The Currency of Outrage

Posted on June 7, 2013

In the 1970s some economists published a report about commercial whaling. Their conclusion was that the most economically advantageous approach would be to hunt whales to extinction and thereafter re-tool the fishing fleets for different purposes. The idea was met with international outrage and never implemented. Since then the International Whaling Commission has been one of the most successful multilateral negotiating bodies and many species of whales are no longer under threat.

I use this example to introduce a question that is often difficult to answer: why do we bother to invest so much money to stop species from becoming extinct?  The real answer is contained in the public reaction to the economists’ report on whales – outrage.

For the last 500+ years, we have become used to the idea of the Human as ‘rational being’, making considered decisions based on available evidence. We have also been treated to the construction of Homo economicus – the human that supposedly makes decisions based on the optimization of his own economic self-interest. While these models of human behavior are useful, they have, today, been taken to extremes thereby becoming not only less useful but misleading and, sometimes, positively dangerous.

Which gets us back to the question: why save endangered species?

The standard set of answers today is economic and scientific. Biologists and ecologists tell us about the value of species and ‘biodiversity’ to ecosystems and their proper functioning. We are told about the ‘ecosystem services’ delivered. We are inundated with economic analyses, many of limited credibility, that tell us of the billions of dollars that these systems are worth to us. We are told of the value of ‘eco-tourism’ to local economies. All these analyses are worthwhile and provide useful insights. However, they need to be recognized as being only partial. They miss out the vital ingredient that I have summarized above as ‘outrage’.

It was not economic analysis that saved the whales; it was public outrage. Why?

The literature in psychology and economics for the past 30 years has increasingly come to accept that, as humans, we are primarily emotional not ‘rational’ beings. Our behaviors are driven by emotions, values and intuitions – layers of cultural meaning that have been built over generations and that are constantly changing and evolving. In general, rationalization comes after we have already made our decisions based on intuitions and emotions. One example of changing cultural values is our attitude to animal suffering. The growing unacceptability of the conditions associated with factory farming has nothing to do with economics or scientific rationality. It is based on a growing set of values and moral intuitions that lead to progressive change because we are outraged at our own behaviors.

The same can be said of extinction. There is a growing sense, and a growing sensibility, that we are uncomfortable being part of a global society that allows whole species to be wiped from the face of the earth. Such behavior seems to hold up a mirror that says something about us as human beings, and many of us don’t particularly like what we see. We may not yet be outraged, but we are at least uncomfortable, maybe saddened and, eventually, we will be outraged. This is part of the change in our culture that we are seeing – and it’s a change for the better. It makes us better human beings.

Conservation and the environment have become trapped in the language of science and, more recently, economics. While essential, we need to recognize that such language strips us of emotion. It becomes an excuse not to talk about more difficult issues such as values, intuitions and feelings. We pretend to live in a world of objective decision making when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

So, why bother with endangered species? The real answer is because we want to. Because we are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with seeing ourselves as part of a society that is willing to wipe out other creatures for sometimes marginal benefit. Economics and science can provide powerful, if only limited and partial, support to this evolving cultural change, but they should not be allowed to take over. If science and economics become our only language, it may well harm rather than help species preservation efforts.

The practical difficulties surrounding species survival are considerable. But our societies are creative and wealthy enough to overcome them. What we need is enough outrage to do it because of the human beings we want to see in ourselves and in our societies. We need no other reasons.

This article was first published in Planet Wildlife