Suffering and Intervention

The topic of interventionism in nature for one reason or another has been a long-standing subject of debate for a very long time in environmental ethics and political discussions. To this day that are those that view intervention as a dichotomy, that one must either be for all intervention or against all intervention on principle. The reality of course is that there are many cases of intervention in nature going very wrong, such as the introduction of cane toads in northern Australian, or the eradication of Wolves in large areas of north America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Both acts that are horrific examples of human hubris when it comes to the management of nature. However, there are some examples where intervention has served nature well, such as the reintroduction of Wolves into Yellowstone national park to help control the populations of large herbivores such as elk and mouse. I am not here today to defend either side in this debate, except to point out that any intervention, be it by conservationists, or by the agriculture or mining industry should be very carefully considered in all cases.

One common and growing strand of the animal rights movement focuses very extensively on the suffering of animals, particularly as it pertains to human action and use of these animals. Of course, several things are often overlooked in this discussion in favour of blind obedience to an ideal, but nevertheless it serves as a very common basis for extending moral consideration to at least some species of animals. While I am not in favour of the exploitation of animals especially given that there is absolutely no necessity to do this in most western countries, the idea that the consideration of animals is based on their capacity to feel pain and to suffer presents with it a great deal of problems. One which has been pointed out (see Horta 2010) is that life for most animals in wild nature is true to the Hobbesian view that existence under these conditions is “nasty, brutish and short”. As such many Animal rights activists use this as a potential justification for advocating for intervention in wild nature to reduce the suffering of wild animals.

This view is often presented and though of as follows. An elk will have its calf and within a very short space of time if the calf is very luck (if it manages to avoid predators, if it avoids becoming sick) then it will grow us and become a member of a large heard of elk where it will live a life constantly on alert for predators and constantly moving around in search of food. For a great many elk, they simply do not survive the first stage of life and are take by predators or they succumb to sickness or lack of food if conditions are not just right for them. For the elk it is a sad picture that is painted here, and it is one that many animal rights activists use to claim that we should help reduce suffering in nature as much as possible. What is not clear however is exactly how this would be implemented – nor is it clear that we should expend the resources necessary to effectively help in this regard. Of course, this is just the picture of the elk, what about the other thousands of animal species that suffer equally as cruel a fate. I am not saying that suffering in nature is not sad to watch, but there is another side to this suffering – what about the starving Wolf who must consume meat to survive? Who are we to condemn that creature to death by denying it an easy mean in a young sickly elk that simply cannot keep up with the rest of the heard? To act to reduce suffering in nature is fraught with problems, the existence of predation means that animals can and do have competing interests and to act in the reduction of one animals suffering is inevitably to cause suffering to another.

It is simply not a complete picture of nature to take the picture of the elk painted above as the whole story. Suppose we view the same story from the predator’s perspective. A hungry Wolf has been roaming for days in search of a meal, its cubs starving back at its den, its partner on its last legs as well, this final hunt will consume the last of her energy as she searches for something to eat not just for her but for her cubs and her mate who is diligently guarding the den from coyotes who equally need a meal to survive. No suppose the wolf finds a young elk that is significantly slower then the rest of its heard but is otherwise quite healthy. How does intervention to reduce suffering look in this picture which is the reality of wild nature? It is not good or bad, it just is – and it is an extremely beautiful and tragic process that we can and do hold to be something tremendously valuable. To intervene in wild nature would be to turn this scene into a controlled environment – all because of our sentiment towards suffering. We would lose something very valuable by going down that road – indeed conservation in general would lose its vigour and value because to act to prevent events such as those described would be to humanise and anthropomorphise nature. Suffering for an individual animal is not a good thing, but in nature it is a part of life, and is itself a beautiful and tragic thing at the same time.

Another consideration is the idea of what happens when populations grow to unsustainable levels such as that of Elk in Yellowstone in the 1980s? Do we intervene and keep feeding the Elk to ensure they don’t starve allowing them to keep breading towards even more unsustainable levels? In nature unlike in agriculture the Malthusian problem is extremely prevalent and important for understanding animal population levels. Malthus argued that populations find stable levels and tend to operate within a constraint between periods of starvation when numbers get too high, and over breading when numbers get too low. When numbers are high food runs low, and starvation ensues and when numbers drop food becomes plentiful and populations tend to over compensate due to the abundance of food. Now this is a little different in agriculture where we have developed methods for gathering more food with the same amount of land through technological developments, but all life is nevertheless bound within a band like this. One objection is often pointed out is that we will operate in the case of humans to prevent starvation, so why not animals? This is a debate which has preoccupied thinkers in this area for a long time and it is something I will explore as we go on.


Note: I am currently working on a larger paper at the moment so I do apologise for the reduced amount of content. I will probably remain a little scarce for another week or two, before hopefully getting back into a good blog writing routine again.

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