2013-07-17

Are Animals Better-Able To Care For The Environment Than Humans?

Ripped from the pages of the Google+ Philosophy community, Parthasarathy Murugesan asks whether animals are wiser than humans when it comes to protecting nature.

Murugesan answers in the affirmative, but he may not realize that his answer is embedded in the way he poses the question. What I mean is that, from the human perspective, animals are a part of nature. One may as well ask whether cookies are better than humans at upholding the interest of snacks. Indeed they are, but what does this mean?

Regarding The Question
Part of the problem with all perspectives on "the environment" is that they contain a few problematic assumptions that imply by their very existence that everything human beings do runs contrary to the "interests" or "well-being" of nature:
  • First, that the difference between "the environment" and "not the environment" is equivalent to the difference between "not-human" and "human." Every human action is by definition not an act of nature; every state of nature is by definition a state virgin to human action.
  • Second, that non-humans have never decimated a state of nature or eradicated a non-human species.
  • Third, that on those few occasions where it may have occurred, the ultimate culprit was human action, and thus humans are really at fault.
  • Fourth, that what is in the best interest of nature is a perpetuation of the present set of circumstances.
This first point is as I described before: If we define nature to be that which is absent of human influence, then every conceivable influence humans exert on the environment is destructive by definition. Why are we applying a different standard of analysis to human action than to any of the other forces that impact nature? Because, when we consider what's best for the environment, we are biased against humans, that's why.

The second point is factually incorrect. Species came into existence, and expired, long before homo sapiens walked the Earth.

The third point is really a special case of the first point. If a bird carries a seed in its beak to an island from the mainland, and that seed germinates in the island's soil, then it is undeniably true that the bird has introduced a foreign species into the island's environment. If that species proves highly successful, then it can be considered an invasive species - but what environmental activist would ideologically consider this to be an invasion? Most would consider such an event "natural." Yet, when humans do more or less the same thing, it is considered "environmental destruction." Why the different standard of analysis, depending on the actor?

The fourth point is invalid because it demonstrates a lack of awareness of nature. Nature is in a constant state of flux; what is true of the natural world today will not at all be true tomorrow. There is no particular reason to assume that the disappearance of a species is "bad" for the environment. The disappearance of predators or parasites is good for their prey, for example. Evaluating these changes means choosing sides among the multitude of competing interests found in nature. We may have opinions on this, but we will never know the "truth." It's a value judgement. Humans tend to prefer bunnies to spiders. The interests of neither trump those of the other.

Regarding The Question's Answer
Animals have no understanding of what is good for the environment and what is not. Animals have no concept of "good" at all. 

For example, animals quite regularly commit acts of rape. Animals are not saints, nor are they children. They are violent, amoral beasts that exist in a violent, amoral world. On occasion a species has wiped out another species. Left to their own devices, bacteria would happily destroy all of us. It is their basic need to feed off of our bodies and replicate. The matter is not so cut-and-dry.

The only significant differences between human action and bestial action are: (1) humans attach ethics to their actions, unlike animals, and (2) humans have developed tools designed to satisfy any number of human needs.

Based on my point (1), humans appear to be far wiser than other animals regarding any action. Based on my point (2), it seems to me that an argument against the wisdom of human action is an argument against technology. Indeed, I know many critics of technology, but all of them draw a line somewhere. No human being wishes to exist in a world without technology. Thus, all we are really talking about is at what point the development of technology becomes "unwise."

Well, so long as people are starving and miserable, I submit that all technological development is justified by both ethics and wisdom. The environment may indeed change in response to new technologies as a consequence. But which starving man should die to save the environment? Which sick woman should grow sicker for the sake of the animals? Which of us should give up our daily entertainment for the sake of the ocean tides?

Like all species, humans impact their environment. Unlike other species, we think about it. This makes us wiser than the beasts.