Environmental ethicists recognize two broad categories for the valuation of biodiversity: intrinsic and utilitarian value. The intrinsic value of biodiversity asserts a sort of objective worth, a universal right to exist for each species or unique population. Utilitarian value is subjective, weighing the value of biodiversity on the basis of goods and services it does or can provide to humanity. In these artworks, I see illustrations of both arguments broadly construed so as to include human diversity within the realm of biodiversity.
Strikingly, these works bear the stamp of human culture and engineering as both a marvel of innovation as well as an absurdity of injustice and inefficiency. They also speak to the urgency of the threat to the environment and human health. The sheer scale of human industrial and agricultural activities has exceeded the local scale of individual perspective. It is mindboggling to comprehend the enormity of the environmental impact of seven billion hungry, thirsty people with their multifarious individual and cultural demands on Earth’s natural resources. Untold numbers of unfortunate species and peoples fall through the ever-widening cracks of our fragmented biosphere.
Food: Human agriculture appropriates the majority of productive, arable land on Earth. Because conventional agriscapes provide suitable habitat for only a handful of species, thousands upon thousands of plant, animal, and microbial species must find habitation elsewhere or die. Ecologists estimate that hundreds of species are going extinct every day, mainly as a result of human appropriation of Earth’s resources. Eroded, fragmented, impoverished ecosystems result. For all this sacrifice of biodiversity and life-sustaining ecosystems, humanity wastes 30% of its agricultural production with millions of people going hungry. As unfamiliar contraptions built from familiar objects, these artworks call for a reworking of existing technology, even simple devices, into systems that better meet the needs of a broadly inclusive community of all peoples and biodiversity.
Water: Humanity appropriates 60% of Earth’s freshwater runoff for our own use. We have poisoned, strangled, and suffocated lake and river ecosystems worldwide. Population decline and extinction of freshwater species is rampant. At such a cost, does humanity at least distribute widely and use sensibly the vast quantities of water and critical habitat it takes? Not by a long shot. Freshwater mismanagement is routine around the world, and lack of clean water causes widespread disease and human misery in many countries. To my mind, these artworks drive home this message of great human need for clean water as well as the inefficiency and absurdity in our use of it.
Life: All people share a common ancestor. Homo sapiens is part of an evolutionary tree stretching back at least 3.5 billion years on Earth, our home. As far as we know, human and non-human beings form the only community of life in the universe. Family, home, and community are highly valued in local human society. Yet, modern society has largely abandoned these values on a grand scale through mismanagement of the environment, even when human health is clearly at stake. Antarctica, bastion of global cooperation, island of peace and justice, locus of wise environmental management, meanwhile melts away into a warming ocean.
Michael S. Singer is an Associate Professor of Biology at Wesleyan University.