Value of non human life

I’m feeling kind of pessimistic today. I was wondering whether societies around the world have given up on the value of non human life, except when it impacts people. This was kind of prompted by a picture of a homeless encampment along a river bank, which was basically just a pile of garbage. I thought of all the non human life that may have been killed, and the destruction of habitat (which people are great at doing) it represented. Our city does nothing to stop these riverbank encampments, because people matter more than other life forms. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated!


To be honest this sounds like a society that has given up on human life as well.


I understand your pessimism, Ian. It can be so frustrating to see how little value nature has for far too many people. The yahoos around here get a thrill out of running over Snapping Turtles that are laying their eggs on the shoulder of the road. They have to actually swerve out of their way to run them over, and it’s FUN!
I find that I cannot let myself think of these things too often. It’s not that I’m hiding my head in the sand but that, for my own mental health, I need to focus on good stuff.
Fortunately, I work for an organization that does a lot of good for nature. They are very active in conserving land in this spectacular area where I live. Currently there is a campaign to raise funds to purchase a large chunk of alvar, perhaps the best alvar in Carden, which could have been quarried and was slated to become a gun range. Imagine the destruction from either of these activities.
And for myself, I choose to lead by example. My lawn is unmowed except for a few paths. Wildflowers abound; brush piles provide shelter, and feeders are available. You can walk around the neighbourhood and find silence everywhere else but in my yard there are always birds, and animals, and insects flying, making noises and thriving.
Frankly, non-human species are more important to me than the human species is.


Part of what happens when there are too many of any given thing. Each individual gets devalued and abandoned.

Because it’s humans, and we supposedly value humans more than everything else, even if society doesn’t value humans all that much, everything else is treated even worse.

I run a conservation organization and often give talks on nature and biodiversity related issues. One of the things I have to constantly remind people from children to long-standing politicians of is the fact that biodiversity and a healthy environment is important to keep ourselves alive.

Children usually get it, but, in my experience, politicians are more interested in the economic value. When you point out that the long-term economic value of intact ecosystems is generally massively greater than the net amount possible to gain from destroying them, they don’t care, it’s the short term economic value they and others are interested in.

Hell, I work and live inside a national park and their approach to management is to make expansive, sterile swaths of concrete, put up expensive digital signs, and buy personal cars for the upper level staff, but the ranger stations are literally falling apart, they don’t provide enough fuel for patrols, and the new director is making sure that, for the first time in 20 years, organizations that share the responsibility of maintaining the biodiversity of the park are banned from monthly meetings with the rangers.

The system is getting worse, not better, unfortunately.


Would any other animal, pressed for survival, care about other species? Does a beaver care about the trees that will die of waterlogging when they are flooded out behind the beaver’s dam? Does a honey badger care about the survival of the bee colony it raids? At the end of the day, every species is speciesist; our human ability not to be so is one thing that sets us apart.

As Aldo Leopold said of the passenger pigeon: if our fates had been reversed, the pigeons would not have mourned us.


In one of my classes I was shown this diagram explaining the different ways that we can see value in parts of nature:

Intrinsic value is value something has independent of any “good” it does for us, whether simply because it exists or through some higher moral purpose.
Instrumental value is value because of some good or service it provides for us; either directly or indirectly, or because it will provide that in the future (e.g. a young forest will later provide lumber) or because it could in the future (e.g. the rainforest might have unknown plant species with valuable medicinal insights).

I’ve thought a lot about the value of nature and how we can determine it and convince others about it. I think people will naturally see its value as instrumental because that’s how we tend to see any non-human thing by default. Technology, food, buildings, whatever are only valuable insofar as they help me with my life. We only tend to see things as having greater value if we have relationships with them, such as pets or by having spent a lot of time in nature, especially if it’s a specific place in nature.

From an biological perspective I think it makes sense that we act selfishly and short-sightedly in acting towards what gives us the easiest life even if we know the long-term consequences. Every other species exploits the resources around it as much as it can. But we tend to think we have reason and can do better.

If we assume that the people we’re talking to think of the value of nature in terms of instrumental value, I think the most important thing to demonstrate is why biodiversity is valuable. It seems really important to me because biodiversity is the main reason I’m interested in nature, it’s central to all the ecosystem services that keep humanity alive, and biodiversity loss is basically the biggest crisis in the environment right now. Does it matter if an obscure insect or plant goes extinct?

As a Christian, I regret the instrumantal value belief held by western Europeans in the past that has probably subconsciously influenced peoples’ thoughts about nature in many places around the world since then, among other principles that I think have been more positive. That idea only really started being dispelled along with the general American environmental movement with for example Francis Schaeffer in Pollution and the Death of Man. He calls that belief “Platonic Christianity”, or I think it could also be described as somewhat gnostic. There’s been a lot of progress since then in the church in seeing nature’s intrinsic value as God’s creation and humanity’s role to serve and protect it, although there’s definitely still more progress to be made on that. Ethiopian church forests are really inspiring to me.

Outside of that, I feel like animist religions may have the best starting point for a society that believes in and cares about the intrinsic value of nature? I’m not super familiar with them nor with any other beliefs that would be supportive. I struggle to think of a secular naturalistic argument for intrinsic value and am curious what ideas people have on that.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of random thoughts I have on the subject and I hope people find it interesting or useful for discussion…


I’m going to guess that the homeless people in the encampment aren’t thrilled with the arrangement either, albeit for more personal reasons.

I am dead certain that if you calculated the environmental footprint of the people in that encampment it is a small fraction of the average footprint of a person in a middle class suburban home, and somewhere out around the fourth or fifth decimal place in proportion to a 1 percenter in a gated community with holiday properties scattered across the landscape. Poverty is correlated with environmental degradation because they are both ultimately caused by the same things. If I go any deeper than that I’ll be flagged for talking politics so I’ll leave it there.


what youre saying makes me think of the first chapter in braiding sweetgrass by robin wall kimmerer, skywoman falling. if you want to read it, this preview includes that whole chapter:

i havent finished the book but as far as ive read its all very good and i do recommend it, and this chapter in particular is really thought-provoking and relevant to this discussion. after i linked it here i sat down and read it again.


Many if not most cultures (aka indigenous) think of non humans as close relatives and give them a lot of value compared to industrial civilization. Our culture is quite peculiar with words like progress or nature that don’t exist in some indigenous languages.

Because of physics (entropy) industrial civilization seems fated to destroy most of other cultures, nature and then collapse like an eddy in a river.
We can influence the extent of the damage and its timing, let’s take this as a reason for optimism!


This is a very slippery subject. And even more slippery starting point. As @pmeisenheimer points well: which sum of damage is more: the mentioned encampment or the hectares/square kilometres of middle class suburbia and rich people mansions? They only look better, but they started by erasing hectares and kilometres of natural habitats and their inhabitants. When someone is talking about non-human life and its value, I always become very wary, as it often slips into soulful brown eyes, fluffy feathers and sweet little things. Recently I gave a lesson to schoolchildren and from their comments and questions I realised the biggest issues of general public dealing with nature: entirely instrumental way of perception (as in the scheme given by @upupa-epops) and never seeing an organism as a piece of puzzle, a piece without which a puzzle cannot be complete. In conclusion – however much general education has moved forward, education in natural science is still at Victorian level or first part of the20th century at best.


If we could keep to the topic at hand, and not start debating vigilante justice, please.


I’m not sure I entirely understand your point. Would you prefer that homeless people die in order to protect the wildlife their encampment might have damaged?

Would you prefer that you and your family die in order to protect the wildlife that used to live where your house is built?

This thread seems to be going in a direction where replies might start to get nasty, so I’m snoozing it for a few hours to let people think carefully about their comments


On the request of OP (@mamestraconfigurata), I’m closing this thread permanently