Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Recently the United States Department of Interior listed the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision has caused some consternation among politically conservative commentators. I point to Jonah Goldberg's column because I take him at his word when he says "I like to think I'm something of a conservationist." It's good to know that caring about wild animals is a normative value among educated Westerners, though obviously mouthing the norm isn't sufficient to conserve habitats or prevent extinctions.

We shouldn't be oblivious to the fact that caring for the polar bear has brutal consequences for the ringed seal. Care for wild animals is, on its face, not without contradictions. Is skepticism a reasonable way forward here? What if skepticism were to prevent us from living wisely? Or ethically? Is skepticism as adaptive as we would like our thinking to be?

What does ataraxia mean in this case of caring about polar bears? Should we want to reach an equilibrium with the polar bears? Would that be a basis for achieving a state of equanimity? Should we cease to worry about equanimity altogether?

Can the skeptic place too much value on equanimity? Do we want to meet every situation in life with the same measure of equanimity, or would that in fact be dogmatic, and hence, for the skeptic, contradictory and foolish? Perhaps it would be unwise to allow an idea of equanimity to interfere with equanimous conduct, including, of course, the equanimous conduct of the mind.

A deeply skeptical thinker shouldn't want skepticism to be misused as a cloak for irresponsibility, nonfeasance or foolishness. We need to be wary of pseudoskepticism, and to recognize that not all expressions of doubt are equally meritorious. Debates over matters of life and death don't warrant an ordinary skepticism. If they warrant any skepticism at all, they warrant the deepest skepticism.

The designation of the polar bear as an threatened species, being a matter of life and death, warrants a deep skepticism. Mr. Goldberg's skepticism in this matter cannot be disentangled from an ideological movement known as global warming skepticism, a movement which thrives on a mixture of reasonable doubts and ideological scotomata. Perhaps this mixture of reason and blind spots is the way of all ideological movements. I don't mean to be dismissive, though obviously there are areas of disagreement. Adherence to any doctrine of skepticism is deeply problematical, no less so when it can be seen as concomitant to other, more entangling, faiths. Here the point is to question how a skepticism might be properly conceived so as to address the designation of the polar bear as a species threatened with extinction. Does global warming skepticism provide us with as deep a skepticism as we should want in this case?

The best case for global warming skepticism, which I neither endorse nor dismiss, goes something like this: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Human activity has increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This increase in carbon dioxide has led to a degree global warming; however, the amount of global warming caused by human activity is insignificant in comparison with other factors that affect the climate. There is no cause for alarm. There is no imminent catastrophe. At this juncture we needn't engage with all the various skeptical arguments against the recognition of anthropogenic global warming; it will suffice to grapple only with this smartest argument. In doing so two related notions should be examined: the first is the notion of insignificance, the second is the notion of catastrophe.

Insignificance in this case is largely a question of scale, though it has an undeniable moral or ethical import. How many extinctions does it take to make an anthropocene era? How many biomes must be altered or destroyed before we can attach significance to the alteration and destruction of biomes? Of course habitats are destroyed and species are killed off by means other than global warming caused by increased atmospheric CO2. At issue here is whether the evident diminishment of pack ice which the polar bear relies upon to make its living will lead to its extinction, and whether this loss of ice cover is due in any significant measure to human activity. In ethical terms, the question concerns the human responsibility for the polar bear's habitat, as it exists now and as it will probably exist in the future. That responsibility is not simply a question of what has been done, but also one of what can and will be done, or not done as the case may be. The issue cannot be settled by science alone, though science can aid us in making decisions. Honest and well-meaning earth scientists of various stripes might all agree that the extinction of a single species is not an event of great significance in the history of the planet, and yet as people who care about wild animals we might be justifiably concerned by a threat to the polar bear's livelihood. If insignificant means negligible, as in able to be neglected, we may still have, after science has registered its neglect, an ethical, which is to say philosophical, call to examine the consequences of translating such intellectual neglect into a more profound neglect.

It must be conceded, I reckon, that the number of polar bears on the planet, as estimated by natural scientists, has not decreased in the past thirty years. During this same time the polar ice where the bears make their living has been receding. Has receding ice had any effect on the polar bears? What have been the effects of restriction on the hunting of polar bears, or of eases in those restrictions? The global warming skeptic avoids calling attention to an evident decrease in body mass of polar bears, but we cannot reasonably call ourselves skeptical conservationists and not be concerned by a decrease in polar bear biomass, by a scrawniness of bear. On the other hand, this scrawniness may be significant but we might hesitate to say it foretells a catastrophe. What do we really know about what the future holds for polar bears based on these meagre facts? Unfortunately the global warming skeptics have not provided us with any models of pack ice recovery, which they sometimes seem to imply will naturally occur at some point or another. The scientific models that we do have tell us that further melting is probable. Time will tell if these models are correct. Meanwhile, what's a deep skeptic to do?

There are catastrophes all around us that probably have nothing to do with anthropogenic global warming: cyclones, earthquakes, dirt pies, which represent a kind of global economic catastrophe, a "silent tsunami." Personally I worry about aftershocks felt in Sichuan. I wouldn't know how to survive in the wild, out of doors. Do I worry about polar bears for the same reason?

If you are blessed with equanimity do you have an obligation to ease the worries of others? Even if that means actually doing something?

Just as we shouldn't allow ourselves to be worried for no reason, we should be skeptical of people who respond to our worries by presenting us with false dilemmas. To acknowledge another's catastrophe is not itself a catastrophe. So I am worried about the nanooks. I fear that they may be killed off by people who would never say that they wanted to kill off the nanooks. How would that not be a worse catastrophe than, if you will allow a moment of anthropomorphism, anything the earth could concoct by itself?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 2:38 PM.


Anonymous Lloyd Mintern said...

Skepticism, I hesitate to inform you, is, by nature, not deep. This is why everyone around you (and me) appears to be laughing in their sleeves, when in reality they are wiping their noses. But, your cogitations remain truly hilarious, particularly when read slowly for the third time. It occurs to me to say: Most people never meet a polar bear.

May 28, 2008 1:09 PM  

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