The Case Against Animal Individualism

Yves here. I am guilty of the kind of behavior that this article criticizes, by supporting the Snow Leopard Trust, which tries to help the endangered species by giving local inhabitants employment like snow leopard conservation and paid crafts work that is designed to be more attractive than poaching.

By John Reid, the co-author (with the late Thomas Lovejoy) of “Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet,” founder of Conservation Strategy Fund, and senior economist for Nia Tero, a nonprofit that supports Indigenous stewardship of vital ecosystems. Originally published at Undark

How should humans care for the beings that share the planet with us? This is one of the defining questions of our time. Between 1970 and 2018, wild animal populations have fallen by an average of 69 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund, due to factors including habitat loss, overhunting and fishing, pollution, and climate change. In that same period, the human population has more than doubled and, by one estimate, now weighs nearly 10 times as much as all undomesticated mammals put together.

A common reaction is the urge to save individual animals. This urge has been validated by generations of thinkers who have argued for the elimination of animal suffering on ethical grounds. One of the latest in this line is the renowned philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, whose recent essaysin The New York Review of Books make an expansive case for human action to protect animals from harm.

In her December piece, Nussbaum proposes that sentient animals should have the chance to live flourishing lives, free of suffering inflicted not only by human activity but also by wild predators. While she acknowledges that “if we tried to interfere with predation on a large scale, we would very likely cause disaster on a large scale,” she still suggests humans should intervene on animals’ behalf — even in the wild, which she describes as “a place full of cruelty, scarcity, and casual death.” The main prescriptions that issue from this approach are surprisingly trivial: Ban tourism that profits from viewing predation; save litter runts; and feed captive animals synthetic lab-grown meat, to name a few.

This kind of thinking is well outside mainstream conservation practice. No major environmental group, to my knowledge, is working in any organized way to thwart orcas, lions, peregrine falcons, owls, and other predators. Scientists dating back to Darwin and beyond have studied natural systems without passing moral judgement on predation or any other mechanisms of evolution and energy transfer.

Nussbaum’s approach, however, is arguably an outgrowth of a less radical, more widely held worldview of animal individualism, characterized by a focus on the rights of specific animals. Highly developed consciousness in many of these creatures is thought to make them susceptible to the sort of suffering our ethical systems seek to avert in human individuals. But individualism — also at the heart of our legal and economic systems — is a terrible guide to stewarding the natural world.

The crusade for individual animal welfare treats wild animals like pets, often reducing conservation to the protection of hand-picked mascots in isolated bits of habitat that are inadequate to safeguard the climate and large-scale ecological phenomena, such as migration. It causes us to look at nature as an assortment of beings with different ethical standings, rather than as intricate living systems that require a lot of space and a tolerably slow pace of change.

Over my three decades in the conservation movement, I’ve learned that the best approaches set out to save and connect natural systems, not specific animals. True, some commercially prized species of plants and animals — mahogany and pangolins, for example — need special protection from overexploitation. But any approach that fails to conserve ecosystems at large scales will fail sentient and nonsentient life forms alike.

A prime example is the Endangered Species Act, the United States’ main biodiversity law, which provides legal protection for individual species when they are at risk of or nearing extinction. The 1973 law was a landmark achievement. But the law only kicks in when a system is already starting to lose species, and it takes a single-species approach to habitat protections. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t prevented the collapse of biodiversity at the population level.

Under the Endangered Species Act, conservation debates have often centered on whether a certain species is worth saving. For instance, measures to protect the Delta smelt — a very small fish endemic to California that most Californians have never seen — have been derided by farmers and politicians, including the 45th U.S. president, for stifling the state’s agricultural economy. Critics argue that the protection efforts reduce water flows to Central Valley farms. What is actually at stake in the debate over the Delta smelt, however, is the health of the San Francisco estuary, the largest in California, which has thousands of populations of wild species and millions of humans inhabiting its shores.

At its extreme, the zealous defense of individual prey animals can provide an intellectual fig leaf to scorched-earth predator control. Government-sponsored killing of wolves, pumas, and grizzly bears throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century eliminated these animals from vast areas of North America to keep livestock safe. An awakening to the ecological and moral costs of the slaughter brought reform to these programs, but the reflex to treat predator control as the solution to ecosystem imbalances persists.

In Canada, for instance, caribou are in trouble. To thrive, the animals need to roam though vast mosaics of forest and tundra shaped by fire, birds, groundwater, and insects, among other things. But these natural systems have been disrupted by roads, oil prospecting, and climate change. (The proposed Ambler Mining District road, should it be approved by the Biden administration and the State of Alaska, may similarly impact Alaska’s Western Arctic Caribou Herd.) Mature forests, where caribou feast on lichen, have become scarcer, reducing caribou numbers to the point that wolf predation might push them over the edge. Having failed to respond to the systemic issues, the Canadian government has been compelled to deal with symptoms, killing wolves to keep the caribou alive.

Pumas, which today range throughout Central and South America and western North America, have also been the object of species-specific policies — both to save them and get rid of them. Research shows the folly of viewing them apart from their systems. Scientists have documented ecological relationships between pumas and at least 485 other species, including mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, plants, and fish. Some of these relationships are with the animals the big cats eat, like deer — an infliction of suffering Nussbaum’s approach would abhor. But the carcasses pumas leave behind feed dozens of species of carrion eaters and diversify vegetation by enriching the soil with nitrogen. Extirpated from their range in the central and eastern United States, pumas are now returning eastward, and scientists say we should let them.

In his 1949 essay “The Land Ethic,” conservationist Aldo Leopold exhorts people to admit all the non-human beings with whom we share territory into our ethical community and to acknowledge the roles various beings play in the ecosystem, rather than focusing on their independent individual destinies. “The Land Ethic” recognizes that the best thing we can do for any individual animal, regardless of whether it is sentient, is love the system in which it’s embedded.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last five years talking to Indigenous peoples — all from cultures that hunt. They live in and around ecosystems their families have stewarded for countless generations. Most of them express a worldview akin to Leopold’s — not as the result of any big epiphany, but as a matter of common sense. Why risk the integrity of the system that feeds you? What is the upside of disrespecting a web of beings that sustained ancestors, provided sounds for your language, and played critical parts in your stories?

One of John Muir’s most famous quotes is “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” One of Shakespeare’s is “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And yet, we sometimes need a fresh reminder that our world is a fabric of dazzling complexity that we must steward with a view of the whole — and with a healthy dose of humility in the face of all that we don’t yet understand.

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  1. Steve H.

    If sponsorships mean making a corporation of each individual of an endangered species, does that mean they are protected as persons by the Supreme Court?

    A little salty here.


    1. Steve H.

      To be clear, the author is undercutting alternative interventions in favor of his own, which seems to be indigenous populations. Which could work, or you could get the worlds biggest casino in the Amazon. Indigenous populations being, on the one hand, as endangered as the species they hunt, and on the other, humans and thus as capable of venal betrayal as anyone else.

      F* feeling guilty. The Other has been ahead of the game enough to sponsor the Gaia hypothesis to obscure their own climate modelling. To set upon alternative means, which may be more appropriate to local conditions, is a sad rhetoric, more akin to poisoning a catalyst than supporting an ecosystem. His ‘best approaches’ haven’t exactly been a flaming success so far. Highly politic to shank your allies.

      1. Steve H.

        And just because this sort of betrayal repulses me to action, I looked at some of his funding. Nia Tero gets a big chunk of funding from the Emerson Collective:

        > In 2004, [Steve Jobs’ widow] Powell Jobs founded the Emerson Collective, a private company structured as a Limited Liability Company,[20] that supports social entrepreneurs and organizations working in education and immigration reform, social justice, media, and journalism and conservation through partnerships, grants, and investments.[3][21] Through Emerson, Powell Jobs owns The Atlantic and a stake in Axios. [Wiki]

        The Atlantic?! What about Axios, frequently linked to on NC? A Neuburger piece that NC linked to about Axios on climate change said:

        > The Axios solutions all come from the neoliberal playbook

        Just FYI.

        1. mrsyk

          Thank you Steve H, nice rant. Yves, in my mind thinly thing you’re guilty of is giving a F. Anyways, this all seems a bit academic for haven’t we already checked our coats and grabbed a table close to the stage for The Last Big Extinction Event?

  2. John R Moffett

    It is not an easy problem to right the wrongs humans have done to nature over the last 10,000 years. There isn’t much that can be done if we continue to develop the world into an urban concrete-scape. My solution would be to turn away from urban development and get more people back onto land on smaller farms not run by big Ag. People need work, and local food production is far superior to big Ag and its chemical intensive monoculture.

    We are guilty in our house of trying to take care of our predators in suburbia because we just can’t stand the sight of a starving fox with mange, or a racoon that is desperately trying to get into a garbage can. But it is a rather hopeless endeavor as the development around us is making it harder and harder for animals in our area to find a place to live.

  3. Carolinian

    So, let’s make a “safe space” for Nature to go with the ones some say we should demand for ourselves? Or is the whole idea just an extension of the old Christian idea of dominion over the Earth and all its creatures with hubristic Humans in the drivers seat? It seems pretty clear from recent events that Nature is still calling the shots and humans with their human nature having a hard time getting a handle on global warming much less the suffering of all our fellow animals. We need to save ourselves in order to save everything else.

    1. some guy

      We need to save everything else in order to save ourselves, because everything else is what creates the survival-matrix ecosystem we live in.

      Interesting circle to try squaring.

      1. Malcolm MacLeod

        some guy: You are, of course, absolutely correct. Kenneth Clark
        opined, “All living things are our brothers ans sisters”. It’s true. M

  4. Aaron

    And again, we arrive at the conclusion that capitalism is not compatible with the health of the planet. Ecosystems collapse and there is really only one solution to that problem (with many possible forms to get there).

    I thought of a good analogy whole reading this. We have our own human based ecosystems in the US. We have homeowners, renters, student debt holders, low wage workers, etc that so make up the larger economic and social fabric of our national society. Most of these groups have problems though, just like many of the individual species that wildlife groups try to protect. And just like those wildlife groups, when a group becomes “endangered” we try to piecemeal inadequate measures together to protect them, instead of addressing the larger systemic issues (in case you aren’t following, that’s capitalism…)

  5. Clark Landwehr

    Projecting monadic individualism onto other species when it doesn’t even apply to humans is compounded folly. We can see what imposing human rights on to our species has done for us: extinction. More craziness…

  6. upstater

    The 1973 Endangered Species Act was truly transformative legislation. And yes, it is plant or animal individualism. An ecosystem approach is far better, but given the political climate, unfortunately unattainable. Consider the ESA along with these other progressive, bipartisan legislation of that era (note how many under Nixon):

    Clean Water Act 1972
    National Environmental Policy Act 1970
    Clean Air Act of 1970
    Wilderness Act of 1964

    There was nothing comparable in the world and I’m somewhat sure that remains the case to the present day. Can you imagine what the US would be like today in the absence of these laws?

    The ESA can be used effectively for habitat protection that is as close to ecosystem protection we’re likely to get. The primary conservation organization I give to is the Center for Biological Diversity. They have a large staff of scientists and lawyers that drag government agencies into court to uphold the existing laws (primarily US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate Endangered Species and critical habitat).

    Once the Powell memorandum was turned into public policy by both parties, it has been game over for anything like the above legislative acts. Given the corrupt neoliberal political climate in which we live, enforcing current laws is all we can do now. The article, unfortunately does not provide any road map beyond current law and is aspirational. Aspiration and hope are fine, but doesn’t equate to change.

  7. some guy

    It seems to me that this article seeks to foster an understanding-prevention confusion between saving particular species of animals as against saving particular personal animal individuals. I wonder what the article-writer’s motives are for working so hard to foster that particular confusion.

    I don’t see the Snow Leopard Trust as trying to foster a sentimental attachment to certain particular named personal individual snow leopards. I understand it from the description to be trying to offer people in the snow leopard zone an economic alternative to strip-mining the snow leopards out of existence at the species-population level. If it is working at incentivizing the people in the snow leopard zone to stop strip mining the snow leopards in favor of doing sellable arts and crafts, and if that is reducing pressure on the overall snow leopard population to where the snow leopard numbers are staying stable or even increasing, then I see nothing in such success to feel guilty about. And if the snow leopard habitat is not being destroyed, then strip mining the snow leopards would be the threat to their survival as a species, and successfully incentivizing the local people to stop strip mining the snow leopards is the exactly corrrect approach to take. And to contribute to.

    . . . ” Over my three decades in the conservation movement, I’ve learned that the best approaches set out to save and connect natural systems, not specific animals. ” Once again, I have to ask what the article writer’s motive is for deliberately fostering the category error between species of animals as against personal animal individual animals? Because this article is quite deliberately and methodically working to create that category error confusion.

  8. Akaysha

    I personally think the key here is to see other non-human animals as the individuals that they are. They are not commodities, and if we want a world where nature can flourish—we must acknowledge and work to dismantle speciesism as far as practical. Besides: animal agriculture is a leading cause for deforestation and is responsible for loss of biodiversity and habitats.

    Our destructive relationship with other animals is fueling pandemics, climate change, and the idea of superiority.

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