Turtle Walks and Terminal Values

When I was told that walking 7 kms along a trash-filled beach looking for turtle eggs in the middle of the night would be “so much fun!”, I was inclined to let my natural skepticism take its course, and I’m very glad I didn’t; so along with being some tangential discourse on the nature of environmentalism and conservatism, this article is also something of an apology. Sorry I skipped out on you the first few times you invited me to come along,dude: it WAS fun.

Now that that’s over with…

The Chennai Turtle Walk is an effort at saving the Olive Ridley turtles who nest along the Coromandel Coast every year. I quote:

Formed by the students of the Madras Christian College, the (Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network) SSTCN has been organizing turtle walks for the past 14 years. Every Friday and Saturday, the volunteers gather at 10.30 p.m. near Neelankarai beach. They cover 7 km along the coast between Elliots Beach and Neelankarai.

We- me,Sareen, Sumita, [Australian woman who’s initials I THINK are CA, although possibly her name is just pronounced that way],Prakriti and Kaamya, as well as Shakti,Shamsher,Antenna,Krishna and[Shaastra photography coord whose name I forgot, AGAIN], who arrived later – reached the hatchery at Neelankarai at nearly 11 and by about 11:45 we gathered with all the others and listened to Arun (“Arun Anna”) talk about what we were going to do, and respond to a few questions from the audience.

My natural skepticism extends to people even more than it does to events, but I couldn’t really help thinking that this was a man who really knew, and just as importantly, really cared about what he was talking about. After this discussion, we walked along the beach, got wet and sandy, had surprisingly interesting conversations for rather hungry,sleepy people, watched turtle eggs being dug out, touched turtle eggs and marveled at the squishiness*, got more water and sand on our clothes and legs until it wasn’t that much fun any more, sat around and talked, and finally left right before the hatchery at Elliot’s Beach. Fairly typical and more detailed-if dated-accounts can be found here and here, and I’ll also add links to others at the bottom as and when I find them.

So how exactly does taking the eggs from their natural home help to save the Olive Ridley turtles? From the Hindu article:

During nesting season, which lasts roughly from January till April, these turtles come ashore in large numbers, lay eggs in nests and go back to the sea and don’t ever come back to look after the nest or the eggs. Adult turtles return to the shore where they were born, for nesting. The coast along Chennai is a minor breeding ground ; the Bhitarknika Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa is the world’s largest Olive Ridley nesting ground.

When the eggs hatch after 55 days, the hatchlings make for the sea by instinct because at night under normal conditions, the sea is a brighter source of light than the land. The young are on their own from the minute they are born and even under natural circumstances only one in a thousand survives into adulthood.

But now with big cities coming up along the shore, the land is brighter than the sea at night. And the hatchlings start moving inland, where their chances of survival become almost nil. This has been the main cause for their declining numbers and the SSTCN organises walks during the nesting season to collect the eggs from the nests and put them in a hatchery so that when the hatchlings come out, they can be safely released into the sea.

My intent when I started writing this post was to talk about the paradox involved in helping the Olive Ridley turtles maintain the nesting patterns they have followed for millions of years by actively interfering in their reproductive cycle. Arun also touched upon this on his talk; after he talked about the “timeless” sensation one experiences when one watched a turtle lay its egg on this beach like it has done for the last 200 million years, he mentioned his uneasiness in meddling with this natural process, and then went on to say that “but it can’t be helped; if we didn’t do this, they would all die as hatchlings.”

This leads one rather directly to one of my key doubts about the environmentalist/conservatist movement in general: what are their terminal values? Clearly, there isn’t just one single movement with the same ideals or expectations, so perhaps asking this question shows gross ignorance on my part, but I honestly think it’s worth asking.In response to a question about how the Dhamra port in Orissa affects the turtle population, Arun quoted ex-Minister Murasoli Maran as saying “what use are turtles to India?”, and then wondered aloud as to how one could really answer a question like that. Maybe turtles really aren’t of that much use to India**, he said. The implication being, that’s hardly the point… which certainly seems reasonable. So, what is the point?

Is the point survival for the Olive Ridley turtles irrespective of any external consequences, like some environmental version of “art for art’s sake”? But then, one would have to hold it to the same priority that art for art’s sake holds when one conducts a cost-benefit analysis, and when the “benefit” side of the equation is the welfare and economic upliftment of hundreds of thousands of poor villagers, that tends not to be very high. Is the point some variant of the precautionary principle, about how we simply cannot take the risk of having such a species go extinct, in case it deals further damage to our ecosystem? I’d think that was valid, but nobody really seems to be talking about it. The vast majority of people that I meet simply seem to accept that saving these turtles is just “what has to be done”, which would imply that they are terminal values. Does saving them not mean saving their entire way of life? The reproductive cycle is perhaps the single most significant portion of any creature’s life-no, seriously, if you wondered why everyone keeps talking about sex all the time, now you know; it pretty much defines who we are. If one can virtually commandeer the reproductive cycle of an entire species, exerting what I think(because again, I’m not an expert) is tremendous evolutionary pressure on them, what stops us from simply genetically manipulating them to survive under the kind of ecological pressure that industrial development would throw at them? I don’t think anyone has seriously suggested this, of course, or even that this is within our current scientific abilites, but I’m fairly confident that any such suggestion would be looked upon with horror. As a rationalist, I would also feel an instinctive uneasiness because of the precautionary principle that I mentioned earlier, but I suspect that’s not the major reason for most environmentalists, even if they resort to this in a public debate. When does a turtle stop being a turtle?

It’s obvious that some sort of principle of minimal intervention is at play here. My question is, what real terminal value is this principle derived from? Is it:

a) Sanctity of human life: Preferred outcome is the one where the most humans are alive and enjoying the best possible quality of life. (The rationale for saving the turtles with this terminal value is the precautionary principle variant discussed above.)We won’t get into an argument about the quality/quantity equilibrium here…there are more than enough spaces on the net to discuss it.

b) Sanctity of life of any sort: Preferred outcome is the one where the most number of living creatures of all types have the  best quality of life possible.

c) Conservation of the ecosystem as it is at this exact moment: Preferred outcome is one where all present species, including humans, have stable populations and ecosystems. Presumably, the definition of  “stable” in the human case has more exacting parameters of prosperity than for the other species.

These are obviously rather limiting and narrow definitions, but there is a reason they’re called terminal values. Anyone with more nuanced but still appropriate definitions can feel free to add to the comments.

I would like to add for purposes of clarification that metaphysics aside, I think the turtle walks are certainly a worthy endeavor. Also, despite the fact that I had no intention of giving any answers, my own terminal value would be somewhere between a) and b).

PS: The linked article on terminal values is from Overcoming Bias, and I would sincerely recommend it if you find the subject interesting.

*They get harder within hours of being laid, but initially the eggs are rather soft and squishy. This, by the way, is the reason these walks have to be done in the middle of the night: the turtles come in at night, lay the eggs and leave, and once they get hard, you can’t transplant them to the hatchery without killing off the hatchlings(or embryos, if you want to be precise).

**I would hardly want to take a position on this, however, because if there’s one aspect of the environmentalist movement I respect it’s their contention that in a deeply interlocked ecosystem you can hardly expect to change something and not have everything else change in surprising ways.

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13 thoughts on “Turtle Walks and Terminal Values

  1. Really thought provoking.
    Regarding human intervention in the evolutionary process, there is another point of view held by many: Knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally whatever a human does, be it polluting or trying to ‘conserve’ species even if it means altering the species or its way of life, is embedded or spun in the evolutionary process. If we are capable of thinking about how an ‘ideal’ world/ecology should run/be and implementing it, that only means we were ‘made’ that way, and all this human intervention is a part of the evolutionary process.
    Ah! It all boils down to a paradox! something like the good old chicken or the egg first.

  2. “If we are capable of thinking about how an ‘ideal’ world/ecology should run/be and implementing it, that only means we were ‘made’ that way, and all this human intervention is a part of the evolutionary process.”

    I agree that whatever we do we’re putting evolutionary pressure, but what you said right there is a bit more mystical than I was going for. The way I was thinking of it was more feedback (humans affect environment affects humans) than paradox. This works because like all natural systems, the feedback loop has enough delay attached to it to allow things to move at a relatively steady pace without devolving into paradox.

  3. Interesting post.

    I’d say there was a bit of a class thing involved here too. I went for one of these things too last year, and it’s interesting how most of the people involved/participating in this turtle walk exercise are all upper middle class and anglophone.

    Environmentalism is a bit of an upper middle class thing, isn’t it? I’m not saying it isn’t important to the ‘lower’ classes and such, but for them, it’s more of a question of the destruction of the environment resulting in tangible livelihood losses (the chipko movement and such).

    But for the upper middle class, it’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint what their “terminal values”, as you call them, are. Could it be a subconscious way of assuaging guilt over the fact that they’re probably the ones who benefit the most from the ‘big city lights’, which lead the poor hatchlings astray in the first place, as we are told?

    Of course, all the ironic deconstruction aside, I too, a fully paid member of the upper middle class, found the walk a lot of fun. 🙂

  4. Oh, there’s certainly a class thing involved, but that’s a whole other post. 🙂 Partly because it doesn’t really matter for this specific argument. Assuaging guilt is probably a valid reason for those who go on these walks, but it’s pretty far from being a “terminal value”, actually. I mean, you can get technical about it and read the linked post for what is actually a fairly mathematical definition, but that should be obvious anyway: would you really put it on the same level as “sanctity of life”?

    “Of course, all the ironic deconstruction aside, I too, a fully paid member of the upper middle class, found the walk a lot of fun. 🙂 ”

    Lol. Ironic deconstruction aside? 🙂

    And 😦 , why don’t you blog no more?

  5. No, we didn’t, unfortunately. Nobody even said anything about the noctiluca scintilllans. Praks DID pick up a glow-worm, which unfortunately stopped glowing right after. Guessing that’s not what you meant, though?

  6. Yeah, nature takes care of paradoxes in its own way. That’s why the chicken is actually born and not stuck thinking whether it should wait for the egg to be laid! 😀

    The paradox is in our heads :). It is an attribute used in human logical language. I might be speaking non-sense here, but the idea is that nature doesn’t give a damn to paradoxes, its we who do (mostly coz we are vetti)!

    I saw and caught Noctiluca scintillans !! They are wonderful! I wanted to bring some home before I figured out that it was futile as they would soon die.

  7. I’d disagree. I’d say things like guilt, shame, possibility of hooking up with cute left liberal activisty chicks, peer pressure etc. can be very powerful motivators, sometimes much more than other, more ‘rational’, arguments.

    Ram Guha said something related that I found interesting (I forget where), he remarked how, for the upper middle class (UMC for short), ‘environmentalism’ itself, is a very desirable consumable. It’s hip, requires time and resources (which someone from the UMC would have more of), and also showcases your awareness (which would politely hint at your {high} education procurement levels).

    I think for ‘environmentalism’ to work (i.e. to actually save the environment), they need to asking difficult questions like the ones you’re asking here: does it make sense to trade off the potential economic upliftment of impoverished villages in Orissa, so that the Olive Ridleys remain ‘untouched’?
    Don’t save Olive Ridleys because it’s “what has to be done”; but because it makes rational, economic sense to do so. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the best we can do is try and make the turtles stay as comfortable as possible under the given constraints (whether by opening hatcheries or genetic engineering), and hope to god, the Environmental Kuznets Curve works. That would sort of fall in with Option a, I guess.

    And I haven’t quit blogging for good, just been exceptionally lazy.

  8. @bitterq:
    True, but the thing is, I don’t think it holds for those who started this thing in the first place/are seriously doing it now, like the guy I talked about, especially considering that there are people from the fishermen community etc. who are also a part of this.

    Ok, so that’s pure conjecture. Maybe you’re right. But I’m sure there must be more than a few people the world over who exhibit the sort of mindset I talked about, even so. I’d go so far as to say that Arun falls into this category, although I have no real knowledge of his motivators.


    Don’t save Olive Ridleys because it’s “what has to be done”; but because it makes rational, economic sense to do so.

    My point of view as well, really. NOT shared by that many, I think, especially those who view environmentalism as some sort of transcendental, idealistic activity. 🙂

  9. @bitterq:
    Random thought in the shower…you realize that all the motivators that you quoted are based on the terminal value of hedonism? Even the guilt and the shame and the peer pressure, because the implication is that they’re doing it to get it over with and return to their hedonistic lives. Which is fair enough, I suppose, if…hypocritical.

  10. turtle walks may be considered one of the mightiest step to conserve the sea creatures. one might be at the logger heads to find the endangered species of turtle like green turtles and leather back during the long walk .

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