Toward a Humane Environmentalism

A new analysis in the journal Biological Conservation calls for reform.

To many environmentalists, animals are judged worthy of activism on their behalf in relation to how useful they are to humans or how many members of their species exist. There is no objection to taking the lives of animals such as crows, raccoons, or rats; species that are plentiful or have no material value to humans. Yet if there are limited numbers of a species humans have traditionally exploited, or if a species is threatened with extinction, environmentalists advocate that we adjust behaviors negatively impacting their numbers.

For instance, some non-profit organizations have mounted campaigns encouraging the public to eat only fish caught in accordance with their “sustainability” standards. These organizations are seeking to ensure the continuation of certain species not because they believe individual fish deserve our respect but because some species, those which historically have been exploited as food, are being pushed to the brink of extinction by what they call “overfishing.” Ultimately what they want are limitations on how many animals of certain species can be killed. Killing is acceptable so long as it falls within certain parameters. In other words, they want to make sure we don’t kill all the fish so that there will be some left to kill indefinitely. That is the essence of the environmental philosophy which predominates today, but is this really what “environmentalism” should be?

Three University professors are claiming that it shouldn’t be. In fact, they argue that it is that very thinking that has utterly failed in its mission to prevent “massive declines” in trees, plants, and animals and allow what they term the “biological annihilation” of animals to continue and in many ways accelerate. Writing in the journal Biological Conservation, they conclude that the central failing of modern “conservation” is three-fold. First, as noted above, it focuses on species, rather than individuals.

Second, it puts humans at the top of a vertical hierarchy, rather than “alongside” other Earthlings, because it fails to acknowledge that the well-being of both can “be equitably considered simultaneously: and implemented alongside one another.”

Third, and as a corollary to the second, it focuses on their value to people by perpetuating the harmful idea that we should view animals as resources;  their value determined by expediency and our material gain, rather than as individuals with rights to exist independent of their usefulness to humans.

As such, modern environmentalism/conservation has more in common with the industries it blames for environmental problems than its proponents care to admit. And, unlike other social movements, it lacks a moral center of gravity from which its tenets and advocacy are derived. It has yet to evolve into what it should be: a rights-based philosophy; one that seeks unequivocal protection for the earth’s non-human inhabitants not only because they have a right to such but also because a truly respectful, harmonious relationship with them and with the environment of which they are a part is simply not possible so long as we continue to kill them.

The authors suggest we abandon the flawed concept of “conservation” and move towards the more equitable embrace of “preservation,” granting non-human animals legal rights via trustees to speak on their behalf in court. They argue we should do the same for future generations of both humans and non-humans. Doing so would create a kinder, gentler way for humans to meet their needs; one that does not rely on exploiting our fellow creatures or the plundering of the Earth that comes with it.

There’s a fourth failing to modern notions of “conservation,” which the authors did not mention but which deserves attention: the hijacking of the environmental movement by the violent philosophy of Invasion Biology. Worse than simply failing in its proffered mission, the environmental movement has actually become harmful. “Conservation,” under a nativist agenda, now means killing. It also means poisoning. It means clear cutting trees and ripping up plants. There was a time when the environmental movement sought to protect animals and plants from chainsaws, traps, poisons, and guns. Now, it uses those very things against animals and plants it deems “non-native.”

“Non-native” and “invasive species” are terms that have entered the lexicon of popular culture and become pejorative, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are language of intolerance, based on an idea most of us have rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings — that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of ancestral origin.

As such, nativism is hypocritical. People are also “non-native” to North America. People belong to a species that is the most “invasive” the planet has ever experienced, causing virtually all of the environmental destruction. And yet for reasons based entirely on narrow self-interest, they do not hold their own actions to the same standards which they impose upon plants and animals.

Nativism is also unscientific. Each species on Earth, writes Biology Professor Ken Thompson,

has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface: But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible, since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.

This never-ending transformation—of landscape, of climate, of plants and animals—has occurred, and continues to occur, all over the world, resulting from a variety of factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, evolution, natural selection, migration, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids. The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant to life on Earth, and that is change.

When an agenda has means and ends that are identical to timber and chemical companies, when it is based on methods which the environmental movement was formed to fight against, and when it calls for destroying wildlife habitats, clear cutting trees, and pouring poison in the environment, you can call such a plan many things: foolish, short-sighted, dangerous, tragic, heart-wrenching, and cruel, but the one thing you can’t call it is environmentalism.

To be authentic, environmentalism must be grounded in a foundation of individual rights. A true environmentally-friendly society would seek to meet the needs of humans through the least destructive and most non-violent means we can imagine. It would no longer allow animals to be regarded as “resources.” It would interfere in the lives of other animals as little as possible, grant protection to the habitats animals need in order to thrive, and, above all, be guided by the principle that respect for sentient life is paramount, irrespective of the species which that life is manifest.

I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating:

On a tiny planet surrounded by the infinite emptiness of space, in a universe in which life is so exceedingly rare as to render every blade of grass, every insect that crawls, and every animal that walks the Earth an exquisite, wondrous rarity, it is breathtakingly myopic, arrogant, and quite simply inaccurate to label any living thing found anywhere on the planet which gave it life as “alien” or “non-native.”   There is simply no such thing as an “invasive” species.

The article, “Just Preservation,” in the Nov. 2018 issue of Biological Conservation, is available by clicking here.


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