The Enviro vs. Animal Advocacy Conundrum

It has often been said (by me) that environmentalists and animal advocates have more in common than in conflict and that we should subordinate differences in favor of working together on issues of shared concern.  However, that ideological and practical overlap need not and should not preclude a thorough discussion of underlying philosophical differences.  In the spirit of starting such a dialogue, I offer the following hypothetical scenario.

A fragile and unique island ecosystem is imperiled by the recent introduction of a non-native, voracious and prolific snake.  The snake likely arrived as a stowaway on a ship and has quickly multiplied, preying largely on native birds.  The bird population has plummeted and several species face imminent extinction.  As a result, the entire fragile web of life on the island is under severe threat.  It may not long be able to withstand such a serious and permanent perturbation.

What to do?  One could attempt to extirpate the snake.  Doing so would involve deciding that the survival of the ecosystem is more important than the lives of the snakes and acting accordingly.  This approach amounts to sacrificing individuals for the perceived greater good.  But since when did ecosystemic health become the greater good?  With respect to our own species, we have been known to sacrifice individuals for cause in times of war or other national imperative but have we ever done so (or would we) for the greater good of an ecosystem?  Unlikely.  For example, even if it became clear that the only way to avoid cataclysmic climate change for the entire planet were the immediate elimination of a small percentage of the human population, I calculate the odds of any such deliberate extermination to be zero.  We just don’t do that when the lives at stake are human. (In the interest of simplicity and brevity I am ignoring the myriad issues of international law and cooperation implicated by this example).

Furthermore, in my climate change example, anthropogenic causes clearly underlie the catastrophe.  By contrast, in the island snake illustration, the doomed actors (the snakes) are faultless.  They arrived as a result of human carelessness, have no way of leaving, and, having been involuntarily relocated, must now eat to survive.  Granted, the ecosystem faces irreparable harm as a result of their presence but ecosystems are dynamic; they constantly change and adapt to changing conditions.  Why should thousands of innocents die to preserve the island’s current ecological state?  Would we take similarly drastic measures to stop “natural” evolution on the island if it threatened the birds or another part of the island’s ecology?

Let’s complicate the example still further.  Assume that the snake’s native habitat has been destroyed and that it (the snake) no longer exists anywhere else.  How do we balance the equities now?  The integrity of the ecosystem must now be balanced against the continued survival of an entire species, not just an aggregation of individuals.

Three possible options suggest themselves, none of them good:

1)      Do nothing – either by design or inertia.  This would amount to “letting nature take its course” even though the course itself was laid by human activity.  Risks include the extinction of native birds, a resulting ecosystemic collapse, and, if the snakes cannot find another food source, their eventual demise as well.  Of course, it may be that none of this will occur; the island’s ecology may shift and all (or at least most) of the island’s residents might find a way to co-exist.

2)      Extirpate the snake.  Assuming such an action were successful, it would render the species extinct, a matter of no small ecological import.  In addition, the act of eliminating the snake might itself cause irreparable and devastating harm to the island’s ecology.  And, of course, killing thousands of sentient beings in the name of the grail of environmental integrity remains fraught with all sorts of ethical baggage.

3)      Introduce another dynamic force into the ecosystem (i.e. a predator of the snake).  Such an act will necessarily cause great perturbation within an already teetering ecosystem and its efficacy cannot be predicted.  Furthermore, even if it succeeds, the consequences may be equally severe.  Who knows what will happen once a new predator species is established on the island.  It may decide to prey on something other than the snakes and/or once the snakes are depleted, it may find itself forced to prey on native fauna (much like the snake did).  Plus, isn’t the predator species just a proxy for humans?  Are we not still the ones killing the snakes?

Which of the above options would an animal advocate choose?  How about an environmentalist?  Can the categories of people be so neatly delineated?  Can any proposed solution be termed more ethical than another?  Even a brutal utilitarian calculus does not seem to yield any easy solution.  In addition, how do we account in that calculus for the fact that the snakes (and/or the birds and/or the entire ecosystem) will be punished for our mistakes?

I don’t have any answers for any of this.  Please chime in with your thoughts.  Part of my aim here is to show how the categories of “environmentalist” and “animal advocate” can sometimes complicate more than they explain.  People of one stripe or another may find themselves lining up on opposite sides of where they thought they might be or where their ideological comrades reside.  To me, that reality demonstrates the need to eschew identity politics in favor of redefining the ethical landscape in a way that better acknowledges complexity and encourages collaboration.

David Cassuto

4 Responses

  1. Academic discourse on complex ethical and philosophical issues does not take the place of heuristic appreciation of foreseeable consequences. Take the example of the introduction of the mongoose long ago to the Virgin Islands. The Grand Plan was that these very hardy and voracious creatures (they can take out cobras easily) would deal with the islands’ rat population. The rats weren’t contributing to either health or prosperity.

    Regrettably, no one involved in this project did enough research to figure out that the mongoose and the rat went abroad at different times of the day. So their hunting paths rarely if ever crossed.

    The result-lots of rats and mongooses in the Virgin Islands but the decimation if not extinction of a number of species.

    Personally, I don’t give a proverbial rat’s ass for some of these pests but I hope that scientifically trained men and women are a vital part of the debate on addressing animal issues.

  2. There might sometimes be a fourth option: the Uist hedgehog controversy was solved (to a point) by a combination of fencing to protect the seabirds and relocation of the hedgehogs. Uist is a very special case, though, because hedgehogs are themselves under threat on the mainland (no-one is entirely sure why) and they’re very popular animals so it’s easy to find release locations where they will be welcome.

    One of the oddities of the Uist situation was that it turned out to be enormously cheaper per hedgehog to ship them out rather than kill them.

  3. I don’t think the real problem here is necessarily the ideological rift between environmentalists and animal welfare advocates so much as it is that we have no idea how to fix this, especially with limited resources. The unfortunate fact for tackling problems like these is that humans, even well intentioned and not led astray by ideology in any direction, are very bad at managing wildlife. It’s really hard to do, and there is just no way to anticipate every consequence. Though, assuming there are unlimited resources (which there virtually never are), the relocation strategy seems like the most benign. (I guess you made them snakes to make that seem really daunting:))

    While I don’t think the aforesaid rift is necessarily at work here, I do agree that that rift is very real, and interferes with honest assessments of many problems and contributes to the enormous difficulty (mentioned in your previous post, David) in finding common ground between two committed and passionate movements whose goals seem to be so closely aligned. I used to think it was just because environmentalists don’t want to stop eating meat, and sincere advocacy of animal welfare tends to lead inexorably in that direction. I do still think that that has its influence, but I have come to think it is just pretty much historical.

    These two movements have such extraordinarly different roots, and the fact is is that history matters. To state it in way too simple terms, the modern environmental movement found its origins in the Teddy Roosevelt conservationists, reacting in horror to the devastation of nature by commercial interests, and based in principles of scientific detachment, the obligation of humans to manage nature in order to save it, and the fundamentally important role of hunting, in helping to make people (men?) recognize that they are part of nature and have a stake in it. The modern animal welfare movement found its roots in the early anti-vivisection movement, based in romanticism, the rejection of a detached and ultimately sterile reliance on science, particularly as represented by vivisection, and the significance of emotion (expressed through empathy for individuals) as a source of understanding the world.

    While both movements have moved beyond these early origins, I think there is still a very strong influence from the past found in thinking on all sides. What should not be missed though, in this time of utter peril, is that these fundamentally different world views bring us to similar, though seldom identical, conclusions on so many issues that are crucially important to survival of the planet, and each of its residents. David, I think this quest of yours, to explore and heal this rift, is of fundamental importance.

  4. […] Naess: 1912-2009 I have written and will continue to write about the overlap between animal and environmental issues (and the laws […]

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