Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about a new species becoming threatened with extinction. Even media giants Sky are riding on the bandwagon, partnering groups like the WWF in the Rainforest Rescue campaign. If this tells us anything, it’s that conservation is box office in charity appeal.
But has anyone stopped to question why we allow these conservation charities so much of our attention? If we are causing the problems which are resulting in the deaths of these individuals in other species, then we should be worried. But is there a chance that we are getting carried away with looking at pretty animals?
The campaigns themselves tend to focus on species where there are relatively small numbers of individuals left. There is nothing necessarily irrational about that; after all, just because there is only one elephant does not mean we should care less about her suffering. The problem is that if these groups are genuinely concerned about the suffering of these magnificent creatures, why aren’t they just as concerned about smaller ones on farms?
The answer, of course, is that there are fewer individuals in the species left. There are billions of pigs raised and killed every few years whereas, for example, there are only around 15,000 jaguars left in the wild. However this in turn leads to an interesting conclusion. If we are bothered more by the fate of jaguars than pigs, just because there are less of them, then we’re valuing something other than individual suffering. Namely we seem to be valuing the variety of species and striving to maintain that variety. The most common reason for doing so is that it is more aesthetically pleasing.
Cue two embarrassing criticisms: how moral would Oxfam look if they saved human beings for that reason? It’s not particularly ethical to save anyone (human or animal) so you can look at them. And in a world where funds are increasingly sparse should we be spending huge amounts of money on preserving human made categories of animals when thousands more of these arbitrary categories die out each year, entirely naturally?
Is it really about aesthetics? Yes.
This aesthetics reasoning is only one theory, yet the others make even less sense. Namely these consist of the ‘utility’ arguments, which go something like this: ‘without these creatures, the world would be poorer in terms of agricultural, medicinal or ecological tools’. The argument seems logically redundant, forgetting that each of these species has been reduced right down to the last few thousand without causing global or ecological catastrophe. Similarly, as already mentioned, thousands of species die out every year without causing problems (or even any concern, in most cases). Species extinction is, in fact, an ecological necessity and we aren’t going to get many medicinal or agricultural benefits from jaguars and tigers.
The WWF aren’t fighting the cause of small or ecologically important species for reasons that should be pretty obvious. They pick big, magnificent creatures and we get carried away looking at these graceful, exotic scenes and feel our emotions pang at the wonderful sight on our TVs and the ambiguous feeling of ‘What? They are nearly gone FOREVER?!’. Floods of donations follow. The process upkeeps itself like any good business, profit-chasing or not, and as a result no-one ever needs to question whether the successful non-profit is necessary. It simply exists.
These kinds of charities primarily appeal to a human weakness when thinking about damage of an irreversible kind, not to our rational will to reduce or alleviate suffering. As a result they are one of the very clearest examples of charity with no defensible purpose (at least not when so many bigger problems – poverty, environmental collapse, suffering farm animals – exist).
Charity, at it’s best, is a wonderful tool for trying to balance out our own comfort by helping those less fortunate, those who genuinely feel suffering that we can alleviate. Our will to help others in this way speaks very well of us and can be extremely effective. But let’s not get carried away with what the TV tells us. Endangered animals suffer no more than any other, so we should rationally adjust the enormous value we give to the biological category of ‘species’, instead placing our concern equally regardless of the species which the individual in question belongs to. Then we would suddenly have a much more workable and helpful notion of charity. In a time of economic hardship this is has never been more morally necessary.