News - November 15, 2012

Intrinsic value

The flowers speak to me, wrote Belgian priest and poet Guido Gezelle about one and half centuries ago.

Beautiful words, but for many of us now they must sound like a message from another planet. Nowadays we mainly look at nature in terms of what we can get out of it - its user value. We talk in ugly jargon of ecosystem services. This brings us back to the attitudes of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle, for instance, reckoned that everything in nature was there to serve mankind. What has happened in our times to nature's intrinsic value?
It is still there of course - nature does not leave us entirely cold. I think we all know the disappointment of discovering that those lovely flowers on the dining table are plastic. People and nature. In Germany the idea that human value is inviolable was enshrined in the new constitution back in 1945. It is impossible to ascribe inviolable value to nature, certainly to individual plants and animals (we could never eat a head of lettuce again) but there is a germ of truth in the concept. Eddy Weeda has declared that we must make room for our fellow earth-dwellers. I think that's a nice way of putting it. Who are we to supplant them?
Intrinsic value is a matter of respect. The American Indians asked for forgiveness when they stabbed an animal. What should we say to a bloated factory-farmed chicken in the supermarket? Or to a packet of fish finger with a jolly Iglo captain smiling at us from the box?