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The Complicated Ethics of African Safaris

photograph of gazelles followed by safari vehicle

For many, the idea of paying great sums of money to travel to Africa and go on a safari promising the opportunity to shoot exotic wild game like giraffes, lions, or elephants is ethically unacceptable. The killing of Cecil the lion, for example, caused outrage around the world. For some, what is objectionable is the idea of slaughtering any animal at all for any purpose. For others, it might be the exploitative nature of Westerners spending large sums of cash to shoot African animals, or the fact that the black market trade of goods like elephant tusks is made worse by the practice of safari hunting. Addressing these issues can be tricky: Germany has recently threatened to place greater limits of trophy hunting due to poaching concerns; Botswana, meanwhile, has threatened to send 20,000 elephants to Germany due to overpopulation of the species. Stories like this remind us how complex the ethical issues involved in animal tourism can be.

Tanzania comes in at 165th place in terms of nominal GDP per capita and Botswana comes in at 86th. These are developing nations where the average person makes relatively little money compared to the rest of the world. Despite this, the very rich can book photo or hunting safaris at five-star hotels like the Four Seasons Serengeti Safari Lodge for thousands of dollars a night. If one wishes to hunt wild game, they can select from an established menu where the price of hunting each animal is clearly listed. Hunting a baboon might cost $100 while hunting a leopard will cost $4500. An African elephant with at least one tusk over 30kg will cost $20,000 to kill.

It’s not surprising why a system like this would strike one as unethical. For starters, there is the basic act of hunting animals for sport, which many consider to be inherently wrong. Since reasonable alternatives to hunting exist, inflicting unnecessary harm and suffering on animals who are living their natural lives is morally wrong. But the consequences are even bigger than this. Trophy hunting not only wrongs the individual organism, but it can affect entire communities of animals if they work on packs or groups. The practice can also destabilize migration and hibernation practices, upsetting the balance of various ecosystems.

In addition to ethical views such as utilitarianism or the capabilities approach which might stress the ethical importance of minimizing harm or having a meaningful relationship with the animal world, there is also the additional concern that certain animals like elephants seem to have a heightened level of consciousness, including the ability to recognize themselves. This suggests that hunting certain kinds of animals may constitute an additional form of wrongdoing.

There is also the fact that these safaris feel like just another case of Western exploitation of African economies. Having outsiders spend small fortunes to hunt (or even photograph) the local fauna while residents survive on a fraction of what is spent each day. If this is one of the few ways to bring investment into the local economy, it would appear African countries don’t have much of a choice about tolerating the practice.

On the other hand, defenders of hunting and photo safaris will argue that conservation of the African savanna requires great sums of money. The national parks and hunting reserves that have been saved from agricultural development creates an opportunity cost for local development that must be offset. If these animals are left alone, they may be more inclined to wander into local villages and cause damage. This possibility makes it difficult for locals to want to support conservation.

Additionally, the high value of black market goods such as ivory presents a significant incentive to engage in poaching. Failing to regulate this practice threatens grave consequences. Given the incentives, we should anticipate a tragedy of the commons scenario where poachers and developers acting only in their self-interest will ruin the local habitats and endanger more animal species.

To prevent outcomes like this, African governments allow trophy hunting and photo safaris because the revenue from these businesses can be used to pay for conservation efforts. According to one study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, trophy hunting contributes more than $341 million to the South African economy and supports more than 17,000 jobs. Safari operations help support anti-poaching patrols, provide employment for locals, and build infrastructure for rural economies.

But defenders of game hunting argue that “African wildlife conservation can only be justified if that ground generates enough revenue to support local communities whilst maintaining a healthy ecosystem.” Hunting and photo safaris then must accomplish a great many tasks. Ultimately, the hope is that we might incentivize active conservation by giving these animals a very different kind value. Killing some animals thus becomes a means to save many more.

Still, many consider the defense of safari hunting on the grounds that it provides the resources required for conservation to be questionable. A separate study conducted for Humane Society International has found that the economic benefits of trophy hunting are sometimes overstated. They found, for example, that trophy hunting only contributes closer to $132 million per year. There are also concerns that studies do not properly consider the difference in the economic benefits of not engaging in trophy hunting and engaging in it when it comes to comparing tourism projections.

Even if we consider only photo safaris, there are risks that creating a market to support conservation has led to a perverse incentive. The money to be made from tourism often proves too enticing, leading to greater development of infrastructure to support more and more tourists instead of greater conservation efforts. Further, There are concerns that tourists coming to Africa to see pristine wilderness are destroying it by their very actions. Even without hunting, wildebeests are declining and migration patterns and behavior of wild animals are changing as they become more and more accustomed to photo tourists.

Easy answers to these growing problems are nowhere in sight. While we may have moral objections to these safaris, banning the practice could very well lead to worse outcomes for the local animal populations. It’s far from clear what course of action will produce the greatest benefits over the long term.

Nowhere to Hide: Extracting DNA from Air, Water, and Sand

photograph of gloved hand taking water sample

David Duffy and his team from the University of Florida recently discovered a groundbreaking method for tracking the health and whereabouts of sea turtles. As the turtles represent an endangered species, the scientists’ goal was to study their migration patterns and to identify the environmental factors that might be influencing their health and well-being. Researchers found that they were able to extract meaningful DNA samples from air, water, and sand at the beach. Those samples allowed researchers to draw conclusions about sub-populations and to test for the presence of pathogens that lead to a particularly deadly form of cancer in sea turtles.

The discovery that significant DNA information could be extracted from these sources is great news for conservation scientists as well as for people who care about the preservation and well-being of animals more broadly. Scientists can use genetic information about animals without disturbing them in their natural habitats; they can wait until an animal has vacated a space before using the genetic material left behind to learn more about the creature and that creature’s community.

Researchers also learned something with more controversial consequences. Meaningful amounts of human DNA were extracted from air, water, and sand as well — amounts of DNA that can pick out the genetic code of specific individuals. This means that human beings, like other animals, leave behind genetic information essentially everywhere we go. This discovery gives rise to many important moral questions.

One such question is: who owns discarded pieces of a person’s body? Does the person still have some rights of ownership over physical matter that comes from their own body? If so, do these ownership rights entail a corresponding right to decide what can be done with the matter? Or, instead, are discarded cells like trash — once we’ve shed them, we no longer have any reasonable claim to ownership over them? Should we adopt a “finders keepers” attitude when it comes to discarded genetic material?

One response may be that treating small bits of discarded material as part of a person’s body is impractical and unrealistic. If shedding cells is something we do everywhere we go, there can be no returning discarded cells. At that point, the living source has lost any control. It might be tempting to think that there isn’t much at stake here.

That said, humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to using genetic material in morally responsible ways. For example, in one famous case, a woman named Henrietta Lacks consented to a biopsy as part of her cancer treatment. Scientists used her genetic material for research and found that her cells — now called HeLa cells — had remarkable properties that led to major advances in medical treatment. For decades, Lacks’ family was not compensated in any way for their matriarch’s contribution. One reason to be concerned about Duffy’s discovery is that a person’s cells could easily be used to profit others without any compensation accruing to the source. If this is the case, a person’s discarded genetic material may just be a new capitalist frontier to commodify and exploit.

But there are other reasons to be concerned that genetic information will be misused. For instance, in the late 1980s, members of the Havasupi Tribe provided their genetic material for the purposes of studying Type II Diabetes, a condition from which many members of the tribe suffered. Unbeknownst to the donors, the genetic information was used to research migration patterns, inbreeding, and schizophrenia within the tribe. Migration studies of tribal members, in particular, could potentially disrupt the already tenuous relationship that Native Persons have with the land and provide another avenue for governmental exploitation. When genetic material is collected or used without consent, it can lead to further discrimination and racism.

In addition to these concerns, we also tend to think that a person is entitled to privacy when it comes to details about their own body. When we shed our DNA, we don’t do so intentionally; we don’t give consent. But if an institution or individual was able to extract DNA from a location where we unwittingly shed it, they could come to know all kinds of details about any of us. The right to privacy begins within the borders of one’s own body even if those borders might shift or extend.

Then, of course, there are the implications for forensic science. Since its discovery, DNA has changed the landscape in criminal justice. There is no doubt this has had some tremendous positive consequences. Killers who had gone free for decades to commit all sorts of atrocities were eventually captured using DNA, sometimes through the use of unconventional methods. That said, the presence of DNA is not always evidence that a specific individual committed a crime. Sometimes context gets lost when DNA evidence is found. Finding a person’s DNA at a scene, even when there is a harmless explanation for that fact, can blind investigators to other explanations and prevent them from looking into other viable suspects whose DNA was, for whatever reason, not extracted.

Duffy’s discovery encourages speculation about a future in which it is impossible to get away with committing a crime — one in which there will always be genetic evidence to connect a person to a scene at the time a crime was committed. In such a world, we might wonder, what happens to Fourth Amendment rights? We might be looking at a future in which the genetic tapestry of any space is, in a sense, open access. In such a world, what would it mean for search and seizure to be “unreasonable”?

Finally, we can ask the question about this technology that we find ourselves asking over and over in this age: is this knowledge worth pursuing, or are we opening Pandora’s Box which can never be closed? We tend to treat all technological knowledge as intrinsically valuable, as if we are always justified in pursuing new frontiers. It may be the case, however, that some knowledge is not worth having, such as the number of blades of grass on a lawn or the number of grains of sand on a beach. Other knowledge is worse than neutral or useless, it is all things considered harmful. Consider, for example, knowledge of how to construct biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction. We treat pursuit of this kind of information as if it is inevitable, but it really isn’t. Should we view ourselves as subject to some kind of irresistible technological determinism such that if it is possible to create new tech, we are powerless to stop it? Instead, we might do well to consider carefully the implications of our discoveries and regulate the technology in ways that respect fundamental values.

Should We Intervene to Help Wild Animals?

photograph of deer in the snow

The parasitic larvae of the New World screwworm consume the flesh of their living hosts, causing pain which is “utterly excruciating, so much so that infested people often require morphine before doctors can even examine the wound.” At any given time, countless animals suffer this excruciating pain. But not in North America – not anymore. Human beings have eliminated the New World screwworm from North America. This was done to protect livestock herds, but innumerable wild animals also benefit. In fact, eliminating the screwworm from North America has had “no obvious ecological effects.”

All of us should be happy that wild animals in North America no longer suffer the screwworm’s torments. I argued in an earlier post that if something has conscious experiences, then that entity matters morally. Suppose some stray dog experiences cold, hunger, and disease before dying at two years old. This is a bad thing, and if some person had instead helped the dog and given it a nice life, that would have been a good thing. Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life. But then, the exact same thing can be said about wild animals who do not suffer from the screwworm because humans drove it out.

So we have helped many wild animals by eliminating the New World screwworm, and we should be happy about this. The question then becomes: what if we intentionally intervened in the natural world to help wild animals even further? In South America, they still suffer from the New World screwworm. And they suffer from many other things all over the world: other parasites, disease, starvation, the elements, predation, etc. In principle, there may be quite a lot we can do to alleviate all this. We could eliminate other harmful parasites. We could distribute oral vaccines through bait. (We already do this to combat rabies among wild animals – again, this is for self-interested reasons, so that they don’t serve as a reservoir of diseases which can affect humans. But we could expand this for the sake of the animals themselves.) In the future, perhaps we will even be able to do things which sound like goofy sci-fi stuff now. Perhaps, say, we could genetically reengineer predators into herbivores, while also distributing oral contraceptives via bait to keep this from causing a catastrophic population explosion.

If we can do these things and thereby improve the condition of wild animals, I think we should. In fact, I think it is extremely important that we do so. There are trillions of wild vertebrates, and perhaps quintillions of wild invertebrates. We don’t know exactly where the cut-off for the ability to suffer is. But because there is so much suffering among wild animals, and because there are so many of them, it seems entirely plausible that the overwhelming majority of suffering in the world occurs in the wild. Since this suffering is bad, it is very important that we reduce it, insofar as we can.

Of course, we’d better make sure we know what we’re doing. Otherwise, our attempts to help might, say, upset the delicate balance of some ecosystem and make things worse. But this is not a reason to ignore the topic. It is instead a reason to investigate it very thoroughly, so that we know what we’re doing. The field of welfare biology investigates these questions, and organizations like the Wild Animal Initiative conduct research into how we can effectively help wild animals. It may turn out, of course, that some problems are just beyond our ability to address. But we won’t know which ones those are without doing research like this.

Many people react negatively to the idea that we should intervene to help wild animals. Sometimes they suggest that what happens in the natural world is none of our business, that we have no right to meddle in the affairs of wild animal communities. But aiding wild animal communities is merely doing what we would want others to do for our own communities, were they afflicted with similar problems. If my community suffered widespread disease, starvation, infant mortality, parasitism, attacks from predatory animals, etc. and had no way to address any of these problems on its own, I would be quite happy for outsiders who had the ability to help to step in.

Others worry that intervention would undermine the value of nature itself. They think the untamed savagery of the natural world is part of its grandeur and majesty, and that “domesticating” the natural world by making it less harsh would decrease its value. But, as the philosopher David Pearce has noted, this is plausibly due to status quo bias: an emotional bias in favor of however things currently happen to be.

Suppose we lived in a world where humans had greatly reduced disease, starvation, parasitism, etc. among wild animals, thereby allowing a much higher proportion of wild animals to live long, flourishing lives. Does anyone really think that people in that world would want to put those things back, so as to restore the majesty and grandeur of nature? Surely not! And anyway, I am not at all sure that improving the condition of wild animals would make them less grand or majestic. If someone, say, finds some baby birds whose mother has died and cares for them, are they making nature less grand or majestic – even a little bit?

Still others pose a religious objection: they worry that intervening in nature would mean arrogantly “playing God,” interfering in the natural order God established because we think we can do better. But we already use technology to protect ourselves, and our domestic animals, from natural threats – disease, parasites, predators, etc. And if anything, people think God wants us to do that, likes it when we express love for others by helping them avoid suffering. Why should the situation with wild animals be different? In fact, in this paper, I gave a theological argument in favor of intervening to help wild animals. I note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally viewed humans as having been given a special authority over the world by God, and then argue that, if anything, this gives us a special obligation to exercise this authority in helping wild animals.

So: we should do what we can to help wild animals. As I’ve said, there is quite a lot of work to be done to figure out what is the best way to do this. But that just makes that work more urgent.

Conservation and the Weight of History

photograph of statues in front of Philadelphia Art Museum

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


In September of 2020, the National Trust, an organization that preserves more than two hundred historical sites scattered across the U.K., published a lengthy report on the material legacy of British colonialism. The report specifically identifies ninety-three sites under its purview that were built, occupied, or otherwise connected to the slave owners, bureaucrats, merchants, and politicians who drove the Atlantic slave trade. The vestiges of imperialism, the report implies, can be found not just in bombastic public monuments, but in the quaint country estates and manicured parkland. Blood money taints everything from private art collections (which contain curiosities pillaged from India and Africa) to luxury furniture (often made from tropical hardwoods like mahogany, which were invariably harvested by slaves).

Hilary McGrady, the director of the Trust, notes in a blog post accompanying the report that

history can also be challenging and contentious. It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it. The National Trust is at its best when we capture this complexity – when we present facts and material evidence in ways that inspire curiosity, inquiry, learning and sharing.

History has certainly proved to be contentious; Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, accuses the Trust of bowing to Black Lives Matter, which he refers to as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues,” and laments “that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them.”

Others believe that the Trust isn’t going far enough. Their new programming acknowledges the impact of imperialism, but it isn’t clear whether or not they’ll take the next step of repatriating artifacts. In an article on the Trust for The New Yorker, Sam Knight interviews British historian William Dalrymple, who explains,

If you were to gather a group of National Trust supporters in a room and say to them, ‘We have some examples here of looted Jewish art treasures taken by the Nazis that have ended up in our properties. Should we hold on to them? Or should we give them back to their owners, who now live in L.A.?’ There would be a hundred-per-cent vote, of course. Most British people simply are not aware, or haven’t processed. . . that this is the same thing. That this is another conquered nation, whose art treasures now sit in British museums and in British country houses.

Most visitors to Trust sites find these historical parallels difficult to process, because, as Knight argues, the National Trust fulfills “at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure. The Trust aims for total inclusion. Its slogan is ‘For everyone, for ever’ . . . The Trust hates to disappoint people. It hates, like any great British institution, to cause offense.” But is the point of historical sites to provide comforting narratives that bolster patriotism, or to display the stark and often ugly realities of history, offensive as they may be? Many of us understand history as inert, a tranquil landscape that we gaze at appreciatively from a safe difference, but we come to that landscape with baggage in hand. All conservational bodies, not just the Trust, have to reckon with what the public wants from history, how they want it to act upon them (or, in some cases, not act upon them.)

Novelist Zadie Smith explored the weight of history in an essay for The London Review of Books. Smith argues that “Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions.” She’s speaking about monuments here, which are typically built with a particular narrative of the past in mind, but the way we maintain and present historical sites is another form of storytelling.

Smith, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, acknowledges the rampant erasure of slavery in the United States, but in the U.K., she sees not

erasure but of something closer to perfect oblivion. It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that ‘we’ ended it . . . The schools were silent; the streets deceptive. The streets were full of monuments to the glorious, imperial, wealthy past, and no explanation whatsoever of the roots and sources of that empire-building wealth.

Smith’s experience casts doubt on the ability of the Trust, or any single organization, to act as a definitive “custodian of collective memory” when so much of our history goes unacknowledged. Even the idea of total inclusion, which makes up half of the Trust’s slogan, feels like an attempt to smooth over division and inequalities. Smith sees a potential remedy to historical amnesia in artists like Kara Walker, whose work depicts the grotesque absurdities of slavery. Walker famously interrogated the serene public monuments of imperialism with her piece A Subtly, an enormous sculpture of a black woman made from white sugar (a commodity that drove much of the slave trade and helped beautify those ninety-three homes identified by the Trust).

One Walker drawing, enigmatically titled “What I want history to do to me,” elicits a polyphonous response from Smith. She reflects,

What might I want history to do to me? . . . I might ask it to urgently remind me why I’m moving forward, away from history. Or speak to me always of our intimate relation, of the ties that bind—and indelibly link—my history and me. I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not. . . . I might want history to show me that slaves and masters are bound at the hip. That they internalize each other. That we hate what we most desire. That we desire what we most hate. That we create oppositions—black white male female fat thin beautiful ugly virgin whore—in order to provide definition to ourselves by contrast. I might want history to convince me that although some identities are chosen, many others are forced. Or that no identities are chosen. Or that all identities are chosen . . . All of these things. None of them. All of them in an unholy mix of the true and the false.

When we approach the past, we come with many contradictory and often submerged desires, as Smith makes clear. British historical sites will continue to draw in tourists who want to snap photos of sprawling gardens and elegant drawing rooms. We can only hope that the National Trust’s admirable recognition of colonialism will start a new conversation about the many uses and misuses of history.

Reintroducing the Gray Wolf

photograph of two wolves stalking in the snow

Earlier this month, the citizens of Colorado passed Proposition 114, a measure that reintroduces gray wolves into the local ecosystem. The measure involves a plan to reintegrate the wolves by the end of 2023. It passed with 50.4% of votes in support and 49.6% in opposition; it was quite controversial. Some citizens of Colorado view the proposal as a way to honor the promises we made when we passed the Endangered Species Act. Others are concerned about the potential threats posed by reintroducing a predator into the community.

The story of the disappearance of wolves from their native habitats is the story of human western expansion and colonialism. Wolves didn’t simply disappear all on their own. During this time, many people hunted recklessly and decimated populations of elk, deer, and bison. The result was that the food source for predators like gray wolves became limited. Some populations of wolves turned to eating livestock to survive. In response, humans killed every last gray wolf in Colorado. In fact, they killed virtually every gray wolf in the contiguous United States.

As time progressed, humans stopped hunting deer and elk at the same rates that they once did. At this point, however, wolves, the natural predators of these species, no longer existed. This imbalance fundamentally changed ecosystems. Deer populations exploded and ended up harming forests in various ways. Forestry departments embarked on deer-culling missions — the practice of killing deer in order to keep ecosystems and the other living beings that participate in them in some kind of equilibrium.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. It required the Federal Wildlife Service to, if possible, restore animals that have been eliminated from ecosystems. All species of wolves in the contiguous United States were listed as endangered so, in keeping with the act, the FWS was obligated to restore them. In some areas they satisfied this obligation. For example, in 1995 the federal government reintroduced gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The findings in Yellowstone suggest that reintroduction of wolves into an ecosystem appears to lead to greater biodiversity in that system. The carcasses of the animals on which wolves feed also serve as a source of food for scavenger species.

Some concerns with Proposition 114 are procedural. Many felt that the issue should not have been up to voters to decide. Reintroduction of gray wolves will impact some areas of the state more than others. Critics are concerned that those who voted in favor of reintroduction are not the people who will have to face the consequences. For example, some rural voters argue that it was urban voters who dictated the trajectory of the vote. Urban voters won’t have to deal with the wolves.

Farmers and cattle ranchers are concerned about the impacts that the presence of wolves might have on their livestock. Ranchers are concerned about the well-being of their animals. Despite the fact that they are raising them to be slaughtered, ranchers would like to be able to allow cattle to freely graze without concerns that they will fall prey to wolves. They feel it is their obligation to protect their livestock up until the time when they send them to CAFOS and slaughterhouses, and the reintroduction of wolves into the ecosystem makes satisfying that duty more difficult. What’s more, because gray wolves are endangered, if a rancher actually witnesses a wolf threatening their cattle, they cannot kill or harass the wolf without risking jail time or a $100,000 fine. That said, there is no reason to believe that scaring the wolf off would expose the rancher to the threat of fine or jail time.

Another pressing concern is that cattle are an investment. To make a living, ranchers need that investment to pay off. If their animals die before they can be sold, the ranchers lose money. In response to this concern, however, advocates of the measure point out that it includes a commitment to offer compensation to ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.

Many ranchers also consider these kinds of environmental policies to be an existential threat to their way of life. They claim that the environmental movement, and conservationism in particular, needs rural allies. Some rural dwellers feel that urban environmentalists are not looking out for the interests of farmers and ranchers and as a result they feel little motivation to cooperate on issues related to public lands.

There are also concerns for the deer and elk populations who will be hunted by the wolves. When we reintroduce a predator into an ecosystem, we increase the extent to which that predator’s prey will experience fear. We also increase the likelihood that deer, elk, and other potential wolf prey will experience more painful deaths than they otherwise might have. It may be true that some of these animals will ultimately be killed by humans as part of wildlife management efforts, but deaths by these hunters are more likely to be fear and pain free.

There is also a metaethical question in play here. Do we have moral obligations only to individual, sentient beings who live in and have experiences of the world? Or do we have moral obligations to species, abstract groupings that are conceptual and not sentient?

Advocates of Proposition 114 argue that we have a moral obligation to protect endangered species. Arguments for this conclusion take several different forms. One is that we have a moral obligation to rectify harms and injustices that human beings have brought about. To the extent that wolves ever did humans any harm, they did so because of the changes that we made to their ecosystem. Advocates of Proposition 114 argue that it was unjust for us to kill off wolves en masse, so we now have an obligation to restore what we have diminished. Human beings are responsible for mass extinction events, and we need to take responsibility for that. The form that this responsibility takes should be more than feeling guilt and mourning the loss. We should actually do something about it, in those cases in which we still can.

Some thinkers, like ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold, have argued that species have intrinsic value. The continued existence of any given species is testament to the fact that it has endured the harsh tests of time and the ravages of nature. When the story of a species is brought to an abrupt end unnecessarily by humans, it’s a great tragedy.

Still others argue that it is best for ecosystems to manage themselves naturally. They contend that the equilibrium established by nature is usually more sustainable than a balance that human beings attempt to artificially establish. The reintroduction of the wolf renews the potential that the ecosystem has of attaining that natural balance. This is better, in the long run, for the ecosystem, and ecosystems are worth preserving.

At the end of the day, this case lays bare a fundamental tension in our country that is about more than just gray wolf populations. Environmental change, and what many would refer to as environmental justice, requires people to adapt their lifestyles. Making these changes is easy enough for some, but it is much more difficult for others. Some people’s livelihood, and, indeed, some people’s very identity, is tied up in practices that will be dramatically altered or even eliminated by efforts to protect and preserve the environment and the living creature that inhabit it. It’s no wonder the country is deeply divided.

Power, Pollution, and Golf

Photograph of a golf course showing a pond in the foreground, a distant person with a bag of clubs, and trees in the background

Despite the closure of over 800 golf courses in the last decade and the fact that young people have virtually no interest in the sport, golf may be the emblematic pastime of the 21st century. So many of the key issues our society must grapple with in the next hundred years or so, from environmental change to the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of an elite few, are borne witness to on the vast stretches of meticulously maintained green. Given the ethical ramifications of those issues, it’s pertinent to ask whether or not the continuation of the sport of golf itself is ethical, and what the prevalence of this sport might say about our future.

The first and most pressing objection to golf is its environmental impact. Apart from impact of pesticides, environmental scholars note that “Golf course maintenance can also deplete fresh water resources [… and] require an enormous amount of water every day,” which can lead to water scarcity. A golf course can take up nearly 150 acres of land and can displace the area’s native flora and fauna in favor of an artificial and homogenized landscape. Furthermore, the impact of a golf course can be felt beyond the land it physically occupies. From 2017 to 2019, a teenage diver found over 50,000 golf balls underwater off the coast of California, the byproduct of five nearby golf courses. This is especially concerning to environmentalists, because, as the NPR reporter who covered the story noted, “golf balls are coated with a thin polyurethane shell that degrades over time. They also contain zinc compounds that are toxic.” They eventually break down into microplastics, an especially insidious form of pollution.

However, some argue that golf courses enclose and protect rather than damage fragile ecosystems. One such often-referenced paper, “The Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management,” was written by Johan Colding and Carl Folke and published in 2009. After examining the effect of golf courses on local insect and bird populations, Colding and Folke concluded that “golf courses had higher ecological value relative to other green-area habitats,” and “play essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.” They argue that golf courses can be a refuge for wildlife that’s been pushed out from other areas, and that golf courses can foster biodiversity by working hand-in-hand with conservationists. However, this paper was published by Springer Science+Business Media, a global publishing company of peer-reviewed scientific literature that had to retract 64 scientific papers in 2015 after it was discovered that the articles hadn’t actually been peer reviewed at all. Seen in that light, this research (and the conclusion it draws) becomes questionable. Another study, “Do Ponds on Golf Courses Provide Suitable Habitat for Wetland-Dependent Animals in Suburban Areas? An Assessment of Turtle Abundances, published in The Journal of Herpetology in 2013, examined the potential for golf courses to contain turtle habitats with mixed results. The researchers noted that turtle habitats within golf courses did have the potential to foster wildlife, but were negatively impacted by residential development projects, which many golf courses today contain. To summarize, there is no clear consensus on this issue, though researchers uniformly note the very act of building a golf course in the first place does disrupt wildlife, whether or not conservation efforts are made after the fact.

Golf may have an ultimately negative impact on the environment, but its continuance has ethical implications for our social and political landscape as well. Golf has long been considered an elite pastime, and President Trump’s fondness for the sport is often used to demonstrate his insufficiencies as a leader. Rick Reilly, a contributing writer for ESPN’s SportsCenter and ABC Sports, released a book in early April of this year entitled Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. In an article for The Atlantic explaining how Trump has sullied the reputation of golf through his propensity to cheat and tasteless displays of wealth, Reilly laments,

“[The situation] stinks because we were finally getting somewhere with golf. It used to be an elitist game, until the 1960s, when a public-school hunk named Arnold Palmer brought it to the mailmen and the manicurists. Then an Army vet’s kid named Tiger Woods brought it to people of color all over the world. We had ultracool golfers like Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy, and pants that don’t look like somebody shot your couch, and we’d gotten the average round of golf down to $35, according to the National Golf Foundation.”

However, it’s difficult to stand by Reilly’s assertion that golf has entirely outgrown its elitist roots. In an interview with Golf Digest, Trump remarked,

“First of all, golf should be an aspirational game. And I think that bringing golf down to the lowest common denominator by trying to make courses ugly because they want to save water, in a state that has more water […]

I would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf, people that are never gonna be able to be there anyway. You know, they’re working so hard to make golf, as they say, a game of the people. And I think golf should be a game that the people want to aspire to through success.”

Replace the word “golf” with “power,” and you’ve got an almost eerily succinct and transparent summary of capitalist conservative dogma (in which the playing field is never intended to be even, the environment is devalued in favor of aesthetics, and the American dream is only illusory for the masses). But furthermore, Trump’s comment encapsulates many of the elitist attitudes and expectations that still attend golf today, regardless of the price for a single round at a public course. The resorts and country clubs frequented by Trump and his ilk are beautifully manicured arenas of power, places where politicians and businessmen can solidify ties and network over club sodas. When he was attacked for misogynistic remarks about women, Trump’s defense was that he’d heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, going so far as to call Mar-a-Lago, the resort attached to a golf course owned and frequented by Trump, the “The Southern White House.” The words “golf course” have become shorthand for private spaces of leisure for powerful men, a place for unethical behavior sheltered from the public eye and more traditional structures of power by miles of dense greenery.

Unlike sports that are not as white or monolithic, like basketball and football, contemporary golf is not fertile ground for political or cultural resistance. Golfers are notably non-vocal about politics. As golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan points out, many famous pro-golfers are pressured to play golf with the president, and show almost uniform deference to him out of fear of losing corporate sponsorships. This deferential attitude is taken up by most elites who play golf. Donegan says,

“The acquiescence of golf’s leading figures and governing bodies [to the Trump administration] is amplified […] down the sport’s hierarchy, especially in the (sometimes literally) gilded country clubs of states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, which depend on a narrow, and narrow-minded, membership of wealthy, white couples who pay their subscriptions as much for the social cachet as for the sport. Within the confines of the club, they are free to rail against minorities, free to declare Trump the greatest president since Lincoln, free to act like the genteel segregationists they prefer to be.”

The fact is that golfers tend to be wealthy, and that the golf course is a place where hierarchy and prestige are not only respected but built into the very foundation of the culture.

Many agree that golf is both a waste of resources and a symbol for the mechanisms of capitalism, but these two issues have become intertwined in recent years. Golf, some have argued, has been yoked in the service of capitalism and corporate “greenwashing.” Rob Millington explores this idea in his paper “Ecological Modernization and the Olympics: The Case of Golf and Rio’s ‘Green’ Games,” published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2018. He defines ecological modernization as “the idea that capitalist-driven scientific and technological advancements can not only attend to the world’s pending environmental crises, but even lead to ecological improvement, thus allowing sustainability and consumption to continue in concert.” This idea is promoted by corporations who want to greenwash themselves, or to appear green to consumers without changing their essential business models. It is very similar to the conclusion drawn by Colding and Folke, who argue that environmental destruction in the name of leisure and consumerism can take place alongside conservationist efforts without contradiction.

Millington notes that “In response to the growing tide of environmental opposition since the 1960s, the golf industry took up an ecological modernist approach to promote golf as a natural, green, and environmentally friendly sport that allows people to connect with nature.” According to Millington, this is precisely what happened in 2016 Olympic games at Rio De Janeiro, for which a golf course was built on environmentally protected land in the spirit of ecological modernization. The design of the course was presented as enhancing rather than fighting the natural landscape, despite the fact that any incursion into a natural space can disrupt the ecosystem. In this sense, the continuing relevance of golf can be employed for neoliberal ends, under the guise of environmentalism or unity between nations.

In “Is Golf Unethical?”, a 2009 article published in The New York Times, writer Randy Cohen covers the basic environmental impact and bourgeois ethos of golf. On the question of whether or not the sport itself is ethical, he concludes that “perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed.” This is just one defense of the sport, that the skill that goes into mastering it outweighs any moral scruples we should have. Another thing often said in defense of golf is that it, like any sport, builds bridges and creates a sense of fellowship across the world, that it gives us a common language in which to communicate our values and abilities across international lines. But does it actually build bridges between nations or just import elite bourgeois culture and sources of pollution to other parts of the world? The act of swinging a golf club has no objective moral value attached to it, but the trappings of golf, the privilege and waste and unnecessary consumption of resources, certainly do.  

The Indianapolis Prize and the Ethics of Conservation

Photograph of a lemur turning toward the camera over its puffy tail

On Saturday, September 29, the Indianapolis Zoological Society hosted its biennial awards ceremony, the Indianapolis Prize Gala, at the JW Marriot hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana. Referred to as “the Nobel Prize of animal conservation,” the Indianapolis Prize is awarded every second year to a scientist deemed to have contributed significantly to wildlife conservation. This year, Dr. Russ Mittermeier received the honor, which includes a $250,000 award, for his work with various primate species over a 45-year career. The gala also recognizes a celebrity who has advanced the cause of conservation through funding, visibility, and outreach: this year, actor Harrison Ford was the recipient of that honor. In his speech, Ford said, “Protecting nature is first and foremost for me a moral imperative.” Inspiring as that statement may be, it remains to be seen exactly what kind of moral imperative there is regarding nature. What is the most ethical way to support and protect the environment? Furthermore, what kind of relationship should human beings maintain with our environment?
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In the Fight for Bears Ears National Monument, A Clash of Environmental Worldviews

A landscape photo of Bears Ears National Monument.

During a visit to Utah on December 4, President Trump announced that he would scale back Bear Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments, designating the federal land available for private sale. In what Republicans hail as Trump “listening to local people” and freeing land from “restrictive monument designation,” this is seen by many to be the first time since the Antiquities Act of 1906 that a president has attempted to reverse the preservation of federal land. According to the National Park Service, past presidents have redrawn boundaries of existing parks 18 times, but this move by President Trump has been met with strong civic and legal resistance.

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This & That: Assisting Evolution

In a recent piece entitled Unnatural Selection published in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes of the challenges confronting conservation as the world moves into a new, warmer, more acidic equilibrium as a result of human-induced climate change. In her piece, Kolbert profiles two ongoing efforts to genetically-modify wild species for the purpose of regenerating natural populations. Should humans assist evolution in an attempt to fix the detrimental effects of climate change?

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