Noah, climate change, and “assisted migration”

In Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough’s Creaturely Theology, Christopher Southgate expands on an idea he discussed briefly in his recent book The Groaning of Creation (see my posts here). Southgate points out that, due to human-caused climate change, we’re looking at a massive die off of animal life in the near future (what has been called the sixth great extinction). Naturally, when we debate climate change and what, if anything, we should do about it, we focus primarily on the costs and benefits to us. Occasionally, if we’re feeling expansive, we might briefly consider the effects that rising temperatures and sea levels may have on millions desperately poor people around the world, but it would be a huge stretch to say that those people’s interests are given anything like the appropriate weight in our debates. How much less, then, are we taking into consideration the interests of the billions of non-human animals that will be affected?

Extinction, Southgate says, is a sui generis event. It’s not just a harm inflicted on numerous individual creatures, but the final disappearance of an entire way of being in the world. The seriousness of such an event, much less many such events, and the near-certainty of at least some degree of significant climate change should lead us, he argues, to consider whether we have responsibilities, Noah-like, to ensure the continued existence of threatened species.

Southgate argues that traditional environmentalist and animal-rights philosophies are ill-equipped to deal with this scenario. Environmentalists have tended to urge human beings to leave wild nature be–our responsibilities toward non-human creatures are couched in terms of restricting our impact on them. Meanwhile, animal rights proponents have been concerned primarily with the plight of animals already within the sphere of domestication and, hence, human society to some extent. But what Southgate urges us to recognize is that we’re rapidly approaching–if we haven’t already reached it–the point where human action is inescapably changing the conditions for all life on earth. (What Bill McKibben called “the end of nature.”) We can’t simply abdicate our responsibility for that influence by taking refuge in the comforting illusion that we can shrink our impact to nothing. The damage is done, or is inevitably being done, so we have some responsibility for mitigating it.

Given the limitations of existing environmentalist and animal rights frameworks, Southgate proposes turning to the Bible for some ethical principles. The OT teaches us that God cares for everything she has created, and the NT, while short on pro-ecology passages, upholds a normative ideal of concern for the other and servant-hood. Southgate here echoes Andrew Linzey’s idea that human beings are the “servant species,” the one kind of creature capable of taking an interest in the needs of others, even at great cost to itself. Moreover, Christian theology inculcates a moral preference for the most vulnerable, the voiceless, those who are unable to stand up for their own interests. Finally, Southgate appeals to a Pauline notion of community as mutual giving and receiving, suitably expanded to include non-human creatures. The interdependence of the entire ecosystem drives home the point that not only can non-humans be the beneficiaries of our gifts, but we also constantly receive from them.

With these principles in hand, Southgate proposes that we need to seriously consider costly programs of assisted migration for species threatened by habitat loss due to climate change. This could take two forms: the first would be the creation of “corridors” allowing animals safe passage from their old, increasingly unsuitable habitats to more hospitable ones; the second would be actually physically transplanting a viable population from one habitat to another. (Southgate offers a thought experiment of relocating polar bears to Antarctica.) Such measures would not be easy or cheap, but there may be cases where a daring and sacrificial use of resources would be called for. At a more practical level, merely making people aware of such seemingly far-fetched possibilities might drive home the need to make preventative changes now.

Southgate warns that we’re not in a position to save all the creatures as Noah was, but

the profoundly difficult and risky exercise of moving animals from one locus to another should reinforce the point that the earth is our only ark, and the great preponderance of our current current creativity and ingenuity must be towards prayerfully and humbly ensuring the continued health of the “vessel,” such that it is no longer necessary to keep displacing its inhabitants. (pp. 264-5).

This is a radically different notion of “dominion” or even “stewardship” than the one we’re used to: it calls upon humans to take active steps to foster the continued flourishing of the rest of creation, even if it requires significant sacrifice on our part. Southgate distinguishes between an anthropocentric and an anthropomonist ethic: we must recognize the central place that humans, inescapably, play in caring for creation, but without elevating our own interests to the sole, or even most important, criterion for how we exercise that care.

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One thought on “Noah, climate change, and “assisted migration”

  1. Whoa, if you transferred polar bears to Antarctica, wouldn’t that be bad for the penguins? The (artificial) transference of species to new habitats is one big reason there’s a mass extinction happening already. How do you decide which species you’re going to sacrifice so that others may live?

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