September 19, 2005

Lovely insects

Not everybody loves insects. Donald H. Feener, Jr reflects on this in a book review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (subscription required).
[F]or people who do not study them, insects lack charisma. Viewed by much of the public as harbingers of pestilence and famine of biblical proportions, how do we convince people to support the conservation of organisms that they largely consider pests worthy of elimination?
Feener says that both utilitarian ("insects provide us with goods and services") and ethical ("each species has an inalienable right to existence") arguments for the conservation of insects are unlikely to appeal to the general public.
How do we get the public to care about insect conservation? […] At the start of my biennial entomology course, I am always shocked by the ignorance of senior-level biology students regarding the lives of insects. They have no appreciation for insects because they have never spent time with them. By the end of course, their ignorance and xenophobia are gone. Insects are no longer abstract alien entities, but familiar, somewhat eccentric friends with interesting stories to tell. In my experience, simple familiarity with insects has as much an impact on a student's interest in conserving them as any philosophical argument, and I suspect that is true for most people.
I had the luck to meet Feener personally and I can attest that he can arouse people's interest in insects in just five minutes. So I am not surprised about the effects of a whole course.

I am weary of the "species right to existence." I am also skeptical of "existence value," which may easily slip into intolerance at a distance. The recognition of "existence value" also opens the door to the equivalent "extermination value," which insects and spiders unfortunately enjoy in abundance. But I and my five-year old child agree with Feener that watching, touching and learning about insects are very pleasurable things, and that these are very good reasons for preserving them and their habitats.

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