To respond to the biodiversity crisis, we need an ethic of care

[Published in the Irish Times Thursday May 26th 2022]

Last weekend, readers of the UK edition of the Guardian woke to find themselves exhorted to make mud pies to help migrating swifts, swallows and house martins build their nests. Due to an exceptionally dry spell of weather, the birds are expected to have difficulty working the hardened soil, so the public is being asked to give them a hand by leaving out wet muck and water. Wonders of nature, the birds return to the same nests, year after year, after a 5000km non-stop flight from Africa. But as insect populations crash the birds face certain decline.

As we confront ecological crisis and climate breakdown, such requests may become more common. We will be tasked with repairing and regenerating broken, fragmented, and degraded landscapes for the sake of other species. We will need to de-engineer the land, and rewild it, even as we fire-fight for our own sakes. This begs the question of what sort of conservation ethic is appropriate in the 21st century.

Writing in 1974, the philosopher John Passmore recognised that due to our overwhelming impact on the Earth, humans are now essentially responsible for nature, and therefore the moral community must now extend to include non-humans Hans Jonas argues that whereas in the past, the ethical universe was composed of contemporaries, now human action is spread over space and time in a way that demands an entirely new ethic, one that acknowledges the unprecedented power of technology as a radically new element in the human experience.

But from the perspective of the individual, the scale of crisis is so overwhelming that it is impossible to know what to do, or where to start, to respond meaningfully to the unfolding ecological crisis. The ever-frequent alarms about the rate of species extinction underway or temperature extremes often sound like abstractions, positioned between adverts for SUVs and holidays to achieve maximum cognitive dissonance. We rarely hear the news in a way that encourages us to process distressing information collectively, by channelling our anger, grief and fear into concrete political action. Even making mud pies sounds like fun, rather than a desperate measure to stem the tide of loss.

But what if we thought about the swallows and swifts, the frogs and the trees, as if they were our kin, instead of tragic casualties of capitalism, or mere resources to be counted, commodified and extracted? A land ethic must surely have something to say, along the lines of Aldo Leopold’s famous maxim, about the integrity, stability, and beauty of the land. It must demand a reworking of our relationship with our surroundings in ways that embrace and encourage complexity and diversity. It will require more than just leaving land set aside and fencing off water courses. It demands active management – restoring wetlands, stocking streams and rivers, promoting soil health and ecosystem functions, planting trees as well as allowing them to regenerate naturally, and as Leopold says, ‘executing scores of modifications’ to enhance rather than raze the complexity of ecosystems that is currently the norm.

Science is on nature’s side – if that is a thing. Scientists investigating the possibility of social networks between plants have revealed the existence of a “Wood Wide Web” of mycorrhizal connections between root systems, triggering new questions about where species begin and end; about whether a forest might be better imagined as a single superorganism, rather than a grouping of independent individualistic ones; and about what trading, sharing, or even friendship might mean among plants. The most recent work by leading scientist Suzanne Simard includes the extraordinary finding that mature forests have “mother trees” that recognise, shelter and feed their nearest relatives.

If trees can care for each other – as well as providing shelter, timber, fruit and storing carbon – why can’t we? Is an ethic of care towards nature too much to expect in a world that measures everything only in terms of its utilitarian value? Either way, cutting the world up into little pieces – with technology, capitalism, and human greed – is not exactly working out well for humans either. Ecology is a subversive science because, even though it is empirically grounded, it is ultimately prescriptive – just like medicine. It points to an agenda of good health. It is fitting therefore that one of the most important developments in Irish environmental policy in recent times is the planned restructuring of the National Parks and Wildlife Service by Minister Malcolm Noonan with the aim of giving the body – long underfunded and side-lined within government – a strong identity and a ‘voice to speak for nature’. Mud pie, anyone?

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