Should a rationalist be concerned about habitat loss/biodiversity loss?

by InquilineKea1 min read3rd Jun 201141 comments


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It's an interesting question that I'm pondering.

Now, while I do question the intellectual honesty of this blog, I'll link to it anyways, since the evidence does seem interesting, at the very least:

It does seem that environmentalism can mimic some qualities of religion (I know, since I used to be an environmentalist myself). As such, it can cause many extremely intelligent people to reject evidence that goes against their worldview. 

Furthermore, it's also possible that computational chemistry may soon be our primary agent for drug discovery, rather than discovering more biological compounds in certain ecosystems (that being said, drug discovery is entirely different from drug synthesis, and discovering a gene that codes for a particular protein and splicing it into an E Coli bacterium is going to be far easier than anything computational chemistry can do in the near future). 

With that all being said, what now? I do believe that there is something of value that does get lost as habitat gets destroyed. But it's hard to quantify value in these cases. Certain animals, like crows, chimpanzees, orcas, and elephants, are cognitively advanced enough to have their own cultures. If one of their subcultures get destroyed (which can be done without a fullscale extinction), then is anything valuable that gets lost? (besides value for scientific research that has potential to be applicable elsewhere?) And is it more important to worry about these separate cultures, as compared to worrying about different subspecies of the same animal? Certainly, we're now beginning to discover novel social networks in dolphins and crows. But most of these animals are not at risk of extinction, and even the chimpanzees and bonobos will only get extinct in the wild (at the very worst). There are other less advanced animals that have a higher risk of permanent extinction. 

What we're prone to systematically underestimating, of course, is the possible permanent loss of micro-organisms. And of novel biological structures (and networks) that may be contained within them. 


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Biodiversity is interesting, and interestingness is something like a terminal value to me.

Just because it seems like an obvious question -- Why that particular type of "interesting"?

Yeah, I actually agree with that. I can spend a lifetime studying interesting things, and there will always be interesting things in the artificial world that I can study. Yet (this is just for me), there are few other things that can amaze me as much as parts of the biological world do.

The other thing I think about is this - what exactly is the stability of my terminal values? I've changed many of my terminal values over time, when I realized that I'd be happier without certain terminal values (e.g., deep ecology used to be one of my terminal values, but then I realized it was philosophically flawed).

If biodiversity got destroyed, I'd imagine that a number of people with biodiversity as a terminal value would also force themselves to adapt.

What you thought your terminal values were changed. Your terminal values didn't necessarily change.

Deep ecology, in itself, entails that you value (some metric of biology) as a terminal value. Since I no longer believe in it, my terminal value for it did change.

It's sort of like this: if a religious person had his religion (God) as a terminal value, but his God was then definitively proved not to exist, then he would have to change his terminal values too

Is there anything about terminal values that means they are immutable? What's wrong with valuing something for its own sake, and then later changing your mind?

well, in the long run, we're talking about maximizing our utility, which means taking the time-integrated utility function.

so yes true, valuing something for its own sake actually could count even if it's not permanent.

I'll be nitpicky for a moment: you probably don't want to ask 'what should a rationalist care about?', rationality is a set of tools, not values. Also, keep your identity small.

Most of us, if we found that some of our values rested on confusions, would say those values had never been our true values. This is true not just of confusions about means-ends relationships but also of other confusions. So it's unsafe to assume, the way people here often do, that if a disagreement seems on the surface to be about terminal values, it's not up for rational debate.

Also, what one cares about is a different question from what one is concerned about; to me, "concern" about some value implies a claim that the degree of caring, combined with the practical details of the situation, makes it worth sometimes choosing the value over values that one would otherwise have pursued.

I agree and did not mean to suggest otherwise. I meant to suggest that if you remove the 'rationalist' from the question, it stays the same. If rationalists 'should' be concerned so 'should' non-rationalists.

I agree with that point.

There are extreme problems with the modern environmental movement, and some aspects of it certainly do end up coming very close to religion in the level of irrationality involved (environmentalists objecting to fusion power because it is nuclear would be one good example). However, in a similar vein, I'd strongly advise against relying on Watts Up With That which as a whole is extremely ideologically motivated. The website is at some level a running example of motivated cognition in action, and has been extensively criticized by scientists for being in general inaccurate.

As to the specific question about drug modeling and the like- I would suggest that such computer modeling is in its infancy, and it isn't clear how long or when it will be that such technology will completely obsolete searches for compounds. Without much better data on that, preserving biodiversity seems like a strategy that makes sense from being just mildly risk averse.

One thing that's missing from this discussion is that we'll probably be able to use future technologies to regenerate as much biodiversity as we want.

[-][anonymous]10y 4

Stipulating that future technologies will be limitlessly powerful, a more accurate way of putting this is "future people will probably be able to use future technologies to regenerate as much biodiversity as current people want."

Should a present-day environmentalist, rational as you please, make decisions as though future people were likely to do so?

Future people may want different things than we do, but regardless of what they want, they'll probably get their way once they're there. Arguments for caring about biodiversity anyway could be 1) it'll be valuable in the mean time, or 2) we'll want to have the same collection of species for old times' sake and future people won't have enough data to reconstruct what that collection was unless we preserve it.

Ecosystem engineering's also likely to be extremely difficult and expensive, even if we've got all the raw data necessary to implement it. One way or another this probably won't end up being much of a thing to worry about in a post-Singularity future, or even one altered by sub-Singularity transformative technologies like advanced nanotech, but in the meantime, or given conservative assumptions about technological progress, it's still a cost-benefit analysis worth making.

Do you mean the thread because that's hardly missing from the broader discussion, much of the funding goes towards towards seed banks and so on, on a broader scale too a lot of conservation is effectively ecological cryonics- zoos and so on just keep endangered species in a holding pattern. Criticism of these is, as far as I can see, mostly ecological eg: reintroduced tree species will fail to thrive if introduced to soils where their traditional symbiotic fungi have gone extinct in their absence.

Yes, many people value biodiversity (and it's perfectly rational to do this). But I think the problem here is the same as the problem with worrying about global warming - yes, it's likely a problem, but there are a lot of environmentalists, so the marginal utility of additional worrying is probably pretty much zero, unless you think there is something you can uniquely bring to the movement. There are a lot of things we could worry about, and only so much energy we can exert to change them...

If you have biodiversity as a terminal value, you should try to preserve it along with all your other values. Instrumentally, "biodiversity" is such a large concept that I can't really say.

A brain, rational or not, can produce the "terminal value" state (or output, or qualia?) when presented with the habitat or biodiversity concepts. This can be independent of their instrumental value, which, on average, probably diminishes with technological progress. But it's also easy to imagine cases where the instrumental value of nature increases as our ability to understand and manipulate it grows.

There was a comment by KrisC that lists various useful aspects of biodiversity:

Related question: Independent of any ecological or economic concerns, should a rationalist be a vegetarian?

What upsides are left to being vegetarian once you leave out economics and ecology? I have trouble thinking of any. It's a bit easier for a vegetarian to eat "light" but one has to keep an eye on one's protein intake. As far as I can tell the moral dimension (is it "wrong" to eat animals?) reduces to personal preference.

Is there an upside I'm missing?

Enough people report being healthier when vegetarian that it might be a worthwhile thing to experiment with.

I was thinking more in terms of moral concerns, so I should have specified to ignore health as well.

I think asking whether or not to value biodiversity is the same sort of question--it reduces to personal preference.