Confucius once said that everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. I was vaguely persuaded by this precept until I was recently attacked, upon leaving my house, by an intimidating flock of crows. I find crows uniquely repulsive — it’s some combination of their unpredictable fluttering, irritating shrillness, and also probably their near-daily attempts to dent my prefrontal cortex. So I shrunk meekly back to my front door and drowned my woes in a bowl of Lucky Charms. Confucius, I’m convinced, was never witness to the ghastly, wailing, cries of a Northwestern crow.
Conservationists often remark that the cuteness of a species bears far too much weight in the battle against its endangerment. This is alright in the case of the common crow, which is neither remotely cute nor remotely endangered. It’s a greater concern for thousands of threatened species globally which suffer from their lack of aesthetic value.
One of these thousands is Zostera marina, commonly (well, uncommonly) known as eelgrass. The species is a type of seagrass, a flowering marine plant which is usually defined by its long blades. It is valuable in terms of its carbon sequestration abilities; like other marine plants, eelgrass photosynthesises, storing carbon dioxide in the process. It also provides crucial habitat for a variegated set of species that includes the Pacific herring and several migratory waterbirds. On North America’s Pacific Coast, eelgrass has suffered from significant population loss due to human marine activity (which causes oil spills, release of chemical toxins, etc.) and in particular industrial sediment, which blocks light columns and prevents photosynthesis. During my most recent semester at school, I had the opportunity to participate in a project restoring eelgrass to Pacific Canada. My friends and I snorkel-harvested eelgrass from Esquimalt Lagoon, a quiet inlet on Vancouver Island (pictured above: some of our specimens). We attached the shoots to a wire frame, as recommended by past restoration research, and placed the frame on a seabed near our school’s marine science lab.
Eelgrass definitely isn’t as contentious as the Northwestern crow. It isn’t hideous and it doesn’t perpetrate aerial strikes against the youth. But the plant isn’t particularly interesting — and correspondingly, receives considerably less academic and public attention than the sea otter or the grizzly bear despite potentially having equal ecological value. And for the first time, I was exposed to the implications of this aesthetic hierarchy. Three students cumulatively registered for our restoration project, while dozens lined up to participate in a farm animal initiative involving newly hatched chickens.
On a pragmatic level, conservation demands that we put aside intuitions on which organisms we admire and relate to most strongly in order to properly prioritise species based on their vulnerability and significance within the food web. Admittedly, some species will attract more financial and political capital due to their majestic appearances, and that will need to be balanced against the ecological importance of their unprepossessing counterparts. Recent research fortunately suggests that, with sufficient marketing, even unappealing animals can gain some traction among donors. (Perhaps some of the popular preference towards prettier animals is a product of the disproportionate cultural attention they receive rather than an exclusive result of their intrinsic cuteness.)
But I also wonder if the situation speaks to some deeper flaw in popular understanding of environmental ethics. As advocated by father of American conservationism Aldo Leopold, a key tenet of environmental theory is to to act in such a way that preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the biosphere. In our pursuit of a refined ecological aestheticism, I think sometimes we forget about the first two principles. We cast aside the understanding that nature is valuable not just because it is beautiful, but because it precedes and sustains us as humans, and because we owe something to our evolutionary roots — ugly, imperfect, and intimidating as they may be.