334 – Do we have a moral obligation to save wild bees?

Posted on July 7, 2015 by


“In a new study, scientists show that 80% of crop pollination across five continents is carried out by just 2% of all wild bee species in the areas they studied.”[1] The other 700, rarer species have a marginal function.[2] As matters stand, these strains won’t easily survive in contemporary agricultural landscapes. If nothing is done, one can expect the number of wild bee species to shrink. Many will disappear. We should save wild bees, argues the author. “Analysis of scientific data very rarely leads to conclusions along the lines of what we have here — the importance of moral vs. economic arguments for preserving the biodiversity of ecosystems.”


Wild bees

The fate of wild bees, at this juncture, interests me less than the contention of a conflict between “moral” and “economic” arguments one finds in the article. I am perplexed. A definition of the term “moral” is missing. I am not going far wrong in surmising that its origins lie in deontological ethics.[3] While there are various deontological philosophies, they share common ground in a categorical imperative. Something has to be done – no matter what (or if one prefers: damned the consequences).[4]

We understand the concept better when we contrast it with the opposing category: “economics.” Admittedly, it is the fault of the economists: they have atrophied the meaning of “economics” to: “bottom line in market transactions.” Originally, this was not the case. “Economics” was intended to enclose both monetary and non-monetary consequences, thus bringing the term in line with consequentialism. In this ethical theory, “the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.”[5]

How much biodiversity?

The first question is: how much wild bee biodiversity do we need? All 700 wild species; fewer; and where? How do we go about it? Once one looks closer into the imperative, it dissolves into fuzziness. The consequential arguments that had been shown the door come back through the window. One must make concrete choices on pragmatic grounds.

The imperative may be absolute, but it has economic consequences. Securing the biodiversity of bees forecloses types of agricultural actions, and it assigns the costs to this or that social group. Who should bear the burden? The question of burden-sharing bedevils much of the current debate on climate change.

Is all biodiversity desirable?

The main argument underlying the imperative of sustaining biodiversity is that “we might find it useful under changed circumstances.” It is a version of the precautionary principle.

Implicitly, the argument is steeped in the romantic idea that “in wildness is the salvation of the world.”[6] But is it always so? To give a flavor of the conundrum, one may use the recent study of Y. pestis, the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague. Originally causing gastro-intestinal infection, it mutated to a grimmer and often fatal respiratory disease. Later small mutations of the same gene then led to infections associated with the bubonic plague.[7] The morphing may have occurred quite recently, and may explain the ensuing pandemics from that of Justinian (541 AD) to the Black Death (1346-53 AD). Had we had the choice of eradicating Y. pestis before it turned bubonic. What should we have done?

The cost of securing biodiversity

Looking now beyond the biodiversity of bees: “preserving biodiversity” is a justification that applies to all species indiscriminately. One can use it from elephants to whales, and any species one fancies. I tend to be suspicious of passe-partout arguments. They smack of dogma. “Saving biodiversity” reminds me vaguely of Samuel Johnson’s quip “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Admittedly, we may be at the beginning of the Anthropocene,[8] an epoch that begins when human activities have had a significant global impact on the earth’s ecosystems. The impact is often negative: the rate of extinction is perhaps 100 to 1000 times the normal background rate. Could we reverse the trend and save all species (I am ignoring the fact that we would not know how to go about such an ambitious goal.)?

Humanity stands between the Scylla of ignoring the issue of biodiversity altogether (0-level of compliance) and the Charybdis of 100-level of acquiescence (in which case we humans would need to scale back to the “hunter-gatherer stage of evolution).

If neither extreme is advisable, who is to play Noah to Mother Nature?[9] And how do we determine how much biodiversity is enough? On this issue, the silence of the imperative is deafening. The evolution of biodiversity, furthermore, is not simply the extrapolation of the current situation. How do we know which twists and turns it will take?[10]

Complying with the imperative comes with costs. We need to establish our willingness to pay for it. The much-despised economics – the efficient use of scarce resources – comes roaring back. Or put it another way: we have strayed from the ideal path of preserving biodiversity. This has material consequences.

An unwieldy argument

In 1968 at UC Berkeley, demonstrating students were issuing “non-negotiable demands” – categorical imperatives in drag. Any dialog with the administration and the authorities stopped. The “feel-good” elements of the imperatives hid the stalemate, papering over the impotence of the protesters.

Dealing with biodiversity is an exceedingly difficult matter. Success critically depends on paying attention to consequences of actions. It would be foolish, it seems, excluding on principle grounds all matters related to our species.


[1]           http://bit.ly/1LM5C9v

[2]           For fun: angry wild bees aborted the British landing of troops near Tanga (in then German Tanganyika) during WWI. Landing marines shot in all directions against an imaginary enemy, hit the beehives hanging from low branches – with predictable results.

[3]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics

[4]           God or transcendent ethical obligations may be the origin of the imperative. What counts, in the end, is the immediate and absolute obligation.

[5]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequentialism

[6]               To Thoreau, who uttered this sentence, “wildness” meant the lands beyond the US frontier. Aldo Leopold generalized it to mean nature unspoiled by man.

[7]           http://bit.ly/1HERe2Z

[8]               https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene

[9]           I am footnoting my skepticism as to our ability to do so. The causal chains of extinction are so complex, and often so indirect, that any manipulation might, in the end, prove counterproductive.

[10]          An example is the future of cheetahs. Cheetahs suffered a population collapse 10’000 years ago and may be on their way to extinction in any case. What is to be done?

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