Why pander to the pandas?

Chris Packham has recently (and not for the first time) suggested that we should stop trying to save the panda — an expensive exercise — and instead put our efforts and resources to ‘better use.’ This suggestion is worth some unpacking.

His argument is a familiar one about cost-effectiveness and resource allocation: we should use our resources so as to maximise their beneficial effects. This kind of argument relies, of course, on an estimation of the value of pandas (and so the disvalue of their extinction) with the cost-effectiveness of saving them being this value divided by the cost of doing so. This is then compared to the value and cost-effectiveness of other environmental concerns like protecting “biodiversity hotspots”.

Importantly there is a range of ways of valuing pandas and biodiversity that each may give different answers to the question of what we should do. It is instructive to consider a number of combinations of these to see how they might pan out and affect Packham’s claims.

We might first suppose that individual species are valuable in themselves and that by attending to biodiversity hotspots we can save a greater number of individual species. So preserving biodiversity is (instrumentally) valuable because it preserves species. If we think, alongside this, that all species are equally valuable then pandas matter as much as beetles (of which there are estimated to be between 5 and 8 million species) and saving two species of beetle will be more important than saving just pandas. This would make Packham’s position very clear, just on the numbers. I’m not sure that this quite gets to the point — my guess is that we don’t value two out of 5 million species of beetles more than pandas and, probably, that we don’t value beetles more than pandas.

We might have a more nuanced view about the value of particular species. We might value species because of and according to their sentience (say, their ability to feel pain) or their ‘capacity for intelligent behaviour’. In the former case, pandas would be preferred over spiders, I’m guessing (just because I imagine that pandas are more able to feel more pain than spiders). But if saving biodiversity in a region meant saving two species of medium sized mammals (roughly equivalent in the ability to feel pain to pandas) then protecting biodiversity is the right option. In the latter case, I’m not sure how smart pandas are, but I suspect that the answer is “not very” and if we have a smarter animal in the relevant biodiversity region then we should opt for protecting it instead of the panda.

Alternatively we might suppose that individual species are valuable in themselves, that biodiversity is also valuable in itself and that the overall, biodiversity is more valuable than any particular species within it. This option doesn’t seem very clear to me: biodiversity seems exactly the kind of thing that is valuable for the sake of something else — either for the animals and plants within it, for nature as a whole or for our pleasure/sustainability. One possibility is that we understand the value of biodiversity here to be connected to the uniqueness of particular ecosystems but it is hard to see how the value of this unique system is greater than the value of the unique panda. Perhaps the best option here is to take the value of biodiversity to be derivative of the value of nature itself. On this account, nature as a whole is valuable in itself and we need to determine how best way to respect that value. What this means for pandas is not obvious — it is unclear whether respect for nature means that the existence of pandas or biodiversity in a given region are more important. Does allowing pandas to become extinct count as respecting nature even if biodiversity in another region is preserved?

Finally, we might suppose that individual species are instrumentally valuable (and perhaps correspondingly that biodiversity is similarly instrumentally valuable). In this case the value of pandas depends on the benefits that pandas bring to us. Pandas are high profile and popular animals, unlike spiders and beetles. The world without pandas would be worse for those living in it. This is not so clear for spiders or beetles (or perhaps for the constituents of the biodiversity hotspots) — particularly if we are considering only a species. [Losing all or even a significant number of species of beetle would be a different story given the role they play within ecosystems.] I suspect though that there is a certain unease associated with taking the value of pandas and spiders and beetles to be determined solely by their capacity to benefit or amuse us. Even though it might save the panda, it is not a comfortable route.

Overall, each of these options presumes that the cost-effectiveness comparisons only take place between the various options that we have for preserving and protecting the natural world — we have only been comparing saving pandas with saving bio-diverse regions. But it is not obvious (without argument) why these considerations should not also apply to other broad global problems. The same cost-effectiveness arguments can be applied to whether we should protect biodiversity hotspots or reduce global poverty. Perhaps we should not try to save the panda or the biodiversity hotspots and instead, put these resources into addressing famine and ill-health in the third world?

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2 Responses to Why pander to the pandas?

  • Wow, what synchronicity. I wrote a post earlier today called “Save the pandas?”–definitely before I saw this. (Well, I guess I’m in yesterday still, over here in the US.) I was coming from a slightly different angle, that it’s harder to save pandas since they seem not terribly well-adapted for survival and thus not a very cost-effective conservation effort.

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Species come and go. If evolution is still at work (it must be, if it is true), there will be more niches filled by new species. The panda is cute. I suppose the dodo was, too.

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