avenue for finding transformative value in biodiversity. But can science, which has allowed humanity to take progressively wider views of the universe and tell deeper, truer stories about the career of life on Earth, really result in a view that locates all value in one late-coming, highly imperfect species? Such ethical solipsism, although not logically inconsistent with what science tells us about the world, seems unnecessarily selfish and false to the experience of those of us who are working to preserve biodiversity.

When Sarkar discusses particular ethical issues, he is even less convincing. On the question of when and whether to move people out of protected areas to preserve biodiversity and several other difficult, controversial issues, he simply asserts his opinions without arguing for them. In a short section on population issues (pp. 18–20), he develops the elements of an argument for limiting immigration into wealthy western countries, based on how much the average westerner consumes, the environmental costs of this consumption, and the role that immigration plays in increasing the populations of these countries. He then turns around and denigrates those who make this argument. These are the kinds of hard practical questions that the best work in environmental ethics (Rolston 1994; Norton 2003) addresses philosophically, not rhetorically or ad hominem. Sarkar's inability to do so further illustrates the weakness of his overall approach.

Thankfully, the second half of the book, treating some central issues in conservation biology, is better. Whether exploring recent debates (such as SLOSS) or current ones (such as the surrogacy problem), Sarkar generally presents the issues clearly and with a minimum of rhetoric. He stakes out strong positions on controversial issues, such as the usefulness of population viability analysis in making conservation decisions (against) and the superiority of reductionist over holistic approaches in ecology (for). But these positions are credible and address the relevant recent literature.

A main theme here is the need for conservation biology to deal more rigorously with uncertainty. Sarkar lays out plausible models for judging current extinction rates, prioritizing sites for biodiversity conservation, and for the “adaptive management” of parks and preserved areas. Although the empirical aspects of these issues sometimes seem underdeveloped in Sarkar's discussions, his models do attempt to deal with uncertainty systematically and rigorously. Practicing conservation biologists will find interesting ideas here for their judicious consideration.

The discussion of adaptive management (pp. 151–159) well illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this half of the book. Sarkar's model for systematic conservation planning is the most detailed and systematic that I have come across in the conservation literature. It could well serve as a framework for discussing the meaning of adaptive management. But his enthusiasm for “hands on” management and disdain for wilderness protection cause him to slight the need to protect relatively intact, wild ecosystems. Such areas are a crucial and highly threatened component of biodiversity that holds great scientific value (Wilson 1993). And when Sarkar tries to apply his adaptive management model to an actual case—the usefulness of national parks to biodiversity protection in Quebec, Canada—his analysis and practical suggestions are implausible and politically naive. Here and elsewhere, Sarkar's pleas for theoretical rigor would have benefited from a greater attention to empirical realities.