For an environmental educator, particularly one working with kids, it’s important to always emphasize why we should even care about the organisms and ecosystems around us. Why is a salt marsh more than just non-potable water with grass growing in it? Why isn’t the only good snake a dead snake? I always have to have a list of reasons I can rattle off. Marshes are important because they protect us from hurricanes and filter water and provide a nursery for economically important species. Birds are important because they disperse seeds and eat nuisance insects, because they provide recreation for hunters and birders, etc., etc., etc.
Somewhere way down on the list someone might mention the cultural significance of birds – the Bald Eagle as a patriotic symbol, for example. And below that, an afterthought, one might toss in the phrase “intrinsic value.” Birds are cool. Just because.
It bothers me immensely that intrinsic value is the almost-forgotten tail-end of the list of reasons to care about birds.
Don’t get me wrong. If talking about mosquito control and the economic significance of birding will get more people interested in conservation, I’m all for it, and I also understand that the concept of intrinsic value gets into ethics and philosophy in a way that’s above the heads of most of the middle-schoolers I’m teaching. But it’s important.
Birds (and marshes and frogs and insects and what have you) have value simply by existing. If they had no economic value whatsoever, birds would still have a right to exist. It’s incredibly arrogant to rate other species solely based on how they benefit us. Every species has a necessary role to play in the functioning of its ecosystem, whether it’s perceptible to us or not.
When I took my first introductory zoology class in college – five years ago seems like a lifetime now – the professor diligently pointed out all the instances of anthropomorphism in my lab reports, curbing what she (perhaps correctly) saw as a bad habit. Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things; in science writing it’s considered bad form to imply that an animal might be frightened or angry or excited, despite the fact that anyone who’s ever lived with a dog or a cat knows that animals experience all these things. In my opinion, the greater sin is not anthropomorphism but anthropocentrism, regarding humans as the most important species on the planet and measuring everything else by how we can benefit from it.
The Palm Warblers I saw on the golf course this evening were passing through on their way to their winter home in Central America or the Caribbean. I have no idea whether any of them ever ate a mosquito that might have caused someone an itchy bite otherwise, or how many birders have ever looked at one of them with an expensive pair of binoculars that helped stimulate the economy, but I do know that the world would be a lesser place without Palm Warblers. Here’s hoping that’s a world we’ll never have to experience.