Who Is Nature For?

Efforts to “preserve wild spaces” and “protect biodiversity” often show a curious lack of interest in the actual lives of animals.

Conservation often relies on two competing approaches: the “wise use of nature,” and the “preservation of nature.” The wise use of nature presents a clear objective—humans need resources from the natural world, and we ought to acquire and use those resources in sustainable ways, so that future folks don’t have to live without the benefits we have today. But what of preserving nature? The reasons provided for preservation of nature “as is” are varied, and the arguments behind it can be somewhat opaque. Often, preservation goals are set to keep natural spaces unaffected by humans, or to preserve species to maintain biodiversity. But when we take an approach so set on separating humans from nature, we’re often failing to recognize what might be best for the inhabitants of natural spaces—we don’t ask who we are trying to preserve nature for.

Preserving Natural Spaces Isn’t as Simple as It Seems

Although conservation aims to keep nature “the way it is,” nature is always changing. When we protect a natural area, we are usually forming it to our expectations of what nature should be like. While such projects may do important work to protect biodiversity, we also inject some other values.

A hardline interpretation of “what nature is” doesn’t involve ugly human stuff, like buildings and roads. It also might not involve any human meddling in ecosystem dynamics. Maybe in its purest form, an ecosystem doesn’t have any plants or animals from far away, like invasive species. Acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson argued that we should reserve half of Earth for nature—a human-free utopia where there aren’t any pesky people getting in the way of what is natural.

But this view of nature as separate from people, and preservable independent of humans, is a denial of historical fact. Looking just within the U.S., we often frame “wild” spaces as places that don’t have any obvious signs of human activity. But those claims rest on colonial Europe’s assertion that American land was free to be taken and used, and ignores that humans have lived on and modified the landscape of the U.S. for thousands of years. In reality, the forests of the East Coast, for example, grew over previously developed farming areas after the indigenous genocide that occured following 1492, leading colonists in the 18th century to mistake farmland for wilderness.

Our view of an ideal nature often imagines some time in the ambiguous past where the wild was fully pure and natural, and urges us to return the land to that past. But the moment this idea is examined, it starts to break down. Species have gone extinct at an extremely high rate over the last 100 years, so wild spaces cannot be made up of the same plants and animals that existed in the past. Invasive species are now embedded in these ecosystems and often are impossible to remove, or are even beneficial. For instance, the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher relies on invasive tamarisk shrubs for nesting. The major threat to their continued survival is the Department of Agriculture’s introduction of another invasive species, tamarisk leaf beetles, who destroy flycatcher habitat. And these wild spaces haven’t been free of human influence for tens of thousands of years—in North America indigenous people reshaped lands in many ways, building cities and agricultural fields, and even burning massive portions of the Great Plains to facilitate the bison harvest.

Spaces on Earth don’t have the ability to be purely human or wild. We are a global species in every sense of the word, and have been for thousands of years. We have shaped, modified, and built the natural environment around us, and the local changes we make end up impacting far-away ecosystems. No part of Earth will avoid the effects of human-caused climate change. And some who take this quest for mythical purity too far land on disturbing conclusions, such as ecofascism’s intellectual roots in the Nazi ideology of “Blood and Soil,” which argued for an authoritarian return to rural, environmentally friendly living.

Fostering Biodiversity: A Nice Goal With a Major Catch

We might still pursue conservation in order to foster biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation aims to maintain species. This approach is justified by the interconnectedness of the natural world. Seemingly small changes can have larger ripple effects, so the loss of one species could change the way an ecosystem works—more biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient to changes, making them less likely to collapse. A classic example is Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, which was deforested entirely sometime between the 15th and 17th century. Due to either this deforestation or the introduction of rats by humans, by the 18th century the island was devoid of most animal and plant life.

While avoiding ecosystem collapse seems like a good goal, it should not be the only goal for natural spaces. The view that the best we can aim for in wild spaces is to prevent change has a suppressed premise: that any changes will certainly be bad. But who are these changes bad for? Conservation as it exists today pays little attention to the actual interests or wellbeing of wild animals, like an individual toad, cricket, or giraffe, and instead places value in species. But species do not experience harms—individuals do.

So why are species the basic unit of nature? To some extent, this obsession with species is also a colonial European product, derived from a Victorian obsession with classification. While biodiversity certainly plays an important role in ecosystem function and biodiversity collapse in the short-term might cause a lot of animal suffering, viewing nature as made of species instead of individuals allows us to gloss over the lives of the inhabitants of wild places, and instead focus on an achievable but ultimately flawed metric that turns living beings into little more than tallies on a spreadsheet. While emphasizing the importance of biodiversity helps protect ecosystems, and probably many animals too, focusing on species preservation means that we often ignore the lives of the animals we are trying to protect.

In fact, while conservation efforts might often be good for the welfare of animals, it’s just as often been horrendous for them. In pursuing our vision of what nature ought to be like, we’ve justified absurdities like hunting camels with guns from helicopters and airdropping poison pellets across undeveloped regions to reduce possum and cat populations.

Clearly, something is off in our conservation ethic.

Nature Is for Animals

The weaknesses of conservation ethics are recognized, to some extent, within the community. The compassionate conservation movement attempts to include animal welfare outcomes in wildlife management, such as by stopping the practice of culling (or mass killing) of invasive species, and some conservationists have rejected a strictly negative sense of “invasive species,” recognizing that ecosystems change over time, that new species and species migrations aren’t always existential threats, and that our sense of nativeness is inherently political.

But these ideas are controversial or even at the fringe of mainstream conservation. The conservation project as a whole continues to primarily focus on protecting what we find beautiful and improving biodiversity. These ideas seem to be tied together. We find the diversity of nature pleasant for various reasons, so we want to protect it. There is also a self-interested motivation at play in preserving nature: we are theoretically protecting humans against the negative ecological effects that might occur if biodiversity continues collapsing. But this single-minded focus on preservation has largely neglected the actual inhabitants of the wild. Conservation could take a more transformative approach, and consider not only human interests, but the lives of all beings impacted by nature.

Ultimately, we should focus on making the world better for those who can experience it, both human and non-human—and there are a lot of non-humans out there. Compared to the measly 8 billion humans, there are around 100 billion or so other mammals, 10 trillion bony fish, and 1 quadrillion ants. For scale, that’s about the same difference between an inch (humans) and 2 miles (ants). 

As you can see, there are loads of wild animals whose interests matter, and they do not necessarily share the human experience of the natural world as a pleasant, relaxing, and beautiful place. Wild animals have more predators and diseases. They don’t have shoes and tents and canned food to protect them in the wilderness. They don’t have antibiotics for infections, or casts for broken limbs, or helivacs for emergencies.

And while humans generally have one offspring at a time, and nurture them carefully until they are able to care for themselves, many wild animals take a different approach. You might have seen a parent duck followed by a chain of 10 adorable ducklings in the springtime. If you think the duck population is going to be stable year over year, maybe one or two of those ducklings will survive to adulthood in a given year. The other eight will starve to death, be killed by predators, or die from a disease or injury. For other species, especially the amphibians, fish, or invertebrates that make up the vast majority of animals, you might expect hundreds or thousands of juvenile animals to die for every one that survives. The average wild animal is not the deer that you had a transcendent experience with that one time in the woods. It’s a baby animal dying alone, probably in immense pain, within minutes, hours, or days of being born. The animals we see in the wild are often the exception, not the rule.

It is a spectacular moral failure that we do not act to address the vast animal suffering occurring in the natural world, human-caused and otherwise, and instead focus only on increasing biodiversity and protecting wild spaces. While the current goals of conservation are important, they miss something fundamental: that wild animals are individuals with their own needs and concerns.

One might object to the idea that we ought to reduce the suffering of wild animals by claiming that this is just how nature is, and our moral obligations might not extend beyond ourselves. But, if we applied this same reasoning to humanity, it would justify horrendous aspects of human history. Humans, and especially wealthy humans from wealthy countries, have mitigated much of the disease and other harm that nature put upon us. And we’ve also done it for many animals that we care about, such as our pets. Why should we extend to ourselves and a few other close companions an exception from harms of nature, but not other animals?

So what can we do for wild animals? This question has been neglected by the scientific community. We know almost nothing about how wild animals experience their lives. The first step of improving the lives of wild animals is a lot more scientific research. While conservation biology has been the scientific underpinning of the conservation movement, we now need a new field of wild animal welfare research, sometimes referred to as “welfare biology.” Advocates and researchers in this emerging field look at wild animals as individuals with interests, and work to improve their lives, rather than viewing them as expendable members of populations. Not only do these advocates want to address the direct harms we are causing animals in the name of conservation, like the mass shooting of “excessive” species, but they are working for us to both better understand what the lives of animals in the wild are like, and what we can do to rectify our historical impact on wild spaces.

The fundamental problem facing wild animals is that many survival strategies lead to large numbers of individuals dying extremely young. Most animals live a tiny fraction of their possible lifespan, and probably die painful deaths. Identifying ways to address juvenile mortality without creating new ecological problems could significantly advance our ability to help wild animals, and we already have much of the technology needed to address it.

Consider the pigeons that live in many major cities. These birds have historically been killed by poison or shooting because humans view them as pests. Now, we have non-lethal and non-harmful tools, like oral fertility control drugs, that could help manage urban pigeon populations without the suffering and death these animals currently face.

Likewise, it is possible that quadrillions of insects are killed annually by agricultural pesticides. If these deaths are as painful as they seem, pesticide use might dwarf factory farming in the amount of animal suffering caused by humans. Humans might kill 100 or 1,000 times more animals through pesticide use than meat production. And, unfortunately, the reality of life in the wild is that if we stop using pesticides, these animals might die brutal deaths at the hands of predators, diseases, or starvation. Given that we’ve played a fundamental role in shaping these wild spaces historically, and are in many ways responsible for “nature” as it is today, we are also a part of these systems of naturogenic harm. But we are also a species that has the capability to use technology to reduce these harms. If we applied these technologies thoughtfully, we could put a dent in this vast amount of animal suffering, potentially without massive ecological consequences.

Of course, proposals like these raise complicated ethical questions. It is easy to view wild animals as separate from humans, and an intervention to improve their lives as an interference in their independence. These concerns are well-founded—animals are autonomous creatures, and we should not mistake our capacity to change their lives dramatically as a license to do so. But at the same time, being human is already a massive exercise in interfering in wild animals’ lives. 

If you live in a house, travel on roads, use electricity, or eat food grown in monocrops, you’ve participated in a project of reshaping the natural world to our interests, with little concern for how this project impacts animals. Addressing both the harms caused by humans to wild animals, and going further to improve the lives of animals living in the wild is not only the right thing to do, it is a recognition of the impact we are already having on wild animals. We obviously should not act rashly to improve the lives of wild animals. New technologies that might reduce juvenile mortality, like genetically modified armyworms that if introduced, would reduce the number of animals killed by pesticides by reducing the reproductive rate of insects, come with major risks. We should carefully study any technology that we are considering applying to an ecosystem. But, the same standards ought to apply to the human activity that has led to the ongoing mass extinction in the first place. While introducing a genetically modified armyworm to a wild population ought to come under scrutiny for its ecological impacts, so too should a new subdivision or road that will displace or kill animals.

The goal of respecting animals’ autonomy can cut both ways. While we tend to see a human killing a deer as something very different than a wild disease killing a deer, the deer likely doesn’t care that much about this difference—it probably doesn’t want to suffer or die in either case. And while we shouldn’t interfere in the lives of animals for bad reasons, trillions or quadrillions of animals already have no opportunity to live much of a life at all—they die painfully soon after being born. Failing to help these animals also limits their autonomy.

There are other real ethical questions raised when trying to improve the lives of wild animals. How do we address predators, who need to harm other animals to survive? How do we account for the impact of our actions on ecosystems in the long term? The answers to these are unclear, but we are already making choices that assume answers to these questions without considering them.

When we decide to reintroduce wolves to a region, we are making implicit decisions about the wellbeing of wild animals local to the region who will now be prey for those wolves. When we decide to build a new housing development, we are deciding what the lives of the birds and mammals in that area will be like. When we implement a new public policy regarding urban waste, we’re shaping the lives of millions of animals for whom that waste is a resource. Incorporating animal welfare into our decision making on these projects is a step toward acknowledging the impact we are already having on nature.

Currently, our conservation ethic is shaped not only by our interest in protecting species, but in preserving what we find beautiful. And while this is a fine goal, it ignores the very ugly reality of what life in the wild is like for most animals. While aesthetics certainly matter, we shouldn’t weigh them higher than the lived experiences of animals. There is a way forward for conservation that both protects ecosystems, biodiversity, and other factors important to human life, while also constructively working to improve the lives of animals.

This way forward for conservation might be very different than the conservation we are used to. The first step is to dissolve our understanding of ourselves as separate from nature, and instead see that our actions, and human activities for thousands of years, have fundamentally reshaped and will continue to reshape wild spaces. But that reshaping has happened with complete disregard for the animals who are impacted the most. While we see wild animals as living quietly and peacefully in nature, in reality most might be living brutal, short lives before dying painfully.

In pursuit of a vision of what nature should be like, we’ve left behind something incredibly important—ensuring the inhabitants of natural spaces live good lives. In the same way that a city relentlessly pursuing architectural perfection while allowing poverty and lack of healthcare to abound would be a catastrophic moral failure, protecting an ecosystem while ignoring its inhabitants’ wellbeing is unconscionable.

Nature belongs not only to the human communities who use it, but to the wild animals who inhabit it. We need to recognize the limp ethics implicit in traditional conservation approaches, and replace them with something more compassionate and transformative.

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