Sunday, October 2, 2016


 As tired as I am at the end of each night, I believe that is when this blog post needs to be written. You see, I go through several moods throughout the day, and I must be in this one to write about my desired subject. My classmates have decided that my “spirit animal” is a puppy, because I appear to be curious and happy, but also emotional and clumsy. I think this fits my outward appearance quite well, but I’m not sure it accurately captures the rest. For, inside, I often feel like a very different person.
     I get in these moods more often these days, and a particularly strong one was triggered by both our first ethics discussion and the continuation that followed the end of its scheduled time. The topic was primarily the ethics of various experimental methods in research, with emphasis on those that are particularly disruptive to the organisms studied. We discussed an especially contentious study, in which the researchers removed nesting birds with a shotgun to study areas of reduced population density. I was assigned to the group supposed to provide ethical grounds for conducting this sort of study, but later when we were allowed to express our own views, I switched to the “disagree” side of the room. I believed, and still do, that if the study had been organized and intended to provide conservation-oriented results with the potential of helping that species or other species of birds, and that it was designed in a way that this was a foreseeable result, that the study would have been more justified. Merely an intention would not justify the action, but if it had a reasonable expectation to produce helpful knowledge, then the sacrificing of a few individuals would seem more just in exchange for the benefit of many.
     After class, this became a jumping off point for a more utilitarian question – how do you assign value to organisms and their lives? Is it right to say that the lives of individuals are worth less than the combined lives of a species, be it their species or another? I would posit that there really is no objective “right” or “wrong,” and that these terms are merely subjective guidelines created by the time period and the society in which the situation has context. However, in our current scenario, we may still attempt to debate whether something is “ethical” or not. Personally, I assign more value to the preservation of organisms on a species level, rather than at that of an individual’s lifespan. This becomes harder to do when you are personally involved with the individuals, as is often the case with humans. However, even if you value the individuals more than the abstract whole of a population or species, to me, the lives of many should clearly still matter more than the lives of a few because the many are made up of even more individuals. The individuals cannot survive and ensure the prosperity of their offspring without success on a grander scale.
     I believe the same logic can be used on the subject of the changes needed in order to combat climate change. In class at Cuerici we discussed some hypothetical solutions and changes that could be made, and where the impetus for these should come from. Many people discussed how education and grass roots movements would promote better support from communities and generally be received more positively. Several of us, though, were a bit more pessimistic. While education would be a nicer way to beget change, I believe in practice it is much too slow (as has been seen in the US since environmental education picked up in the 60s) for our impending problems. I also don’t think it has any reasonable chance of reaching or making any difference to the older members of the population, many of whom are already set in their ways. For this reason, it seems clear that a more direct form of action needs to be taken by a powerful entity such as the government. Rules and enforcement would be the only real way to accomplish change on a broad enough scale to make any significant difference. But despite how urgently this change is needed, I seriously doubt anything substantial will be done within an amount of time that could make any real improvement. The short-term problems that would result for people like small-scale farmers by any sort of drastic conservation legislation are far too “unethical” for any authority to initiate them, even though the long-term consequences of inaction will be so dramatically worse for both those same people and many others.
     It is during conversations like these that my true cynicism comes out. I may seem happy and bubbly on the outside, and I often am, but deep down I struggle with the sometimes crippling belief that one day everything will fall apart and most of the organisms on the planet will perish horribly. Now, I don’t believe in any purpose to life. I don’t see logic in things like destiny, luck, or even God. Evolution is without purpose and continues regardless of how any humans feel about it. And yet, I’m going into a field to try something I just said was futile. I want to work as a field researcher, to study herpetology and try desperately to protect these animals that I love from the consequences of human actions, like climate change, despite having a firm conviction that eventually it will all be for naut. This gives me cognitive dissonance, because I cannot change what I want to do with my life or how important it feels to me. But why bother? If there is truly no purpose to life, and climate change has likely already progressed beyond anything that we can reverse and will continue to worsen for who knows how long, why do we continue to try? 

Madison Harman
Duke University

1 comment:

  1. Dear Madison: You pose as series of very deep and important questions in your post, stuff that many people are afraid to ask or even consider. Your struggle is the struggle of many, so you are not alone. Many of us that have made a life in field biology, started with research and slowly (or rapidly) moved into conservation and even advocacy for the environment, sometimes because of what we have seen and experienced in the tropics; other times because our thinking started to mature and we realize the challenge and the apparent helplessness. It is rare to find such clarity of thought and belief in someone your age, and this is very encouraging to me, because it means you will quickly make your decisions and have a life ahead of you to act and lead others into action.
    The one think you should never lose is HOPE. Hope alone will never fix anything, but hope with a purpose, with a plan, with effort, resources, and action, is well invaluable. Your studies in herpetology may help us discover solutions to the plight of some species or their habitats, and your efforts to spread the information and inform decisions will be important.
    Hope is often developed late in life, when you have done everything you can and are contemplating retirement or even death, and you hope that your teachings have been good, that your followers continue your work, and that you were able to inspire others to pick up the baton. Hope at your age is raw fuel, it is inspiration, it is brilliance, it is sweat and blood. It is your motivation, what will keep you going against all odds. It will lift you when you fall, and allow you to celebrate the small victories and learn from the failures.
    You ask, Why bother? Why do we continue to try?
    My answer is, because if we don't, we would have given up, we would have let ignorance and greed win, and we would have turned our face away from the greatest challenge our civilization (our Earth even) has faced since we became human. I'm not ready to give up the fight. I'm taking this with me until I die.
    And so can you.
    Why bother? Because there are few of us and many of "them" and because life, biodiversity, our own wellbeing depends on what we do now.