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Cartoon guy giving a disapproving nod. Drawing by Brady Dale, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

Opening remarks for universal compassion

So a while back I made a new friend at a party, and here's what we bonded over: animal suffering.

It turned out that he wasn't a Buddhist, but after spending a lot of time in Asia he had adopted a lot of their ethical beliefs. In particular, as much as possible, he felt it was an ethical priority to always try to prevent the suffering of all beings.

I'm right there with him. In fact, it's hard for me to understand why this idea hasn't caught on. That said, as he and I talked, on some level his worldview illuminated the marketing challenge of universal compassion.

Eventually, it became clear that he believed suffering was wrong but that didn't mean he valued the existence of animals at a primary level. For example, he said that if the world ended up being completely paved over, one giant city, a factory for human life and all the animals were gone from its surface, would anything about that bother him?

He told me, no, as long as none of the living creatures (in this case, just humans) were suffering, then that's fine.

It's hard to reasonably have an ethic for dead things (so maybe this is unreasonable), but for me that's the problem. I don't have an answer here. I'm not going to explain this satisfactorily, but I wonder: how do we get to a point where our ethics makes the preservation of a planet that's home to a diversity of flora and fauna a priority. How do we make preserving wildness a fundamental value?

Obviously, I like humans. I think humans are the jam. I mean, I am a human. I like my life. I like my city. I like electric scooters and burritoes and the odd video game, but I don't think we deserve the whole planet. I think much of the planet deserves to be left alone. Not just because it's beautiful and we'll appreciate having it, but also just because it is right to do.

As the smartest most powerful beings on this planet, I believe we're obligated to preserve it.

But I also think we've reached a stage where the very size of our populartion is at odds with an anti-suffering ethic.

Humans can't support our population's need for calories without industrial style farming. I don't see how humans can really co-exist with animals universally until that kind of farming comes to an end. There's a level on which each marginal human requires a certain amount of pain on the part of other living beings.

Beings with feelings and thoughts and experiences. With lives.

I'm just going to say now that this post isn't really going to go anywhere. It's pure blogging. It's the start of some thoughts. It's the old fashioned form of an essay: a try.

I did some reading to help wrap my thoughts around this ethical problem. It started with Margret Grebowicz's essay on large animals having sex in the closed zone of Chernobyl, the land contaminated by the 80s nuclear disaster. It's a meditation on the ways in which many conservationists are very uneasy about these large animals reproducing, because of the ways in which the radiation might warp their genes and cause undesirable mutations.

She does a good job capturing the tension between humans and large animals, pointing out that it's been a bit of a winner take all struggle between us and them for a very long time. She writes, "Megafauna extinctions are due entirely to anthropogenic factors, and may be seen as one continuous process of defaunation beginning in the late Pleistocene."

Worse, even as some humans become enlightened about our responsibility to preserve some of our living neighbors, it turns out we aren't very good at intervening. Grebowicz also writes, "Large herbivores famously don’t breed well in captivity. Not only do they not mate, but artificial insemination programs also have low success rates."

The best thing we can do is set aside a big chunk of land and just let animals there go at it, however they want. It turns out one of the only surefire ways for us to set aside such a zone reliably is for us to fuck up some chunk of land so badly that humans really shouldn't go there any longer either.

But it turns out that we haven't quite given up on being the great bipedal saviors of fauna, particular when they are endangered by our own mistakes.

Some of our worst environmental tragedies haven't been acts of killing, but acts of breeding. That is, in many parts of the world, we will introduce some other animal in order to help with some problem. That animal will reproduce and begin to range all across the land, without any other creatures adapted to compete with it.

In recent years, humans have gotten extremely good at editing specific genes in animals. Next, we think we can actually make genetics into a sort of computer virus. We are getting very close to gene technology that can reproduce itself consistently as animals have sex. Called the gene drive, one of the first applications under discussion for this drive: wiping out problematic species, as Jackson Ryan reported on CNet.

"A world without malaria. A planet without invasive species.

With gene drives, we can tame evolution."

That... doesn't sound appealing. It is complicated though. I confess at times I have thought about whether or not we could deploy, say, tiny drones in Central Park to kill Starlings. The reason? Starlings are an invasive species. Central Park should be filled with lots of birds, but not Starlings.

But running an animal out of a geography it doesn't belong in (even if involves killing it) is very different from wiping out an animal entirely, and it's hard to believe that the gene drive would reliably stop at a border.

And even still, if we accept the proposition that we should have no soveregnty over animals (admittedly, most readers probably don't accept that), then what right do we have to wipe one out of a region? Even if they wouldn't be there if not for our mistakes. After all, given enough time nature will sort it all out. Is it just our own inconvenience?

As I struggged with these topics I wanted to see how the most fervent believers justified their worldview, so I sought out animal rights manifestos. Some of them are nothing more than a list of good things and bad things. That doesn't help illuminate the values the positions are founded upon (also, it's not very future proof).

The best manifesto on the topic that I found was by the Party for the Animals, and I'm going to close on a couple snippets from that. Not because I 100 percent agree (I don't know just what I think yet, to be honest) but because it did the best job of honestly laying out the moral situation:

"Together all forms of life are part of a global ecosystem, which is in a natural dynamic equilibrium. This means that life on Earth is not a peaceful paradise, but instead a permanent struggle in which all parties involved cause suffering to others, even to the death." ... "However, the very same mental development also gives Homo sapiens the freedom to not inflict unnecessary suffering and damage on other organisms as well as members of its own species both today and in the future."

—Brady Dale
February 9, 2019

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