On the ethical implications of the biomass of domain archaea

A friend of mine is a graduate student doing research in microorganisms in the domain archaea. Archaea are one of three domains of life, the other two being eukaryotes and bacteria; plants, animals, algae, protozoa, slime molds, and fungi are included in the domain eukaryotes.

In talking with my friend graduate student recently, he mentioned that some biologists believe that organisms of the domain archaea might well comprise a significant portion of the biomass of the planet; archaea and bacteria together probably comprise half the biomass of the planet. Many organisms in archaea live in extreme environments, like deep sea ecosystems. It is unclear to what extent archaea and bacteria will be affected by global climate change, but at the very least deep sea ecosystems may remain relatively unaffected for some time.

This raises an interesting ethical point. A popular ethical argument says we should stop global climate change because it will lead to massive species extinctions. But what is really meant is that global climate change will cause extinctions to a small percentage of organisms in the domain Eukaryotes, specifically larger plants and animals; that is, it may be that a small portion of the earth’s biomass will be affected.

Considered another way, while a huge number of species may be driven to extinction by global climate change within a relatively short time, that’s in comparison to past numbers of extinctions within a given time period. But if you compare the number of extinctions to the total number of species on Earth, then it’s a very small number.

So from an ethical point of view, what we find most troubling about global climate change is that it has the potential for killing off the species with which we are most familiar, and on which we are most dependent. We know so little about archaea, and cyanobacteria, and the hundreds of thousands of insect species that have yet to be described, that it’s hard for us to have much in the way of concrete ethical concern for them — we don’t even know if we should be concerned for them. My friend the graduate student put it something like this: We don’t really know what the effects of global climate change are going to be, but it seems likely that most of earth’s organisms won’t be affected by it.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about global climate change. We should be desperately concerned about global climate change. But any ethical concern should stem from our ethical concerns about how it is going to affect us human beings — whether global climate change will kill species we love, ruin ecosystems we depend on, and maybe even drive us to extinction. Our ethical concern should not stem from worries about archaea, or even about termites, both of which comprise a great deal of the earth’s biomass and both of which will probably survive global climate change quite nicely, thank you.

4 thoughts on “On the ethical implications of the biomass of domain archaea”

  1. When we talk about “the ecosystem,” we usually mean the human-centered ecosystem. The ecosystem as it relates to us. That’s why I’ve had issues with the book, Biomimicry.
    Also, as biologist Lynn Margulies (Carl Sagan’s ex) has said many times, life will continue on this planet long after we (possibly) ravage it with pollutants and mismanagement; it just won’t be human life.

  2. Hm. So maybe we should *encourage* global climate change, to get rid of human life more quickly, so that we can *stop* messing up the planet. Then, after we are gone, the planet can recover. Or re-invent. Or simply be relieved of our evil presence.

    I like that plan.

  3. Cheyenne, I’m not sure what you’re asking. There aren’t any ethical concerns about biomass per se — at least, not that I’m aware of. What I’m doing in this short essay is to think about what ethical implications there might be in the fact that most of the planet’s biomass will be largely unaffected by global climate change. To put it another way, most of the public dialogue about the ethics of global climate change has taken one of two general forms: (1) As humans, we have the power to dominate other species in many ways, and because we have that power it is OK to use it any way we want; or (2) As humans, we are creating global climate change that will cause a large number of species to go extinct, and it is not OK to cause other species to go extinct. I find neither of these approaches to be particularly satisfactory: the first seems to be to argue by way of a form of circular reasoning (because we have a certain power it’s ethically OK to use it); the second ignores such important matters as the fate of Archaea (which some taxonomists believe can not be easily split up into species), the fact that this is a very human-centered view focusing only on those organisms that humans find most interesting (which ignores the perspective of a huge number of other organisms), and so on. So the question I am exploring here is: How far should ethics extend? Does ethics only apply to humans? (We could also ask if ethics only applies to those humans I like or feel comfortable with!) If we can make ethical statements about non-human organisms, how far do we extend those jusdgements? — only to those organisms that we like and feel akin to, such as polar bears and redwood trees and the like? — or to all non-human organisms, including the huge number of species about which we humans know nothing?

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