To Serve A Glorious Master: The Conservation of Human Arrogance

Wildlife as Renewable Natural Resources

On Saturday, October 15th, 2016, New Jersey wrapped up the first of its two scheduled, lethal campaigns against its resident black bears, reporting a “harvest” of 562 dead bears over the course of six days. The state’s bear hunters had paid, beyond their regular license fees,1 the princely sum of two dollars for the privilege of helping the state to “manage” the bear population, but not all hunters were “successful.” With the “method of take” being bows and arrows (and muzzleloaders for the last three days), some hunters missed their targets or failed to inflict injuries that resulted in a relatively rapid death. As fatally wounded bears dragged themselves out of the woods to die on residential lawns, and countless other escapees experienced unimaginable agony beyond human sensory perception, New Jersey’s decision-makers discussed the question of whether greater efforts should be made to track such animals and allow the state’s “sportsmen” to retrieve the bodies of the “losing team.” State Assemblyman Parker Space, R-24th District, promised to address the issue in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee:

If we can use tracking for finding them, I’m for it, 100 percent. That’s a resource going to waste if you don’t find it. [Emphasis added.]

A resource going to waste.

Swish that concept around in your consciousness, dear reader. Feel its icy coldness, chilled to absolute zero in a vacuum of empathy. Taste its toxic discrimination, aged in vats of self-serving human rationalizations. Question its provenance, its ideological terroir. Feel free to spit it out.

A resource going to waste. Not a living being suffering excruciating physical pain and unbearable emotional distress. Not even a waste of a life. No – a missed opportunity for a human – a well-fed, well-clad, and well-housed human – to put additional food on his table, a rug on his floor, and a trophy on his wall. Whether the human really needs these things, or simply desires them, is not relevant; the human is not required to explain himself. All that matters, in our putatively civilized land, is that a human be able to extract value from something that nature has provided for him.

Owning Nature, Disowning Reality: The Dirty Words That Separate Man and “Beast”

Coyote killing contest

The results of a coyote-killing contest in New Mexico. A wise use of renewable natural resources?

For the Canadian naturalist John Livingston, this anthropocentric notion of wild animals as “resources” was2 the central problem with the way humans “do” conservation. So-called “consumptive users” of wildlife – hunters (“sportsmen”) and trappers – and the professional wildlife managers who cater to them, take it as a given. For them, conservation is all about the sustainable harvest of renewable natural resources, often presented as “wise use.” Allowing animal species to go extinct would deprive humans of the ability to use them, so those animals that men find useful enjoy the privilege of continuing to thrive in a human-dominated world. Species with no apparent use – or those that are perceived as damaging to human interests (as when hunters blame predators for killing “their” elk) “fall through the cracks” or are endlessly persecuted (like coyotes). Thus, hunters boast about their success as conservationists by stating that we have deer and turkey galore, without being the least bit embarrassed by the plight of Florida panthers, grey wolves, or grizzly bears. When anti-hunting protesters wave signs that proclaim, “killing isn’t conservation,” they are told by hunters that they don’t understand what conservation is all about, and, in an important respect, this retort is accurate. Conservation, as practiced in North America, is about killing, and hunters have this in mind when they tell anti-hunters that they pay for conservation. They pay for the opportunity to extract value – in the fullest possible sense – from the “resource.” (Similarly, in the forestry context, as bequeathed by Gifford Pinchot, conservation is about cutting, mining, ranching, and recreation – using the “resource” for human purposes. It is most emphatically not about leaving it alone.) Anti-hunters need to reconsider the assumption that “conservation” is a benign, or even beneficent, term. It isn’t. If the r-word (“resource”) is carved from ice, the c-word is written in blood.

Zion National Park Overcrowding

“Non-consumptive use” of Zion National Park. The National Parks embody the areas that we are supposed to be preserving (as John Muir hoped) rather than conserving.

But hunters are not the only people uttering the r-word. “Non-consumptive users,” as a moment’s reflection about that term reveals, also use “natural resources” and use that terminology. While non-hunters do not kill animals, or seek to extract value from them in the direct sense, their activities can still be extremely detrimental to wildlife. Anyone who has been to Yellowstone or Yosemite in peak season understands that wilderness, in a variant of the “observer effect” in physics, becomes more elusive the more we try to find it. Wilderness, by definition, is the absence of people and their multifarious impacts, not just the absence of people with guns and bows. In a country with a very large and rapidly growing human population, even non-consumptive users need to reappraise their usage of wild places (and the consumption patterns that require ever-increasing levels of resource use). But on a more abstract level, hunters and non-hunters alike generally accept the legal principle that, while wild animals cannot be owned by anyone in particular,3 they belong to the public as a whole, and are managed for the benefit of the public by government. (This is known as the Public Trust Doctrine.) Much of the controversy over how best to manage wildlife then turns on our conception of what, exactly, is in the best interest of people; i.e., what makes people happy today, and what might make them happy tomorrow. This may not be the slightest bit congruent with what makes animals happy, and maintains their status as natural resources that exist for our benefit.4

Dan Richards with Mountain Lion he killed in Idaho

The former President of the California Fish & Game Commission (which has since changed its name) killed this mountain lion in Idaho. Mountain lions had been protected in California since Ronald Reagan was governor.

In our human battles over wildlife policy, state agencies tend to favor the interests of hunters, but even agency critics who favor a much broader, public-interest approach concede that hunting is a traditional, legitimate interest in society, and simply try to limit it by demanding that higher standards of science be met.5 The living beings to be “managed” have no actual representation in these human decision-making processes, naturally. But neither do they have any semblance of virtual representation. For example, New Jersey’s Fish & Game Council, which oversees the Division of Fish & Wildlife (DFW), has a built-in majority of hunters. While two members must have some background in, or knowledge of, wildlife sciences, there is no statutory requirement that they will look at management decisions from the point of view of the wildlife. As a society, never mind as wildlife managers, that thought never occurs to us. We don’t ask the investments in a financial trust how they would like to be allocated, and we don’t ask the animals in our wildlife trust how they would like to be “conserved.” We refer to these animals as assets – things that are valuable to us. The value that these “things” have to themselves or to one another is outside our frame of reference. Even when we mean well, we’re still thinking like humans.

Thus, the words we use to discuss wild animals have become a conceptual prison, the walls of which are erected early in life. This video, for example, made for 5th and 6th Graders by the Fur Council of Canada, distinguishes beavers and foxes from oil and gas principally on the grounds that nature takes too long to make more oil available for us, but kindly produces lots of “young” animals all the time, making them “renewable” natural resources. The underlying assumption that everything provided by the natural world is available for us is as unquestioned as the quality of the last hours of the beaver-as-resource’s life, drowning in his own aquatic home after trying to escape the human’s trap. Oil feels no pain, so why worry about any other type of “resource”? The ‘r’ word, in effect, is wielded as a cognitive chisel, cleaving any awareness of animal suffering from developing human minds.

When people do question such assumptions, they are told – as we were earlier this year by one of Florida’s most prominent hunting guides – that “animals are animals and not some anthropormophised version of themselves.” Seeing animals as an “it” rather than a “who” implicitly authorizes our use of them, perfectly complementing the idea of animals as resources, which this hunter, echoing the logic of the Fur Council, summed up in the following way: “Dead bears, no matter how killed, are still dead and benefit no one.” Like many other hunters, this person called for conservation to be based on “science,” which has become a code word (the s-word) for the peculiar science practiced by managers who calculate sustainable harvest rates and monitor hunter satisfaction and participation. A rare few admit that the “science” practiced by state agencies is frequently terrible, ignoring everything we know about ecology. However, this constant back-and-forth about the “best available science” needs to go one step further – if it can overcome the pernicious influence of the r-word. The s-word could ultimately become a snare for consumptive users and the agencies that pander to them, because a large and robust body of peer-reviewed, hard science – not the Facebook posts of “animal rights extremists” or “anti-hunting terrorists” – has shown conclusively that animals are not just conscious but sentient. These “renewable natural resources” are individuals, and they are, in fact, a lot like us, as the marine biologist Carl Safina explains:

By banning what was considered anthropomorphic, the behaviorists [scientists who studied animal behavior but discredited inquiry into possible mental or emotional causes for that behavior] institutionalized the all-too-human conceit that only humans are conscious and can feel anything. Peculiarly, many behaviorists — who are biologists — ignored the core process of biology. Each newer thing is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed for earlier models. We inherited them.

Humans have human minds. But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons. Of course, we can’t see the minds of ravens or whales (or humans). But we can see their nervous system. And we see the workings of minds in the logic and limits of behaviors. From skeletons to brains, the principle is the same. And if we were to assume anything, it might be that minds, too, exist on a sliding scale…. I am here to say that attributing human emotions is the best first guess about what animals are experiencing.

This idea of inheriting “parts already in stock” is a reference to Darwin’s notion of evolutionary continuity. For Safina, the science is clear that “our inner lives are quite similar to and no more important than the inner lives of, say, cranes or orangutans.” Before we go any further then, let us use our end of the mental sliding scale to visit the other side of the curtain wall that has been erected between us and our “natural resources.” If the inner lives of, say, New Jersey’s black bears, are similar to ours, and just as important as ours, perhaps it is high time we imagined how they might feel about being “conserved” by us. Are these feelings susceptible of translation into terms we humans might understand?

An Interview with A Renewable Natural Resource

Well, first of all, thank you, human, for finally giving a crap about how we feel, and what we think. We’d been wondering when “the best bear scientists in the world” might notice that we’re a little bit more complicated than “stomachs on legs.” All that poking and prodding finally paid off, eh? Good job!

OK, so let me get this straight….

We’ve lived here for, what, about four million years? We’ve gone through all kinds of challenges and ordeals – ice ages, volcanic eruptions, saber-toothed tigers, giant wolves. (Fancy yourself as an “apex predator” do you? Bwahaha! Back then, you would have been a snack.) Then you people show up about 400 years ago (hey – welcome to America, by the way!) and now we “belong” to YOU? Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is?

Seriously, who the hell do you think you are? You waltz in here, hoist some colored cloths, and tell yourselves that all the magnificent forests, the vast prairies, the clear streams and mighty rivers, and all the plants and animals that called these places home long before your ancestors came out of their caves – that all of this was “put here” for YOU? I know you’re not going to let me call you “illegal immigrants,” because, by the powers vested in you by your own delusions, you make “The Supreme Law of the Land.” (Wait till the Yellowstone caldera explodes again. We’ll see how supreme your laws are then.) So let me put this in terms you might just understand: YOU DIDN’T BUILD THIS.

Sequoia National Park

Everything you “built” came at the expense of what we all built without you. Our bison brothers, the great Nation who peopled the plains, cultivated the soil that now feeds you. Did you ever think of thanking them for that? No, of course not: you’d rather thank some imaginary friend in the sky than the people who actually did the work. Instead, you wiped them out, except for a token few you kept for novelty meat and tourism. The incredible redwood trees of the Coast Ranges and Sierra? (Yes, our forefathers did used to climb those – and the giant pines of the White Mountains that you took for the ships that brought even more of you here. Oh, how we miss those trees! And we remember exactly where they were.) Thousands of years of natural processes cut down and shredded in the blink of an eye. Don’t you humans have any respect for your elders – for anything besides yourselves?

Apparently not, because look at what you gave us instead. The Mississippi River is full of pig shit from your concentration camps, and God knows what else from your factories. The few great trees left are choking in toxic fumes – a horrible way to die, when you’ve spent centuries purifying the air for every living thing. We can’t go for a proper walk anywhere without getting killed on your roads. Peace and quiet? Good luck with that. The whole place stinks. And you’re going to tell us that we have exceeded the carrying capacity of our habitat? HELLO!

And now, after you’ve comprehensively trashed the place, you call yourselves “conservationists.” You claim that there are more deer, turkey, and – yes – bears, than ever before “in recorded history.”  Well, you can take your history and shove it. Your history is 0.01% of our history. It’s a history of destruction, greed, violence, and stupidity. It’s an aberration, an anomaly, a desecration. Are we supposed to be impressed because, after your initial bloodbath, you stopped short of exterminating every last one of us? Are we supposed to thank you for “conserving” us so you can have a “sustainable harvest” of our children year after year? How would you feel if we “harvested” 20% of your children every year, mounted their little heads on our favorite trees, and debated the tastiest way to consume their flesh? Would you call that conservation (even though your numbers definitely need to be “managed”), or would you call it war?

We know what it takes to survive here. We have proven it, better than almost anybody. (OK, you could talk to the sturgeon in the Columbia River, but you wouldn’t like what they have to say. Fighting off dinosaurs was totally worth it, so that someday – when Big Brains arrived – they could be blocked from their ancestral streams by your dams, and then poisoned by the radiation from Hanford, which you dumped there after making bombs that can blow up the world. Brilliant! No wonder you were put in charge.) The humans who came here before you – the ones who walked here – they respected us as survivors. No, they weren’t as perfect as they make themselves out to be, but they were few in number compared to you, and they never thought they owned the place. BIG difference there, bucko. If you want to have a history like ours someday, you would do well to heed their example. Given enough time, the land might actually recover from the sickness you have brought. We’ve seen recoveries before – we participated in them. Nobody knows more about renewal than we do. Nobody.

Nuclear site in Hanford, Wash.

But my greatest fear – and remember, we evolved in a landscape of fear – is that this disease is terminal. Your “economy” (oh, how deceptive you are with your words!) is a cancer, growing and spreading out of control. So I was wrong with what I said before. No, as individual men without all your tools and machines, you are no match for the predators we have seen (or for us). But as a swarm of men, with all your systems, you are the most fearsome predators this land has ever seen. You do not just prey upon animals like us; you prey upon the land itself, and injure it in ways it has never experienced and from which it can never recover. In the end, then, all you will own is death. Congratulations!

So, you want to know how I feel – what I want to say to you about your “conservation” efforts? There can only be one appropriate response to this question.

Fuck you, human.

***

Ironically, as professional wildlife managers dig in their heels and resist what modern science actually tells us about the living beings they presume to manage, the founding father of game management, Aldo Leopold, offered many hints of what conservation could become if it viewed the natural world as something more than a source of things to shoot. His commitment to the scientific method and his willingness to admit his mistakes – most famously, perhaps, when he recanted his youthful belief that killing predators was good for game species (a lesson that state managers still refuse to learn)6 – suggest that he would have been intrigued, to say the least, by today’s findings, had he lived long enough to read them. Consider, for example, this passage from his Marshland Elegy, written in 1937, but not published until 1949, shortly after his death:

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words…. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene…. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…. [A] crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotguns…. Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions,… the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall… a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.

Values “as yet uncaptured by language”; quality “beyond the reach of words.” At the time of his writing, our language had already included words like “resource.” Indeed, Leopold himself had been largely responsible for the currency of terms like “harvest” in the context of game management. Yet Leopold knew that much of nature – the “biotic community,” as he called it, of which man was a part (despite his best efforts to attain a separate, higher plane of existence) – was not, and never would be, of any “use” to us, in the sense expressed by the Fur Council of Canada. All the parts of that community had earned, by dint of surviving the tests of evolution, a right to exist coextensive with our own; they were co-travelers with us on the same evolutionary odyssey.7 This notion is strikingly similar to a term used by Dr. Marc Bekoff, a leading scientist in the field of animal sentience and an advocate of compassionate conservation, who calls animals “co-inheritors of the earth.”

Wendell Berry referred to Leopold as “the most radical” of our prior conservationists, and “the most needed.” The idea of valuing animals as something other than resources is indeed radical, and desperately needed. But it is not a useful idea for a society that prizes the accumulation of profits built from the extraction of value, be that from the natural world or from human labor. As such, the idea is not likely to be conserved; rather, it will be persecuted as a nuisance, blamed for preying upon the freedom of enterprising Americans to realize their dreams. In such a society, the reverence expressed by Leopold has been monetized, the biotic community being reduced to a provider of “ecosystem services.” We will not save it because it deserves to exist for its own sake and on its own terms; we will save it because it is of use to us. And in so doing, the only thing we are really conserving is our own arrogance.

****

  1. General hunting licenses in New Jersey (for residents) cost $27.50 or $31.50 for bow hunters. Such low fees help protect the sacred principle of “democracy of hunting,” which is far more important to state wildlife agencies than democracy for everyone.
  2. Livingston died in 2006.
  3. This rule is often broken in practice; e.g. by for-profit, canned-hunting operations, and very relaxed rules for commercial trappers.
  4. The scholarship of Joseph Sax, who is widely credited with resurrecting the Public Trust Doctrine and with ensuring that it would not be abused by special interests, includes wildlife under the rubric of “diffuse natural resources.”
  5. One exemplar of this approach is Dr. Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who insists that the guardians of the public’s wildlife trust must follow a “gold standard” of science. Hunters deride this argument as a form of propaganda for anti-hunters, without appreciating the concessions that have been made to their anthropocentric frame of reference.
  6. Idaho’s wolf-management plan, which calls for hunting wolves back to a level consistent with healthy elk herds, cites Leopold with no trace of awareness that he would not have approved. Don’t they read Thinking Like A Mountain any more?
  7. For more on this, see Julianne Lutz Newton’s Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (2006).

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