The Economist’s debate on the inherent value of wilderness, and the Vogons

I have trouble sometimes recognizing subscriber walls for some of the things I read, as I do subscribe to rather a large number of magazines and stay signed in online. I think this debate on the inherent value of wilderness from the Economist is free content.

It’s a nice introduction to the basic issues of environmental policy and wilderness set-asides, but I always wonder why we start from the position about whether wilderness has inherent value. The opposition never says that nature does not have inherent value; it simply points out,as Lee Lane does here, that depending on the context, other factors outweigh the value that wilderness has. Thus resolving whether wilderness has value itself rather misses the point; nobody but the Vogons* advocates for squashing flowers for the pleasure of squashing them. The point is the pluralistic values and priority weighting of those values in the public sphere surrounding environmental value, and the tradeoffs you are proposing at a given time.

* To quote the Wikipedia description, which is delightful: On Vogsphere, the Vogons would sit upon very elegant and beautiful gazelle-like creatures, whose backs would snap instantly if the Vogons tried to ride them. The Vogons were perfectly happy with just sitting on them. Another favorite Vogon pastime is to import millions of beautiful jewel-backed scuttling crabs from their native planet, cut down giant trees of breathtaking beauty, and spend a happy drunken night smashing the crabs to bits with iron mallets and cooking the crab meat by burning the trees. In the movie, the Vogons seem to smash the crabs for no apparent reason besides pure pleasure at killing something.

See? Even there the Vogons have a use value.

Polar Bear Simulacra

The St. Louis Zoo is putting electronic proxy bears in their exhibit now that their live bears have passed away.

One of my favorite colleagues, Martin Krieger, discussed the idea of simulated nature in piece he published in Science in 1973. He talks, however, about rare natural environments, not zoo environments–the latter being inherently constructed. In a short, concise piece, he develops this notion of “proxy” nature.

It all brings up the question: what is the role of the zoo in the sustainable city? Is there one? Are they destined to become Disneyland natura?

Krieger, M. 1973. “What’s wrong with plastic trees: rationals for preserving rare natural environments involve economic, societal, and political factors.” Science. 179 (4072): 446-455.

Luke, T.  2002. Museum Pieces: Power Plays at the Exhibition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 298 pp.

Animals and dogfighting in the sustainable society

“The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), History of England

One wonders if in this regard the Puritans weren’t right. To delight in cruelty, especially when the cruelty is enacted over those with less power than you, and who are dependent upon you, portends a degradation of the human spirit that transcends the Puritan’s godly distrust of ungodly pursuits . You wish to prove your mettle and courage? Go join a cage fight your own self, don’t send your charges into one for you. You can try all the “this is my culture” excuses you want: finding entertainment or profit in another’s pain is sociopathy, no matter how dressed up.

One of my favorite books on the subject of animal-nature ethics was edited by my former colleague Jennifer Wolch and Jody Emel:

Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands. Published in 1998 by Verso.