Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2013: (Actually published on November 20,  2013.)

 Ignoring Nature No More:  The Case for Compassionate Conservation Edited by Marc Bekoff The University of Chicago Press,  Ltd.  (427 East 60th St.,  Chicago,  IL 60637), 2013. 456 pages.  Paperback $38.00.  Kindle $19.89.

When I was a child,  the Earth seemed huge and full of exciting places where wild animals roamed,  where as yet no human had set foot.  There were only three billion of us back then. Feeding us all seemed to be the main problem.   Our population has now more than doubled, and all seven billion of us want a lot more than just adequate food.  The exciting places of my childhood reveries are now tiny corners.  The animals there are in dire straits.  “Simply put,  there are too many of us,”  writes Marc Bekoff in his introduction to Ignoring Nature No More,   “and we overconsume in the most selfish and unjust ways,  influencing both nonhumans and humans.” As concern for our exhaustible planet has grown,  so have the divides among those who see nature as a mere provider of services to humans;  those who see ecosystems, populations,  and species as things with value in their own right;  and those who focus on the rights and/or welfare of individual animals. Bekoff in Ignoring Nature No More has gathered 26 essay by scientists from all these factions and from many fields,  including biology,  psychology,  sociology,  social work, economics,  political science,  and philosophy.  As we look for solutions, Bekoff argues, we must include compassion for the animals concerned––not just as populations and species,  but also as individuals. The first section of the book explores ethics.  Eileen Crist’s “Ecocide and the Extinction of Animal Minds” takes us through 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes’s supercilious view of animals as mere machines,  and the disastrous consequences this has had for animals.  Crist rebutts Descartes with strong arguments for regarding animals as “acting meaningfully,”  with qualities of what philosophers call “agency.”  Crist’s essay illustrates a paradigm shift that Bekoff,  primatologist Jane Goodall,  psychologist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and others have been arguing for decades,  advancing some of the less noticed contentions of Charles Darwin.  It is not the scientist who claims animals have thoughts and feelings who is non-scientific,  in the Darwinian view,  amplified by Crist,  but rather those who claim otherwise. [pullquote] As we look for solutions, Bekoff argues, we must include compassion for the animals concerned––not just as populations and species,  but also as individuals.[/pullquote] “Talking About Bushmeat,”  by Dale Peterson,  takes us on a stroll through an African bushmeat market,  analyzes how many humans bushmeat could sustainably support, and discusses the ethics of eating animals who are “significantly aware or [have] a clear psychological presence.”  Peterson refuses to eat them. Responding to the reproach that he is a rich westerner criticizing the African poor,  Peterson makes the point that the bushmeat industry has become commercialized and no longer serves the ordinary African.  Rather,  the bushmeat industry is removing animals from local peoples who subsisted modestly on them for millennia,  in order to cater to urban elites with a hankering for nostalgic luxury food. “This reverse Robin Hood scheme––stealing subsistence wealth from the rural poor to give monetary wealth to the urban elite––is nowhere more obvious than among the most dispossessed of all,  the forest specialists sometimes known as pygmies,”  Peterson says.  Peterson describes how pygmies starve in their villages as professional traders sell chimp hands and heads in cities for up to $5 per kilo (2.5 times the average daily income in central Africa). “Choice,  not hunger,  sustains the bushmeat industry,”  Peterson writes.  He concludes that giving people some other way to earn a living is the only solution that will really work for the animals concerned.  

How conservation works

Part II of Ignoring Nature No More discusses how conservation works in practice. There are detailed examples of how removing or adding one species to an ecosystem can result in a cascade of unintended consequences.  One essay explains how non-lethal coyote control reduced predation on livestock without poisoning the environment.  Another argues that it is essential to understand the social structure and individual personality traits of animals if reintroduction or translocation projects are to be successful.  Other essays compare the effects of human hunting on animal populations to the effects of predation by wolves,  and on a broader scale,  discuss the evolutionary impact on wildlife of human hunting preference. Phillip J. Seddon and Yolanda van Heezik discuss what they call the “shifting baseline syndrome” as an explanation for public indifference to the loss of biodiversity.  “We now realize that the environment encountered in childhood becomes a baseline against which future degradation is assessed,”  they write.  “This shifting baseline syndrome leads to a ratcheting down of expectations as people don’t realize what has been lost but accept the highly modified and depauperate environment that surrounds them as normal.”  Seddon and van Heezik argue for wildlife reintroduction programs,  but favor a shift in the focus of conservation programs from protecting large charismatic species to protecting keystone species,  including honeybees and beaver.  At the same time,  Seddon and van Heezik remind us that we must accept inhabiting a human-modified world,  that there can be no return to an imagined pre-human pristine state. Sarah B. King expands on the shifting baseline syndrome in her piece,  commenting that “The current generation of young scientists has been referred to as ‘afraid of nature.’  Due to their being brought up in an environment where most play was indoors,  they have had little exposure to wilderness,  and so perhaps they have a magnified view of its inherent risks.”  King says we need to revive direct field observation,  in place of addiction to the use of collar tracking and trail cameras,  which capture only geographical movement,  not fine details of behavior.  King moves to the concrete,  contrasting failed and successful reintroduction projects for wolves and for Przewalski’s horses.  Successes came only after scientists accepted the need to observe individual animals and their personal narratives,  and to understand subtle behaviors such as mate choice,  dispersal,  and the social structure of groups. Liv Baker picks up on this thread in “Why Individuals Matter.”  There is a reason why natural selection has given animals individual personalities.  Since affective states and learning both influence an animal’s behavior,  individual personalities and narratives have survival consequences.  Baker writes,  “Mortality,  breeding,  dispersal and partner preference,  as well as disease risk and vulnerability to parasites,  are correlated with individual personality differences.  The low success rates of reintroduction projects have likely been shaped by a lack of attention to individuals.”  Baker gives the examples of how individual personality differences made the difference in actual animal reintroductions. Part III of Ignoring Nature No More covers economics and politics;  Part IV the human dimensions of psychology,  social justice,  empathy and compassion for animals;  and Part V how local culture,  religion,  and spirituality have affected human dealings with wildlife in various countries. All are rich in insight and detail.  All of the authors display a level of intellectual integrity that springs,  methinks,  from genuine concern for combining preservation of biodiversity on our planet with compassion for the animals who live here too.  The authors appeal to the best in us without being soft on our kind,  and there is nary a sign of the political correctness (amounting to outright dishonesty) that is rife in so many other writings on animals.   ––Alexandra Semyonova

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