Resources to Save ‘Every Creeping Thing of the Earth’ Are Limited. What Would Noah Do?

Yves here. This post unwittingly illustrates how backwards our collective priorities are. It takes the premise that humanity can get by at least adequately as we continue to destroy, and specifically reduce the diversity of the biosphere. Related to that is the belief that it is possible to manage a way to less bad outcomes. Here the discussion focuses on a framework developed by Martin Weitzman on how to think about species preservation.

The problem with that line of thinking is obliquity, that in complex systems, it is not possible to know the terrain of the system well enough through it to map a good path. The most direct-seeming approach is typically not sound. As John Kay explained in the Financial Times in 2004:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity..

The Germans defeated the Maginot Line by going round it, while Japanese invaders bicycled through the Malayan jungle to capture Singapore, whose guns faced out to sea. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.

Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them…. Our objective in a complex system is not to find the optimum, because no one can know before or after whether such an optimum has been achieved. We can and should be satisfied with an outcome that is good enough….

Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate. When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled

Kay argues here and elsewhere that the most successful approaches for dealing with complex systems are not to implement particular programs but set high level objectives and keep adapting. But those goals have the best odds of producing pretty good outcomes if they are aspirational and motivating.

Now admittedly, this critique may seem unfair, but the focus here is on “which species to save”? Is focusing on particular species the right approach?

By Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, Distinguished Professor, Arthur J. Gosnell Professor of Economics, & Interim Head, Department of Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology. Originally published at The Conversation

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP, that starts Nov. 30 in the United Arab Emirates will bring together governments, businesses, international organizations and NGOs to shine a spotlight on the climate emergency the world faces and consider solutions to the crisis. The alarming rates at which we are losing species is not just a tragedy of epic proportions – the destruction of biodiversity also robs humanity of one of its strongest defenses against climate change.

Retaining the earth’s diverse mix of animals and plants is crucial for the planet’s future, yet any plan to halt its loss must grapple with the reality that not every species can be saved from extinction because of the limited resources we have for biodiversity conservation. By one estimate, about US$598 billion to $824 billion is needed annually to reverse the loss of species worldwide.

Different Ways of Posing the Problem

Given finite research and practical resources, how should we act to conserve biological diversity? Should we, as I have argued in my research as an expert in environmental economics, try to regulate the rate at which habitat is being converted from natural to human-centered uses?

An alternative approach concentrates on conserving what biologists call keystone species that play a critical role in holding the ecosystem together. An example is the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park, whose presence regulates prey populations like elk and deer, which in turn have cascading effects on vegetation and the overall ecosystem structure and function.

The Bible suggests a contrasting approach in the Lord’s dictum to Noah before the great flood: “Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.”

A Solution

One of the most original and interesting answers to this question was provided by the late Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, who applied economic analysis to address the conservation of endangered species. In a pioneering 1998 paper titled The Noah’s Ark Problem, Weitzman viewed the challenge of figuring out which species to conserve with limited resources as a modern-day equivalent of the problem the biblical patriarch Noah faced when trying to determine what to take with him – and hence save – on his ark.

In Weitzman’s view, biodiversity gives rise to two kinds of values. The first is utility to humans – insects pollinate crops that yield food, and so on. There is no serious dispute that biodiversity – the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria and fungi – benefits humans.

As the World Health Organization puts it, “Healthy communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems. They provide clean air, fresh water, medicines and food security. They also limit disease and stabilize the climate.” Yet nearly a third of all monitored species are currently endangered because of human activities.

The second kind identified by Weitzman is the inherent value of the wide variety of species and the genetic information they contain to biological diversity itself. Biodiversity plays a crucial role in maintaining the stability and resilience of ecosystems.

For example, increased genetic variation is important to wild Alaskan salmon returning to natal streams and rivers to reproduce. Populations in different streams have developed different sets of genetic information; some of these will allow for the earlier migration in streams that will be needed under warming temperatures and earlier snowmelt.

Weitzman likens the task of preserving different species to the task of saving the volumes in a library that represent an accumulation of human knowledge.

While in principle, every volume in the library might be valuable, some may have information that is also available in other libraries. Therefore, the objective would be to save those volumes that have information in them that is not contained anywhere else. According to this view, a conservationist’s goal ought to be to save as much of this genetic information as possible, even if the species concerned provide little direct value to humans.

This line of thinking provides counterintuitive guidance to conservationists. Specifically, it suggests that the best way to conserve biodiversity in an uncertain and resource-constrained world is to pick a species and then save as many members of this species as possible. By following this aggressive or “extreme policy,” the conservationist preserves not only what is informationally distinct about this species but also all the information it shares with other species.

An Example

To see this, imagine that there are two libraries that have many volumes (or species members), some unique to each library and some overlapping. If Library 1 burns to the ground, we lose all of the volumes (species members) with the exception of those that are also housed in Library 2. The same is true if Library 2 burns.

If both libraries burn, all is lost. If both are on fire, and we do not have the equipment to save both, and one library takes fewer resources to save, we may be better off using our scarce resources to protect that one and letting the other one go in order to preserve the unique volumes (species members) as well as the knowledge in the overlapping volumes.

What Does It Mean in Practice?

The practical meaning is that – when forced to choose – it may not make much sense to use limited conservation funds to protect a highly endangered species such as cuddly pandas that are very expensive to protect. We may be better off protecting, for example, the Atlantic menhaden, or pogy, a primary food source for bigger fish and birds along the Eastern Seaboard and a vital connection between the bottom and top of the food chain. A current lawsuit claims it is subject to overfishing in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Weitzman’s Noah’s Ark model seeks to provide useful guidance in determining how to prioritize our efforts to save endangered species, with the presumption that biodiversity is both of value to humans and that it is inherently valuable. While we lack the resources to save every at-risk species from extinction, further delay in dealing with the climate emergency and its harmful effects on the loss of species is one thing the world cannot afford.

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  1. John R Moffett

    Terrifying, economists trying to decide what species to try to save and which can go. It is analogous to religious fanatics trying to decide how to manage and facilitate the end of the world. Reading the article makes me think that as long as capitalists remain in charge, we are headed for the end of the world.

    1. digi_owl

      Again and again i find myself reminded of the premise of Soylent Green, and how beyond the lack of a “smartphone” in the hands of the huddling masses on point the story was for being a 70s movie based on a 60s book.

  2. Kouros

    I read “saving species” as in “making efforts to not destroy them” due to consumption and humans encroaching on all environments because of the two priciples of capitalism that Lambert so eloquently summarized:
    1. because markets
    2. go die.

    Oh, the opportunity costs!

    Ou sont les insect d’Antan?!
    Ou sont les poissons d’Antan?!
    Ou sont les forets d’Antan?!

  3. Riverchurningclam

    Getting rid of the present “civilization” will save more species than niggling over Ark models.
    What we need is not a slide rule but a Monkeywrench.

    1. Alex

      I agree.
      We have insufficient knowledge about the interdependence of species to be able to make those (entirely hypothetical) choices.
      Saving some species makes little sense when the destruction of habitat continues unabated.
      Nothing we can fantasize about will slow down the current mass extinction. Who cares?

  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    Well, if anything, these two have proven once more that ethics has nothing to do with economics. This terribly earnest moral dilemma, this plan for the cosmos, makes about as much sense as the Chicago Boys and their experiments on Chile.

    We simply don’t know enough to make a decision about which species to keep or to throw off the lifeboat. I note the authors’ mention of fungi. It is only recently that fungi were recognized by human beings as their own taxonomic kingdom (closer to animals than to plants, interestingly). Picked from the entry, Fungi, at Wikipedia: “However, little is known of the true biodiversity of the fungus kingdom, which has been estimated at 2.2 million to 3.8 million species.[6] Of these, only about 148,000 have been described,[7] with over 8,000 species known to be detrimental to plants and at least 300 that can be pathogenic to humans.[8]”


    And among animals, there is the wild, crazy tuatara, with a genome much larger than the human genome. So do we jettison humans and keep the tuatara?

    Quoting: “Researchers found that the tuatara genome is composed of 36 chromosomes and is approximately 5 billion base pairs in length, making it one of the largest vertebrate genomes ever sequenced. Through phylogenetic analyses, an approach that compares similarities between genomes, geneticists found the tuatara genome has highly repetitive sequences that are usually only found in mammals.”

    At least the authors mention the pogy.

    So what did I learn here? I don’t want economists in charge of anything.

    And a reminder of where ethics take us. They mention Noah’s ark. Here’s the Metta Sutra;

    “As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. With good will for the entire cosmos, cultivate a limitless heart: Above, below, & all around, unobstructed, without enmity or hate.” tr. Thanissaro Bhikku

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      “We simply don’t know enough to make a decision about which species to keep or to throw off the lifeboat.”

      Exactly. We don’t know which species in the ‘Great Chain of Being’ are essential to keep the whole pyramid from collapsing – which are needed to support those above and below any given point. This is why imaginary ‘projects’ to colonise Mars will not succeed.

      And the corollary from your quote is that we must try to save them all. Humans have a proclivity to see themselves as the kingpin in the engine of creation, but from the point of view of other species we are a lethal invasive virus, which has spread to all corners of the globe. If only there were such a goddess as ‘Gaia’!

    2. Sibiriak

      DJG: “We simply don’t know enough to make a decision about which species to keep or to throw off the lifeboat.

      Worse, there is no “we” that makes critical decisions.

    3. Michigan Farmer

      Replying to DJG Reality Czar

      So what did I learn here? I don’t want economists in charge of anything.

      There is a school of economics emerging known as ecological economics proposed by several scholars including Kate Raworth. She’s on YouTube also; her work is quite worthy of consideration. We need a plan to get out of this mess we’re in and Ecological Economics offers some reasonable alternatives to growth (neoclassical) economics.
      You can read about the topic at Amazon as well

  5. Synoia

    Lets be frank. We are heading for a Human extinguishing event, brought by us Humans. It appears all resources, except politics, will be exhausted or in expensive supply.

    The great body of humans has expanded over the echo-sphere’s ability to sustain us, despite our cleverness.

    Primitive humans are probably in the best position to survive, in some small numbers.

    We already have famines without end in some places.

    The good news is Obesity will be cured (/s).

    1. Irrational

      And we deserve the extinction event (collectively, not individually), having actually thought we could “manage” complexity and failing badly!

  6. timbers

    “What would Noah do?” What DID Noah do? He limited as in drastically reduced human population onto the boat. Human population needs to fall drastically. Until it does, other species will go extinct. Whales elahpants everything larger than mice as a general rule and more will be lost.

  7. KLG

    It was difficult to keep reading past this sentence: “Should we, as I have argued in my research as an expert in environmental economics, try to regulate the rate at which habitat is being converted from natural to human-centered uses?”

    We will be the judge of that, Dr. Batabyal, thank you very much.

    Regarding Obliquity, I once referred to John Kay’s book of the same title when proposing to solve a problem by addressing it indirectly. The response of the administrators in the room was underwhelming, but the oblique approach has worked while also showing that the PMC conception of meritocracy (IQ+Effort=Merit) is complete and utter nonsense. These people haven’t read Michael Young’s book, which was sociological satire. Satire, beyond the ken of the oblivious, humorless, and self-satisfied PMC, which is now terminally afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome. Anyway, other than the occasional book by Peter Drucker that was on the shelf of the university bookstore in my relative youth, Obliquity might be the only “management” book I’ve read that made any sense whatsoever. But my sample is very small.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Regarding obliquity, we must also do away with the cult of ‘scientism’ and its associated clique of materialism. We are creatures with brains which run (some of the time) on logic, admittedly. But we are also creatures of emotion and irrationality too, and these are just as important in our lives, and must be catered for – in an oblique way, of course.

  8. SittingStill

    With a 30 year career in Conservation Biology behind me working in a big green NGO, I can only conclude that we simply don’t have the ability to systematize conservation work that is capable of addressing the crushing loss of biodiversity. The approach of developing strategies (no matter how innovative, efficient, and well targeted) and then finding funding for implementation is going to fail, regardless of the substance of any given initiative, if our culture persists with tweaked versions of the same normative/value structure. I’ve seen multiple cycles of systematic conservation planning and initiatives over the years – all set lofty goals which are not achieved, and said goals are forgotten as soon as it becomes apparent that they are unreachable. Rinse, wash, repeat as the biosphere continues its inexorable decline. The endless cycle of re-conceptualization of conservation work serves much better to inspire philanthropy and provide work for upper level managers than to deliver lasting results – work branded as “new” and “innovative” sells! Moreover, there is an unwillingness to closely examine why the previous flavor of approach to conservation work did not work as hoped – so learning from failure does not happen.

  9. Michigan Farmer

    Eoghan Daltun can be followed on Twitter as an advocate apropos of what Yves mentioned in her intro regarding obliquity. His biodiversity advocacy is all about not doing much except to set aside land for example, with the goal to rewild parts of Ireland and return it to its natural state of temperate rainforest. This kind of rewilding works well in small bundles and we would all be better off if such projects were more common.
    The old-school environmental advocates going back to Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir were of the ‘hands-off’ school of philosophy or fortress style conservation. The idea was to take huge fortress-like bundles of land and fence them off to all development except visitors. Unfortunately, that philosophy has not worked well in achieving the goals of preserving biodiversity. Firstly, we have loved these wilderness areas to death; examples can be found by a search of news articles about issues at Yosemite this past summer as car parks overflow into the wild lands. Secondly, wild species don’t know the boundaries of the park and keep wandering into lands populated by urban communities and farmer’s pastures and fields. A more recent style of wildlife conservation involves the connectivity of protected areas, with corridors of land linking islands or archipelagos of conserved areas. Land uses are restricted around the corridors to protect biodiversity and visitation of core areas would have to be severely limited if allowed at all. The key terms on this broad topic for a Google Scholar search would be Wildlife Conservation, Connectivity, Corridors, archipelago.

    Lastly, some of the commentariat are quite upset with the prevailing school of growth economics and that is quite understandable. But a decades-long struggle has been ongoing (not much reported by the corporate-owned press) under the terms of ‘Sustainable development’ or “Ecological Economics”.
    Some scholars to look up are Julia Steinberger, Robert Costanza, and Kate Raworth. All are highly accessible on YouTube and Steinberger’s papers, while lengthy take the studious reader far into the heterodox economics that recognizes we have only one planet to call home.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Re what you say, I recommend reading ‘October the First is Too Late’ by Fred Hoyle – if you can find a copy nowadays. Very briefly it involves a time slip where the protagonist is projected into the future, where after repeated episodes of over-population and nuclear war, the human race voluntarily confines itself to a small part of the earth, with the rest being the province of animal species.

      1. Michigan Farmer

        Jane Goodall was attacked recently on Twitter when she stated the planet could absorb human pollution with business as usual if the total human population was limited to less than about 750,000,000. She was pointing out the dangers of environmental overshoot but got smeared as advocating for genocide and eugenics. The comments are quite the thing.

    2. JEHR

      First step, do not let anyone travel by airplane; second step, do not let anyone travel except on foot.

  10. TomDority

    Limited resources – Limited resources – IMHO that ‘Limited resources’ line being used is the biggest BS line to disguise the limited mental resources employed By Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, Distinguished Professor, Arthur J. Gosnell Professor of Economics, & Interim Head, Department of Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology.
    “yet any plan to halt its loss must grapple with the reality that not every species can be saved from extinction because of the limited resources we have for biodiversity conservation. By one estimate, about US$598 billion to $824 billion is needed annually to reverse the loss of species worldwide.”
    So our limited resources needed to reverse the loss of species worldwide is less that one years military budget in the US – by the way – the military budget is designed for destruction and pollution and supporting the FIRE sector – Biodiversity loss continues to limit resources available for a habitable planet whose destiny is controlled by a bunch of clueless monkeys supported by a whole bunch more gullible clueless monkeys – – gullible because they think the ones at the controls are Alfas or some how magically or through destiny entitled to their place on high alters.
    But as always… the economist sets up parameters that do nothing but do enable the contrivance of false narratives of inaccurate conclusions most beneficial to holding the status quo and to let legislators slide on the greasy pole of big money for tax and legislative favoritism.
    3.5% of GDP spending on military for what – What did one of our framers say, something like an informed citizenry is the only true defense for a democracy. So that statement is turned on it’s head when we go overseas to pound the sh3t out of and spend ginourmous amounts on weapons to defend democracy because we got a bunch of psycho politicians climbing for personal gain and personal power. Like DT who made sure that he hires only those who like their noses up warm environs of his backside.
    I surely digress, but to bring out ‘limited resources’ as a reason not to take full action is an absurd abstraction of reality….. 3.5% of GDP of one country.. gosh darn.. that’s to much to save this here planet..shucks oh well

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    We are experiencing the end of the world as we have known it. This end proceeds along many avenues all of them important. The post settles on a desultary wander along some side alleys tapering off one of these avenues, while spouting economic nonsense. Suggesting a Noah’s Ark model “to provide useful guidance in determining how to prioritize our efforts” assumes an Ark — whether the Ark is big enough and some must be left to swim still assumes an Ark.

    I believe a lot of money, energy, and concern can be wasted in agonizing over small things — letting larger issues, like the unending subsidies governments pay to fossil fuel cartels, or the wastes and destruction of government sponsored wars, or the gathering destruction wrecked by the new weather, or the looming exhaustion of resources or ….

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I should clarify my comment above. It is silly and deliberately attention shifting to agonize over how to prioritize which species to ‘save’ while not prioritizing or acting on the larger problems that resulted in the ongoing mass extinction event.

  12. Starry Gordon

    William Blake wrote that one cannot benefit others except in “minute particulars.” I thought of that when I read the Metta Sutra here. By “others”, of course, we might mean non-human animals, including insects, plants, fungi, bacteria, and whatever else is out there. The phrase “limited resources” points us immediately to the military, police, prison, and propaganda budgets.

  13. NYMutza

    I question the statement “While we lack the resources to save every at-risk species from extinction…”. The United States alone spends more than a trillion USD year in and year out on military spending. To what high purpose is this spending devoted? There actually are plenty of financial resources available to save every at-risk specie from extinction. It’s all a matter of priorities – to destroy or not to destroy. We can choose not to destroy.

  14. Michigan Farmer

    The United States alone spends more than a trillion USD year in and year out on military spending

    This issue is not always about money. Oftentimes times decades-long urban growth and reassigning land to agricultural use (including tree plantations-sometimes known as national forests) have precluded saving species’ habitat as the land and shorelines are now under a heavy blanket of cement, asphalt or the plow. Take a look at San Francisco Bay on Google Maps (satellite view) and see if you can find any habitat for wildlife there. Same with the area around most of the Great Lakes; the entire shorelines are given over to cottages and resorts with some relatively small exceptions.

    1. Jabura Basaidai

      agree entirely – i’m from Michigan too and have lived in the UP – grew up in the SE part of the state and familiar with most of the state from work and travel – and at 74 have traveled extensively within our country’s borders, across Canada from BC to Quebec and even lived in Hawaii for a couple of years back in the 70’s – the amount of concrete and building i’ve watched cover land and push out species other than our own is almost a manifest destiny of our doom and all the other species we will take with us – as mentioned in my previous comment our species is a pathogen –

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