My environmental ethics can be best summed up as Conservationist. I think ecosystems run best without human interaction and that in places that we have broken them, by introducing weeds, ferals or poisons we should take steps to fix that. Native species should be vigorously protected and degraded, wild places rehabilitated.
So in the first instance I want to see what little wilderness we have left, protected. I strongly support the creation of national parks and am pretty hardline about what activities should be allowed there; I am actually pretty comfortable with bush walker-only rules for a lot of national parks. I also think we should take just about every action possible to ensure areas we have inhabited don’t further degrade the other bits. That means we minimise pollution from powerstations and the like, and ensure our waste is treated to very high standards.
All of that is easy for most people, who would rightly consider it basic environmental protection.
But what about the intervention bits? How far am I prepared to go?
Almost without dispute, humans have done more damage to the natural operation of ecosystems than any other factor. Do I want to run them off the land? No, not really. I acknowledge that we need to grow food and live in shelters. But extending the idea above, when pursuing these activities we need to minimise the damage caused on and off-site. So I am a strong advocate for free-range farming, conservation tilling, water conservation and organic agriculture in general. I also think we should make our buildings as efficient as we can, using materials that can be re-used or benignly sourced. Would I support policies to reduce population growth? Probably not, but I think we could do a better job of educating people about how their choices make impacts across the biological sphere.
The hardest part of this for a lot of people is where a generally well-intentioned animal welfare ethic tangles with conservationism. It is here I have had many passionate and sometimes emotional discussions with people, mostly on Twitter, and it’s a hard point to articulate in so few characters.
I agree unquestionably that we shouldn’t intentionally cause suffering to animals, either wild or domestic. But what about the places where one animal is causing harm to others? Foxes and cats have probably made species extinct in Australia, maybe even as many as a dozen. Do we just let them go?
If it’s a “natural” (and here natural means “the dynamic equilibrium achieved through thousands of years of evolution”) predator to prey relationship, sorry to say it but you’ll have to fend for yourself. I am not about to start hunting Lions and lecturing them on the ethics of Springbok conservation.
The big problems come when a predator, or just a destructive species, sidesteps the normally cautious approach of evolution and starts fiddling with other ecosystems. Many would argue this is what humans have done in most areas.
Most Australians would agree that when the species is a cane toad the solution is obvious; kill them without prejudice. But for reasons I can understand on some level, this gets harder for people as the species in question gets bigger.
I am completely in favour of killing foxes, cats, goats and horses in the wild in Australia. I want it done quickly and humanely, but there is no question in my mind whether we should intervene in these situations. Doing nothing here equates to killing native species and in some cases that’s going to make them extinct. Foxes and cats are incredibly good at killing small mammals and birds. Have a look at the Wikipedia list of mammals made extinct in Australia and wonder how many of those died in the jaws of a fox or someone’s house cat.
Goats and brumbies are a little more subtle, but the outcome is the same. Goats change the botany around them, by transporting weed seeds, eating shrubs and ringbarking trees. They soil waterways and cause soil erosion. They simply must go.
Similarly brumbies, for all their majesty and romance in Australian folk-lore, really have to be removed from the Alpine National Park and surrounding areas. They’re a big, heavy, hard footed animal and cause incredible damage in the wet areas of the mountains. Imagine a fern filled valley with wet mossy pools and a slowly wandering stream. Then imagine what it looks like after a dozen horses each weighing a few hundred kilos wanders through looking for forage and water. There’s a real chance that brumbies could eliminate some frog species, like the threatened Corroboree Frog. Not through predation, but just by wrecking their habitat.
So I accept the commonly raised objection that “it’s not their fault”, but this is one of those times when doing nothing is as bad as doing something. Sitting on one’s hands and letting them carry on killing things might be okay for your ethics, but not mine. Conscious, considered actions are what’s going to save our remaining native species and I am quite convinced that the longer we wait the worse the impacts of cats and foxes in particular are going to be. The exact methods are for someone else to determine, but I strongly support the principle of removing feral species.
For this to work, I’m really only talking about species removal, not so much introduction. As a general rule I’d say that the shorter time a species has been present in a new ecosystem, the easier the decision to remove them. Common Mynahs (often called, incorrectly Indian Mynahs) in the suburbs? No worries, they’ve been here 50 years, don’t belong, let’s get rid of them. But what about some of the weird middle ranges? Dingos have been in Australia for 6-10,ooo years, a short time in evolutionary terms. Should they be here? I don’t know to be honest, but we’ve got bigger problems than that to consider.
Extending these ideas into areas that some environmentalists have difficulty with, I also support banding birds to gather data on their populations and habits, fencing off populations of endangered species like the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat and the Bilby, and introduction of biological control measures (some of them) like calcivirus to reduce rabbit numbers.
I concede that this is a complex problem, and making the decision to kill something should not be taken lightly. Ever. But this is not a scenario where there can be no killing. Either we remove the pests or they remove our natives. And given all of the above, I’m very much on the side of removing the pests.
Would love to talk about this further in the comments.