A new proposal is floating through the movement, wildlife intervention to prevent wildlife suffering. If you are new to this topic, you might be forgiven for thinking wildlife suffering is referring to hunting, or trapping, or „pest control“ or car accidents. No, it is not. The proponents of this idea are talking about the, as they call it, „most abundant animal suffering on the planet“, the suffering of wild animals due to interpersonal conflict between themselves, predation and natural hardship. The solution proposed ranges from extending civilizational technologies into the wild to genetic modification of predators so that they become natural vegans. If you think that is a fringe issue, maybe it is, hopefully, actually, but I hear some people are preparing a conference on solely that question in Berlin next year.
I find that thought really odd. Countless cars are driving over, maiming and killing countless animals each day across the world, but we worry about foxes killing moles to eat them in order to survive. Do we need cars to survive? Instead of genetically manipulating foxes to become natural vegans, maybe we should genetically manipulate humans to abhor cars. That would not just save more lives, but probably the whole planet. But the latter is out of the question, isn’t it? And the reason for this runs deep into this debate. Because, as I will argue, I think the underpinning motivation for a call to wildlife intervention is the deeply held belief of human supremacy, human superiority and, especially, the superiority of human technology and civilization. To me it is the opposite: it is human technology and civilization that threatens all life on this planet. Instead of expanding it, it should be curbed.
Wild animal suffering?
As a person, who has been spending 100 days per year out in the wild for the last 5 decades, the idea that life in the wild is callous and violent sounds ludicrous. Well, surely, there is violence, but most of the animals live most of the time a happy life they enjoy thoroughly. The wild is not a place in need of human modification. Instead, most dangers and most suffering is stemming from human encroachment. Actually, I can quote the famous ethologist Marc Bekoff in support of this view. It seems to both of us that those painting the wild as a place of permanent suffering either have a hidden agenda, e.g. need an excuse to hunt as to swiftly kill the poor suffering folk, or have no clue and no personal experience with wildlife. Indeed, if you know only double glazing, you might think without it everyone has to freeze all the time, and without a roof you get wet, and without concrete roads you cannot get on, and without a supermarket you starve.
Promoters of wildlife suffering in need of intervention argue that most animals die prematurely in the wild. Well, that does not say much. Still, most of the animals are most of the time content and happy. That remains the fact. Interestingly, this is nothing we could say about humans in civilization. According to the WHO, depression is the most widespread illness threatening human wellbeing. New Scientist keeps reporting on suicide being the number one cause of death for males below 35 in the UK and elsewhere. On the other hand, all studies ever done on the feeling of wellbeing and contentment among humans point towards the fact that those with the highest pleasure in life are those humans, who live closest to nature, the fourth world societies of indigenous people. And that is true, although there is 1000 times more interpersonal violence amongst indigenous people, and far more people die prematurely due to hazards of a life in the wild. But how many humans in civilization these days starve themselves in bulimia or cut themselves out of despair, how many use drugs to drown their depression, how many are alcoholics? In fact, obesity and diabetes are widespread among humans in civilisation and unheard of in humans of indigenous populations. Would you rather live obese and unhealthy with several heart bypass operations for 70 years, or happy and content in nature but die of a sudden traumatic event? I for one know the answer for myself. Actually, in dogs living in cities depression is also widespread, as well as in cats living indoors. Is it that kind of civilization we want to extend to animals in the wild?
As animals, we are inertly driven to face problems and overcome them. It is this challenge that gives our lives meaning. If technology takes those challenges away, what might at first look like a relief turns into a nightmare. Without meaning life feels bleak and empty. The fate of the native Americans is a case at hand. No inter tribal warfare in those reservations, people get fed and receive social benefits. But where has the will to live gone? Nowhere is more depression raging than there.
The New Scientist reported that of the biomass of all vertebrate land animals, only 3 % are living wild, about 30 % are humans and the rest are farmed animals for human usage. Wildlife, hence, has become a fringe existence due to human supremacy on this planet. And in the West, most of those farmed animals live the most miserable life imaginable, infinitely worse than any life in the wild ever could be. I can testify to that from my personal experience. I had a number of situations in the wild that were nearly fatal. Once I was hit on the shoulder by a rock while climbing a rock face and I had to cope with an openly broken shoulder. On another occasion I fell into a crevasse, again broke my shoulder and unlodged my arm. With such injuries I had to cope for long days in the wild. And it was not too bad. Evolution has prepared us animals for these kinds of things, the rush of adrenalin in a serious trauma accident overwhelms the pain. If you were attacked and eaten by a bear, say, the mere suffering would be minimal compared to what farmed animals in factory farms have to go through. I was once locked up in a prison on remand for 105 days. For a while I was in crowded cells with many other inmates, then I spent days on end in a room with 6 m². Both, I can report, is a kind of suffering that evolution has not prepared us for. Such a close confinement, either in a very small area or with many other animals, just never happens in the wild. The suffering is of a kind we animals cannot cope with. Its the daily routine for farmed animals, though. There is no comparison to suffering for life in the wild.
Why not human intervention?
The argument of the interventionists is based on suffering. If we can reduce suffering with any measure, we are ethically obliged to do that. It seemingly does not matter what that suffering caused. If it is suffering due to a snow avalanche, or because a predator’s need to feed her family, or a capitalist system of oppression, it is all the same. I disagree.
First and foremost, as I have argued elsewhere, we must respect the prime value of autonomy. Autonomy essentially means self-determination, independent of a system based on a monopoly of violence, i.e. a system where individual violence is substituted by laws and an all powerful law enforcement. It is, hence, not an infringement of my autonomy, if I fall into a crevasse and get injured. Or if I kill myself. Actually, being able to do that proves my autonomy instead. Or if I am threatened by a predator.
I, for one, travel deliberately to a wilderness, where I encounter bears. Yes, it might be scary, yes they might kill and eat me. And, indeed, I have met wild bears more than 20 times already, always without a weapon or other means of defence bar my bare hands. That was my autonomous choice. I much rather live with that fear, than without bears potentially predating on me. How empty is a forest without wild carnivores! How dare anybody remove them or consider changing their genetic code.
I am an avid mountain climber too. In the Austrian mountains alone, 1 human dies per day on average, and 15 get seriously injured. Some die of lightening stroke, some get lost in the fog, some fall off rock cliffs, others are hit by falling rocks or fall into crevasses. Should we put a big glass cone around the mountains to make sure the weather is no threat? Shall we cement the rocks to the face so that they do not fall off? Shall we fill all crevasses and put fences in front of every cliff? I think I can safely say that absolutely nobody, who is mountaineering, would favour that approach. Rather have a number of people getting injured and dieing each year than such an intervention!
Amongst climbers it has been hotly debated for a long time, if it is ok or not to drill pitons for safety reasons into rock faces. Most well known might be the debate about the mountain Cerro Torre in Patagonia, Argentina. First, an Italian climber drilled pitons on his first ascent and was reprimanded. Indeed, some other climbers removed those pitons with a saw. After that, the Austrian climber David Lama wanted to get up that rock face with a film team, and for that reason drilled more pitons into it – not to make the climb easier, but for safety reasons only. Again, the climbing community so strongly disagreed that the drilling exercise was called off. Lama agreed with the sentiment of the climbers, as can be seen in his film on the topic, and rather risked injury and death than climb in safety. This proves that avoiding suffering is not the primary concern for humans. Humans want to be able to face a challenge freely, autonomously, without technological help.
For humans, freedom is so important that they sometimes risk their life to get it. Why should that freedom not be equally important for non-human animals? It seems to me pretty speciesist, to think one can decide over and above the will of members of other species for their own good. Would we appreciate a benevolent dictator, who knows better? We would not, we value our free decision, even if it is for the worse for us personally. So, if we do not want that for ourselves, how can we justify to become benevolent dictators for the “poor” “dumb” animals in the wild, who just don’t know any better?
If we put up a permanent surveillance system, with cameras and satellite observations everywhere, maybe even with a GPS-chip, which is put under the skin of every human at birth, would that not curb interpersonal violence? Would it not reduce suffering? It might, but at the same time, it would totally remove our freedom and autonomy. And the latter can never be justified by the former.
Genetic modification of humans is, usually, out of question. Designer babies with brains and bodies according to a wish list of their parents or even the state is the story of horror movies. We have no business to create other beings according to our preferences. And so it must be for non-humans as well.
Human interventions in nature have always been to the detriment of animals. Wherever you go, wherever you look, technology leads to nature receding, wildlife suffering and an ever increasing usage of energy and Earth’s resources. Human made landscapes dramatically reduce biodiversity and lead to the extinction of so many animal species and to the destruction of whole ecosystems. Biodiversity has a non-anthropocentric value, because it is valued for its life support by all those sentient beings living in it. And that should be respected.
Technologies like genetic manipulation and nuclear power have absolutely unforeseeable consequences for millenia to come. Nobody can take responsibility for that. Not all, that can be done, should be done. To the contrary, wherever we allow nature to take its course, we end up with the most stable and long lasting ecological solution.
Background: human supremacy and belief in technology
When I approach wilderness, I do it with utmost respect and humility. That is, because I am aware how insignificant I am, and how totally ignorant of so many things, those beings, who live there, know. In fact, the bears living in the woods have a knowledge, how to survive, which most of us have long lost. My grandmother knew 26 different types of mushrooms for consumption, but had no clue how to handle a mobile phone. Which knowledge is more important? Living in a city is not superior or more complex by any means than living in the wild. Nothing is more complex than wilderness. City life is as simply as it gets. To survive, I only need to open my mouth, somebody will surely stuff something in it. In the wild, most of us would very soon starve to death without technological help from outside.
The interventionists seem to see the same wilderness with totally different eyes. They see hapless, suffering, ignorant creatures in dire need of human enculturation. A bit like the old explorers looking at the indigenous populations of humans they encountered. They needed missionaries to see the light, and civilization, central heating, a police force, and technology. Which indigenous population actually profited from Eurocentred cultural imperialism?
The essence of the interventionist ideology is human supremacy. A deep feeling that we humans are the best beings and all others should strive to be like us, and those poor beasts, who can’t, need our helping hands to be as close to being human as possible. A world designed by humans, nature reduced to a man made garden, animals like human made robots. That is a world I would never want to live in. Actually, looking from the point of view of ecology, humans are the greatest pest on Earth, not its Saviour.
Combined with this human supremacist thinking, interventionism is based on the uncritical approval of progress and technology. Usually, it comes with perceiving sentience as some computer program, so that technology will soon supersede it. For reasons I cannot fathom, interventionists consider today’s human society as the very best in history, and the near future as even better. And that, even though the Earth and its inhabitants are at the very moment being irreversibly destroyed by the very same society, by land destruction, climate change, the biggest mass extinction of species ever and all the other forms of environmental pollution. Never ever have so many sentient beings suffered so immensely, as today in factory farms worldwide. This is the real face of so called progress. Who in their right mind wants to extend this system to the remaining bits of wildlife, short of wanting to remove it from this planet?
Some might say that these ideas are just academic. Is there any interventionist actually getting active? I hope not, but you never know. Actually, the Austrian hunters blow in the same horn, consider wilderness in need of human gardening, and claim that wild animals are better fed and then shot dead by them than suffer, as is supposedly the lot of all animals in the wild. The truth is the opposite. Animals should be left to organize their lives freely and independently of human intervention. Animal liberation means liberation of human supremacy. And indeed, practice shows that they are better off doing so in every respect.
Dignity is the respect a being is afforded for his or her own free will. Dignity is the value that cannot be converted into cash, the philosopher Kant said. Is that not a value we should attach to sentience? Dignity does not have to be a religious or metaphysical notion. It can be filled with meaning based on a scientific world view. Indeed, the Swiss constitution is talking of “the dignity of creatures” that needs to be respected and it might well be that this would be the best approach to take for the animal advocacy movement in the future. Because it is the dignity of beings that should prevent us from designing them as we wish and molding the world to our preference. The dignity of wild creatures independent of human intervention.