"The Key to Saving Life on Earth"

Madagascar Periwinkle Argument

Donella H. Meadows presents environmental ethics in terms of “preserving biodiversity,” the need to protect all life forms, from “microscopic creepy-crawlies” through the gamut of animal and plant life on Earth. The first impetus to preserving biodiversity outlined by Meadows is the argument from instrumental value, termed by ecologists the “Madagascar periwinkle argument.” Those proponents of conservation most impressed by this point will recognize the potential in unknown life forms for development of new chemicals, medicines, etc. However, ecologists discard this argument for its “arrogant and trivial” anthropocentrism. To assume that the entirety of nature exists to serve the economic interests of one species ignores the “services beyond price” which nature performs daily.

"Services" and DNA

The second argument presented by Meadows focuses on the processes carried out through biodiversity on Earth. The extent to which living things benefit humans is not given sufficient credence in a purely economic account. From widespread pollination of plants by honeybees to flood control by a specific soil composition, the unacknowledged services rendered to humans are immeasurable. Without them, however, we could not exist. Thirdly, Meadows indulges in minor personification of nature, describing the “accumulated wisdom of nature” and “nature’s knowledge” as contained in DNA. Genetic information is viewed as the summary of evolution, a list of all life’s adaptations and “the basis for all further adaptations,” (268). As the individual traits of an animal or plant can be recognized by a human observer, the DNA of each specific organism is also unique. (In developing new varieties of fruits or guaranteeing greater resistance to disease through bio-products, one looks to the individuated genes of individual organisms for new traits to be exploited.) Each organism is equipped through its DNA to live in a specific set of environs, resist certain diseases, flourish with certain foods, etc. With each new individual, the adaptations grow to fit its needs. Thus, biodiversity is inextricably tied to diversity within populations; a decreased diversity within a species simultaneously reduces the likelihood of that species’ continued existence.


Meadows’ conclusions are stark for the expansion of human civilization into natural habitats. As humans supposedly “usurp” yearly around 40% of Earth’s biological production, biodiversity is continuously declining. The incessant development of land by humans accelerates extinctions among both known and unknown species. Even these facts may not be cause for alarm to many people; as the study questions following this article suggests, business groups complain that adding species to endangered species lists "hurt business and threaten jobs," (269). Resituating Meadows’ conclusions in light of her premises may be necessary. Her conclusions fly in the face of immediate economic self-interest, though many business leaders at least nominally concur with her first argument. However, we can see that if humans continue amplifying the effects of “biotic impoverishment,” the “jobs and unemployment” card will remain a frivolous defense for unrestrained encroachment on the biotic community’s health. The decline in biodiversity leads to a decline in the Earth’s innumerable priceless regulative functions, the unimpeded successes of which allow most humans to focus solely on the economic consequences of natural processes. In responding to these sorts of criticisms of modern civilization, one attendee of the Mississippi Philosophical Association’s meeting in Starkville this year countered with libertarian ideals of each person’s right to unabridged freedom. Regardless, relative to the history of life forms on Earth, as noted in Paul Taylor’s article, soon humans will either choose to alter their current habits and act from a respect for nature or find themselves on the losing end of history, extinction. We can also express this plea in Meadows’ terms, the necessity of “a moral respect for something magnificent that you didn’t create and do not understand,” (269). The major difference is that, for Meadows, the need for an ecocentric, biocentric, or even traditionally ethical theoretical basis for preserving biodiversity is immaterial. The important issue is that we choose to act, out of self-interest or otherwise. I can see the appeal of this approach, as the ecologists who “refer wearily” to the “Madagascar periwinkle argument” must recognize the need for such pleas in convincing fetishized capitalists to limit their “freedom” for the sake of survival. However, it is taken as self-evident in Meadows’ article that we desire for our progency a habitable world in which to exist. Sadly, convincing enough people of the urgency in “biotic impoverishment” may amount to them actually perishing, viewing the destruction of our planet as a consequence of our reckless, “self-interested” actions.

1. Meadows, Donella H. "Biodiversity: The Key to Saving Life on Earth."
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