Biotic potential and existence value

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.


camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon

Today, we cut willows to plant by the creek tomorrow. Willows remind me of biotic potential. They’re the natural source of salicylic acid; they’re the reason humans discovered aspirin. I’ve always been a bit wary of drugs. I’ll take hardcore things for serious problems—horse pills of ciprofloxacin when I got sick in Ghana—but I’m not a fan of NSAIDs (aka non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in general. I feel irrational, because I’d gladly take a tincture of willow bark to relieve pain. Chemically, there’s no difference. So why the hesitancy? Part of me just wants to be a hippie, and part of me is a competitive masochist who wants to push through the pain and let it wash over me. I had to re-evaluate this philosophy over the summer, when my cramps got so bad I couldn’t stand up and was on the verge of passing out at work. I took two tiny pink pills and magically felt better. I felt good, amazing, but it seemed like I was letting the pain win and forgoing the humility I was supposed to learn. It’s healthy to know we’re human. It’s healthy to feel out of control sometimes. To feel weak.
But humans don’t like to feel weak. We always want to be in control, both as individuals and as a culture, a civilization. The most common reason I hear for preventing species extinction goes back to that same willow. If we lost another plant, frog, insect or fungi, we lost their unique DNA. We lose the opportunity to study them, to reproduce and mass produce their compounds, We lose the cure for cancer, the keys to medical progress, the fountain of youth. All this and more, lurking unsuspectingly in the Amazon or the great trenches of the Pacific Ocean. How many lives could we save, if only we brought back the habitat?
This defense reeks of arrogance and pragmatism. We have a long and bloody history of assuming we’re the only species that matters on this planet. Even those who’ve gotten past that idea act as though we have a right, a responsibility, to manipulate nature as we see fit.
I want to cry foul. The rainforests aren’t here to cure our diseases. I think most of us know that. But to expect people to care about things for their own sake—how far can we get with that? We care about things almost perfectly based on how much we will be affected. Even Ed Abbey spoke of wilderness as a place for men to retreat from civilization, a place to wage guerilla warfare against a fascist government. People cry over our disappearing rainforests, so charismatic and colorful. People care about polar bears, pandas, tigers, wolves. Who loses sleep over endangered snails or spiders? Who cries for the lichen?
And should we care? It’s easier to say that a polar bear has an intrinsic right to exist. Does a tree have that same right? How far are we willing to extend it? Until it interferes with a human life? A human’s ability to make money? Or merely dislike and distaste? If the planet we make is one we can support ourselves on, does anything else matter for its own sake?
I want to say yes. I believe in those rights, at least until they interfere with human safety. But it’s so hard to see the world from the perspective of another species. I hope we can get there. Because we need to wake up, and I don’t want to live on a world of only us and the things we immediately need.
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