The title question appears in Brad Plumer's What bees can teach us about the real value of protecting nature (Vox, July 6, 2015). Plumer's article is based on a study of wild bees which recently appeared in Nature Communications.
Conservation biologists have two problems. The greater problem is that there isn't much conservation going on. After all, we are in the midst of a mass extinction.
The lesser problem is deciding on what arguments to use to induce or persuade humans that other species are worth conserving. There are only two such arguments: (1) the moral argument—other species have intrinsic value and (2) the utilitarian argument—other species have economic value to humans.
The wild bees study demonstrates that the economic argument is insufficient if the goal is to protect other species generally. It turns out that only a few wild bee species pollinate human-grown crops. Therefore, the large majority of wild bee species do not appear to have economic value to humans. In that case, why save them?
Here's Plumer going through the arguments.
This brings us to a very basic question that ecologists and conservationists have been pondering for more than a century: Why should we protect nature?
Some conservationists have long held that we should protect nature because it’s valuable in and of itself. In an influential 1985 essay titled "What is Conservation Biology?" biologist Michael Soulé argued that biodiversity "has intrinsic value, irrespective of its instrumental ... value." That is, we should safeguard endangered ecosystems because it’s the ethical thing to do.
More recently, some ecologists have criticized this approach. See, for instance, this 2012 essay by Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier, which argues that ethical arguments alone haven’t been able to stem the rising tide of deforestation and extinctions. If conservationists want to make better progress, they need to appeal more forcefully to humanity's self-interest. In other words, we should focus more on conserving nature because it's useful to us.
One possibility is by focusing on the "ecosystem services" that nature provides — the fact that bees pollinate our crops, or wetlands help stem floods, or coral reefs help sustain fisheries. By putting a dollar value on these services, we can make a more powerful case for conservation.
So how do bees fit into this debate? On the one hand, there’s no question that those economic arguments for conservation are powerful. President Obama has taken a personal interest in the plight of the honeybee — and in his plan to help pollinators, he highlighted the fact that they provide billions of dollars' worth of crop services. No doubt that was a major motivation.
Yet as this wild bee study shows, economic arguments alone can only go so far. The authors concluded that for species that don’t have obvious economic value, ecologists and conservationists will have to rely on moral appeals — in much the same way we use moral arguments to justify taking care of the elderly or preserving artwork. We're back at the idea that nature is intrinsically valuable in some way.
"Some people got excited that the ‘ecosystem services’ argument would come to the rescue and finally give us a workable, airtight argument for conserving nature," says Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont (and a co-author of the Nature Communications study).
"But I’ve always thought of it as just one of the many motivations and justifications for conserving nature," Ricketts says. "Some people respond to moral arguments, some to utilitarian ones. These seem to be complementary arguments. We don’t have to pick just one."
The title question could only arise in what I call Flatland. As I explained in the second essay, and contrary to what Taylor Ricketts says above, simple observation tells us that the moral argument for protecting other species (Michael Soulé's view) is vanishingly rare among humans.
Humans generally only have the capacity to respond to the utilitarian argument. The economic argument attempts to subsume nature (other species) under what I called the human economic of reference (i.e., it attempts to make other species visible to humans). Even then, the utilitarian argument, where it is applicable, often fails until the species in question is on the brink of actual, commercial or ecological extinction.
If you want a deeper understanding of the human economic frame of reference, read Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere by Erle C. Ellis. He defines unchecked human exploitation of the natural world over the history of our species as "sociocultural niche construction." That concept is basically the same as my own term (as used in the second Flatland essay).
Outside of Flatland, if I may be so bold as to speak for those on the outside looking in—all 127 of them among the estimated 7.254 billion humans on Earth —the situation looks like this:
Soulé's moral argument is a postulate; it is fundamental. All species have intrinsic value, including Homo sapiens. This puts humans and wild bees on an equal footing.
Therefore, the human species, regarded as a special (but not entitled) animal which can go beyond its genetic programming, would in the ideal case weigh and balance its own rightful place in nature vis-a-vis the inherent right to exist of all other species. Thus some sort of natural balance would be struck. Striking such a balance is an exceedingly hard moral question. Where does one draw the line?
Such a theoretical balance would implicitly recognize that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. Such a recognition would go a long way toward ensuring the very-long-term survival of Homo sapiens itself, killer asteroids notwithstanding.
Remember, these bullet points describe the view from outside Flatland (my own view). And when stated this way, I hope that you can immediately see the outrageous anthropocentrism in the human stance toward nature (other species, the biosphere at-large). Only an entirely self-centered (self-entitled) animal would ask the question why should we protect nature? That question presupposes that humans are entitled to determine the fate of other species. Homo sapiens becomes the judge, jury and (too often) executioner of Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) or the "tasmanian tiger" (Thylacinus cynocephalus, rest in peace).
On this last point, everything I have read (in neuroscience, for example) tells me that humans are hard-wired to see the world almost strictly in terms of other humans. (This is a hallmark of the most social of species which blind evolution gave birth to.) Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that, by default, our brains are wired to value other humans and human interactions far above all other things. The existence of a relative handful of conservation biologists (for example) does not refute this argument. Those unusual people are exceptions which prove the rule. I have wanted to write about this, but I am finding it difficult to work up the required motivation. Thus I would attempt to explain the deep roots of outrageous anthropocentrism.
I should also add that by "nature" I mean "wild" (not domesticated) non-human species. Humans characteristically anthropomorphize house pets, horses and other charismatic megafauna (e.g., panda and polar bears), which has the effect of moving them from the -human (not human) to the +human side of the psychological ledger. Or, humans effectively "objectify" livestock, including chickens, cattle, goats, pigs, etc. so we can make use of them. These are both forms of anthropocentrism. But I digress.
A few humans have become so disgusted about the way Homo sapiens is altering the biosphere for its own purposes that they advocate mass human suicide (voluntary extinction, VHEMT). (Don't hold your breath waiting for that.) Other radical environmentalists (like Dave Foreman) created the Earth First! movement some decades ago. Doomer beliefs in near-term human extinction (NTE) seem to carry with them the unconscious desire that such an event will occur sometime soon.
All of these views, and similar ones I haven't mentioned, violate the fundamental principle laid out above—all species have inherent value, including Homo sapiens. On the other hand, such extreme views are understandable, given the death and destruction humans are inflicting on the biosphere.
Unfortunately, human nature precludes the possibility that Homo sapiens will stop destroying the biosphere and create some kind of harmonious balance with other species, as conservation biologists hope. This "pessimistic" view can be derived from the very fact that humans ask themselves questions like why should we protect nature?, as I hope I have demonstrated in this short essay.