Cities of Animals: The Ethics of Habitat Destruction

I was recently told that roughly eighty percent of the North American peregrine falcons breed in the Mackenzie River valley. I didn’t read it in the literature as it were, but was told by someone with decades of monitoring experience there, so I’ll take it on faith for now. What it immediately brought to mind was the Colorado River, renowned for no longer reaching the ocean.

The Colorado Delta. Please take a second to enlarge and absorb the details. (Source:


Exactly what came to mind was the historic loss of biodiversity, and how it has gone largely unrecorded. It’s easy enough to spot the disappearance of the Dodo, the mammoth and gigantic marsupials, but what about loss of aquatic invertebrates, mosses, algae and the countless other organisms that leave little or nothing for us to detect in the fossil record? How many of them have been lost since industrialization, and how many more are disappearing every day?

The post-modern, evolutionary worldview has long been criticized for a devaluing of human life and existence. We live in a world in existential crises that tries to fulfill a caveat of absolute value and instead comes up with the complete personal relativity of experience.

There is no absolute system of value, yet there is an ethic that can be constructed with maxims but not absolutes.

What I began toying with some months ago was an extension of what is known as a cosmopolitan ethic. This ethic states (very broadly and generally) that we as human beings owe equal ethical consideration to other human beings regardless of creed, nationality, gender or any other circumstances outside the realm of personal choice. It is touted as a way to assure cooperation across borders and continents, and to ensure the mutual well being of all humans.

A very interesting, touchy feely sort of philosophy indeed.

What I wish to explore is an extension of this ethic, one with a strange tie to animistic beliefs. I would argue that if we owe some sort of minimal consideration to all human beings based solely on their humanness, then the same humanity that demands this of us also demands consideration for all other living creatures.

We have finally entered an age where culture, language and history are trumping development, or at least slowing it down. We have also entered an era of environmental stewardship. An important step. Where our rhetoric often fails is in our reasoning, as it appears to be largely pragmatic. We don’t care for the environment as a good in itself so much as a supply depot for the future.

I know this unsupported accusation will come under well deserved fire, but in the interest of expediency I make it regardless. I want to put forth this ‘animistic ethic’ as a possibility for improved conservation. Though yet to be defined, I envision this idea as a possibility for a kind of moral accounting that may be able to guide human decision making better than the simpler goals of preserving resources or biodiversity.

The ideas in this post have been roughly informed by the works of sociologists J.B. Foster, Ulrich Beck and David Harvey as well as the existential philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger, and more specifically by Thomas Pogge. I’ve also read that Jacques Derrida also wrote extensively on cosmopolitanism, if anyone is familiar with his writing your input would be greatly appreciated.


One response to “Cities of Animals: The Ethics of Habitat Destruction

  1. Another great post.

    The loss of biodiversity is as hard to monitor as the gain of biodiversity. Especially since we seem to value this project mainly on the size and cuteness of the organisms in which we are in relation.

    I really like this point you make, “There is no absolute system of value, yet there is an ethic that can be constructed with maxims but not absolutes.” I completely agree.

    In terms of the ‘cosmopolitan ethic,’ what does ‘ethical consideration’ mean exactly? Can it be conflated to mean tolerance, accommodation, respect? Or something different? Personally, I do not think tolerance is a good thing, I think accommodation is suspect, but I think respect is very important. I like the essence of your animistically informed ethic, but I don’t see from where it derives its force as an argument one way or another – just because we can reshape the world doesn’t mean we should do so in a particular way (not to say it should be discarded for this reason, but that perhaps it can be developed – I’d love to help).

    I should look into these sociologists you mention (I’m only somewhat familiar with Beck’s ‘Risk Society’). I would recommend the work of feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding working from science studies. For example, ‘situated knowledges’ ( and “When Species Meet” (Haraway’s most recent book). There’s a great article on her work that I just came across that might be of interest called, “Eating Well Together” by William Grassie

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