Archive for Books

Fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and farm animals

Michael Pollan moves on from his brief discussion of wild animal deaths on farms to point out certain environmental challenges of a vegan world. He argues,

The vegan Utopia would also condemn people in many parts of the country to importing all their food from distant places. In New England, for example, the hilliness of the land and rockiness of the soil has dictated an agriculture based on grass and animals since the time of the Puritans. (326)

New England has left the time of the Puritans, however. Tofu and soymilk from Vermont-grown soybeans can now be found in some New England grocery stores. Production of wheat in New England has also increased recently. Maine-based farmer Eliot Coleman has written numerous books on growing organic fruits and vegetables in places like New England. (The page of Coleman’s latest book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, includes a glowing endorsement from Michael Pollan, so perhaps this claim will be updated in the next edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

Pollan continues,

To give up eating animals is to give up on these places as human habitat, unless of course we are willing to make complete our dependence on a highly industrialized national food chain. That food chain would be in turn even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel even farther and fertility — in the form of manures — would be in short supply. (326)

This is a very bold claim. Pollan isn’t merely saying that the most sustainable agriculture would include some farms like Polyface Farm. He’s suggesting that we’d use more fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers with a vegan food system than we do now by feeding grain to cattle. (Update: Commenter Eric B argues that this isn’t what Pollan is saying.)

Even if we accept the premise that food would need to travel significantly farther in a vegan world, Pollan is wrong to say we’d need more fossil fuels. Any increase in fossil fuels use for transportation would easily be offset by reduced production energy. In their book Food, Energy, and Society, David Pimentel and Marcia H. Pimentel (whom Pollan cites for much of his data on energy use in the food supply) estimate that producing food for a vegan diet requires about 18,000 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy per day, compared to 35,000 kilocalories for a nonvegetarian diet (Figure 11.1, page 134). They also estimate (page 258) that transporting 1 kilogram of food 1,000 kilometers from the farm to cities and towns uses 640 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy. If we combine this with David and Marcia Pimentel’s estimate that Americans consume about 1000 kilograms of food per year (computed for a lactoovovegetarian and nonvegetarian diet, but I doubt that vegan should require much more food mass), it turns out that we’d have to move our vegan food more than 9,600 kilometers to offset the production energy savings the vegan diet offers over the nonvegetarian diet. In other words, even if we ignored the energy used to transport food today, and even if our hypothetical vegan country shipped all of its food 5,600 kilometers from San Diego, California to Calais, Maine, the vegan nation would still be considerably less dependent on fossil fuel energy.

As for chemical fertilizers, I’m not going to do a calculation because numbers are a bit harder to come by here, but I think Pollan has that wrong, too. If we ate our grain instead of feeding it to livestock, we’d need far less of it, and most grain today is grown with chemical fertilizer (as Pollan has told us earlier).

Pollan adds that the vegan world wouldn’t have farm animals to provide manure and tells us, “it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients”  (326), two claims related to issues I’ve addressed before. Pollan hasn’t addressed the fact that the nutrients in manure come from the food that animals eat. Last time I wrote,

[W]hen animal manure is used to fertilize plants, the nitrogen it provides was fixed either [chemically] by the Haber-Bosch process or by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of plants. Any nitrogen animals leave on the pasture was ingested in their food. This is a point that Pollan seems to miss when he writes,

The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season. (210)

Polyface Farm isn’t completely self-sufficient in nitrogen, though. There’s plenty of nitrogen in the eighty percent of the chickens’ diet that Pollan has told us (just a few sentences earlier) comes from  corn and soy that Salatin buys. For the soil to maintain a stable nitrogen level from year to year, it’s necessary for the chicken feed together with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of clover  and other legumes to provide enough nitrogen to replenish whatever is removed from the farm in food for humans. Passing through the chickens’ digestive systems doesn’t increase the amount of biologically-available nitrogen in the feed.

The farm where the chicken feed is grown is depleted of nitrogen when the corn and soy are removed to feed Salatin’s chickens. Thus, as I wrote last month, it makes little sense to say that animals “cycle nutrients” on the farm. The word “cycle” suggests that the animals are somehow returning nutrients to the farm. That’s not what animals do. They take nutrients from plants (like grasses) that aren’t directly usable to humans and bring them into our food supply by fertilizing plants we can eat with their manure. Putting animals on the farm doesn’t change the need to replenish the nutrients that are removed in the form of food for humans. Sometimes these nutrients can be replenished naturally, by growing leguminous plants (like clover), but even at Polyface Farm, it’s necessary to import fertility from a neighboring farm in the form of conventionally-grown corn.


Comments (5)

Vegan diets and wild animal deaths

Michael Pollan follows his section on animal happiness with a section, disparagingly titled “The Vegan Utopia,” that aims to point out some of the practical problems of a vegan world.

Pollan calls the ideology of animal rights “parochial” and “urban,” chiding Peter Singer for his comment that “In our normal life, there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals.”

Pollan is right to point out that harvesting plants kills animals, but he makes a conclusion that is not quite right. He writes, “If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.”

Though Pollan doesn’t cite a source for this claim, the argument likely traces back to Steven Davis, who put forward a similar claim in a 2002 paper. Davis argued, in particular, that a ruminant-based diet was most compatible with Tom Regan’s goal of minimizing harm to animals.

However, Gaverick Matheny has pointed out (in a paper that is also freely available) that Davis’s calculations include a serious error. What Davis actually shows is that if half of American agricultural land were converted to pasture and half to croplands, the number of animals killed would be less than if all of that land were used to grow crops. He ignores the fact that using all of the land for crops would feed many more people; only a fraction of our agricultural land would be needed to feed the country a vegan diet. Correcting for this error, Matheny finds that protein production for a vegan diet would result in the deaths of 0.3 wild animals annually, compared to 1.5 wild animals for ruminant-based protein.

Matheny also points out that the number of animals killed is an inadequate measure of harm in any ethical theory. Andy Lamey offers further objections, including the very limited amount of scientific evidence available, the inclusion of animals deaths due to predation, and human deaths in slaughterhouse accidents (which are more important than animal deaths in Regan’s ethical theory).

Comments (8)

Animal Happiness: the conclusion

Michael Pollan concludes the section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma on animal happiness with a paragraph summarizing his argument against applying human morality to nature. He begins,

The fight over the pigs at Santa Cruz Island suggests at the very least that a human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. (325)

It’s my hope, that at the very least, my lengthy post about the pigs of Santa Cruz Island will convince you that Pollan hasn’t adequately demonstrated this.

Pollan goes on to ask, “Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we’ve decided it should be in human society?” What’s striking about Pollan’s discussion of the interests of species is the absence of discussion about how that might be derived from the interests of individuals. Pollan has cited three examples of collective entities which he says have interests, but all of these (I have argued) derive their morally significant interests from the interests of individuals. Why should the interest of a species not be determined similarly?

Pollan has also noted that the focus on the individual can lead us to consider disturbing questions, such as that of whether we should eliminate carnivorous species. Yet his argument for preservation of species as an end in itself — rather than as a means to satisfying individual interests — might also have troublesome consequences. It might, for example, obligate us to perpetuate existing transgenic organisms or to prevent extinctions due to natural causes.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to tell where Pollan’s argument for preservation of species might lead because he doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument. He merely suggests that a species might take an interest in its survival or the health of its habitat, but he never settles on a more precise definition. He also never addresses the issue of how we might prioritize the individual and collective interests. If this argument of Pollan’s is difficult to refute, it’s not because it’s a strong argument. It’s because it’s not much of an argument at all.

Comments (2)

The goats of Wrightson Island

In the comments, Scu (who runs the blog Critical Animal) points out that the story of the feral pigs of Santa Cruz Island has an even more ludicrous predecessor in Pollan’s work. In a 2002 New York Times Magazine article called “An Animal’s Place,” Michael Pollan recounted a similar story on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Here’s the story of Wrightson Island, as told by Michael Pollan:

In 1611 Juan da Goma (aka Juan the Disoriented) made accidental landfall on Wrightson Island, a six-square-mile rock in the Indian Ocean. The island’s sole distinction is as the only known home of the Arcania tree and the bird that nests in it, the Wrightson giant sea sparrow. Da Goma and his crew stayed a week, much of that time spent in a failed bid to recapture the ship’s escaped goat — who happened to be pregnant. Nearly four centuries later, Wrightson Island is home to 380 goats that have consumed virtually every scrap of vegetation in their reach. The youngest Arcania tree on the island is more than 300 years old, and only 52 sea sparrows remain. In the animal rights view, any one of those goats have at least as much right to life as the last Wrightson sparrow on earth, and the trees, because they are not sentient, warrant no moral consideration whatsoever. (In the mid-80’s a British environmental group set out to shoot the goats, but was forced to cancel the expedition after the Mammal Liberation Front bombed its offices.)

A rather significant correction ran several weeks later:

Correction: December 15, 2002, Sunday An article on Nov. 10 about animal rights referred erroneously to an island in the Indian Ocean and to events there involving goats and endangered giant sea sparrows that could possibly lead to the killing of goats by environmental groups. Wrightson Island does not exist; both the island and the events are hypothetical figments from a book (also mentioned in the article), ”Beginning Again,” by David Ehrenfeld. No giant sea sparrow is known to be endangered by the eating habits of goats.

That correction appears with the original article on the New York Times website. Michael Pollan also republishes the article on his website, but rather than owning up to his mistake, he prefaces the anecdote with the line “Consider this hypothetical scenario:”.

Doesn’t a story lose its force when it’s so completely fictional? We’re dealing with a fictitious entity (the Mammal Liberation Front) bombing an unspecified environmental group to protest the killing of goats on a nonexistent island. Are we really supposed to find this compelling?

Leave a Comment

The pigs of Santa Cruz Island

Attempting to paint the animal rights view as out of touch with commmon-sense environmentalism, Michael Pollan shares the ongoing story of an ecosystem restoration project that requires the killing of feral pigs, formerly domesticated animals that have made themselves at home in the wild.

Pollan explains,

As I write, a team of sharpshooters in the employ of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy is at work killing thousands of feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island, eighteen miles off the coast of Southern California. The slaughter is part of an ambitious plan to restore the island’s habitat and save the island fox, an endangered species found on a handful of Southern California islands and nowhere else. To save the fox the Park Service and Nature Conservancy must first undo a complicated chain of ecological changes wrought by humans beginning more than a century ago. (324)

The pigs, he tells us, have attracted golden eagles to the island, and these eagles also prey on the island fox. The only problem with the plan is opposition from animal welfare and rights groups. Pollan tells us,

A spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States claimed in an op-ed article that “wounded pigs and orphaned piglets will be chased with dogs and finished off with knives and bludgeons.” Note the rhetorical shift in focus from the [species] Pig, which is how the Park Service ecologists would have us see the matter, to images of individual pigs, wounded and orphaned, being hunted down by dogs and men wielding bludgeons. (325)

If you actually take the trouble to read the op-ed in question, you might find a more complicated story. Pollan doesn’t tell us, for example, that the piece gives us reason to doubt the motives of the project:

But the park’s former superintendent, Tim Setnicka, who once advocated for the pig eradication program, now says it’s based on propaganda and junk science. Setnicka wrote:

“To help sell the fox restoration program, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs. This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project. We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991, we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat. Of course, the golden eagles eat pigs, but they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch.”

Nor does Pollan mention that the Humane Society proposed an alternative to the project. The op-ed explains,

Even if we accept the premise that the Santa Cruz Island pig population really does need to be controlled or reduced, there are more humane and less draconian approaches. The Humane Society of the United States offered to help with a contraception program for pigs, using a vaccine developed by the Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center and approved for experimental use by the Food and Drug Administration. But the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy simply said no.

While it’s true that the bit that Pollan quotes focuses on the individual pigs, Pollan would like us to believe that the individual pigs are the sole concern of the Humane Society, but that seems doubtful if the Humane Society offered to help with a contraception plan. If the animal protectionists were concerned with the individual suffering, perhaps it was because they believed that the project’s ecological goals could be accomplished with less suffering.

Now, it should also be pointed out that proponents of the pig hunt argued that the pig contraception program would not have worked. I can’t claim to know either way. Nor, for that matter, was I able to verify the claim that Tim Setnicka said the project was based on “junk science.” Nonetheless, it’s striking that Pollan chooses to ignore these questions rather than address them, taking a few words out of context to support the point he wants to make.

By basing his argument on the words of an advocacy organization, Pollan also shifts the debate from the intellectual works of the animal rights philosophers to a more politicized setting, where both sides are trying to spin the issue to win over a less informed populace. To use this political debate as an argument against the liberal individualist view is akin to trying to discredit conservative political philosophy by quoting Glenn Beck.

Instead of focusing on advocacy organizations, Pollan might have addressed the arguments in a fascinating piece by Jo-Ann Shelton, a professor in the Environmental Studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Shelton argues, based on the earlier eradication of feral sheep on Santa Cruz Island, that “proponents of the eradication of feral species continue to adhere to an age-old paradigm that assigns value to animals in accordance with human interests.”

Shelton questions whether an ecosystem can be effectively restored and provides evidence that the project is motivated not by ecological considerations but by human interests:

To save the few remaining foxes, bald eagles are being brought in to drive out the golden eagles (Polakovic 1999; Todd 2004). These experiments in restoration reveal the problems inherent in suddenly removing elements from a biotic community on a species by species basis. They should instruct us of the complex interactions of the various elements of the present day Island ecology and the need to take into account the contributions of the introduced animals. They should certainly lead us to question whether restoration, as distinct from conservation, is a feasible goal, and, if not, why animals are being shot in pursuit of it.

Like the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service wishes to recreate a pre-Columbian scene. However its mandate, as stated in the General Management Plan, is not simply to restore wilderness, but to open it for the pleasure of human visitors (National Park Service 1985, pp. 81 and 82). This mandate is flawed by an internal contradiction, because humans of European descent are, of course, as much an anachronism as sheep and pigs in a pre-Columbian landscape. Nonetheless, the Park Service, in accordance with its charge, has constructed camp grounds and hiking trails and encourages people to enjoy the experience of placing themselves in a scene which approximates the pristine wilderness of an earlier period. Ironically it has also left standing structures built by the ranchers, in order to retain the “historic scene” of the ranching era, but without the ranch animals (National Park Service 1985, pp. 36, 37, 41, 44 and 45). The projected increase in annual human visitors to the Island will contribute to the degradation of the land and adjacent ocean water. The Park Service has no tolerance, however, for other non-native species, and had planned to shoot the feral sheep, pigs and horses once it took possession of the east end.

This kind of discussion of the motives and efficacy of the proposed pig eradication plan is entirely absent from Pollan’s exposition in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Nor does Pollan address criticisms of the logic underlying ecosystem restoration plans. Shelton writes,

Species introductions and environmental change take place without anthropogenic influences. Had Santa Cruz Island remained until this day entirely free of any European human invasion, it would still not be the same as it was in 1400 AD. And even if we were able now to restore its 1400 AD scene, its proximity to the mainland will produce repeated introductions of “exotic” plants and animals through the actions of winds, currents, and human visitors. Therefore restoration will be an on-going process, managed by humans, and requiring constant intervention. The result — the conservation of native species — is arguably desirable, but the process of achieving and maintaining a pre-European scene will be only as “natural” an activity as is landscape architecture.

Shelton also raises a point that seems particularly relevant to the killing of the feral pigs. Referring to the removal of feral sheep from the island in the 1980s, she writes,

Another unanticipated result of the shooting of the sheep has been an increase in the population of feral pigs, which has grown from several hundred to several thousand (Pearl, Patton and Lohr 1994). In addition, golden eagles that have been attracted to the Island by the abundant supply of piglets are hunting to extinction the indigenous Santa Cruz Island fox (Van De Kamp 2000; Davison 2003; Schoch 2003).

In other words, the island fox’s woes trace back to the earlier effort to eradicate the island’s sheep population. One can only wonder what kind of unintended consequences the killing of the pigs might cause.

As Pollan tells it, the killing of the feral pigs was an ecological necessity, and the animal protectionists show themselves to be at odds with nature, focusing exclusively on the individuals and neglecting the species in their opposition. A closer look would have told a different story, one in which the “animal people” were less single-minded and the ecological science was clouded by political calculation and human interest. Only by giving us a very superficial look at the story is Pollan able to use it to support his point.

Comments (7)

The predation debate

(Updated 10/24/10 to correct a typographical error and 11/21/10 to fix another.)

After arguing that meat-eating serves the interest of domesticated species, Michael Pollan moves on to consider hunting in the wild. He writes,

The very existence of predation in nature, of animals eating animals, is the cause of much anguished hand-wringing in the animal rights literature. “It must be admitted,” Peter Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.” (321)

Pollan doesn’t bother to tell us what Singer’s answer to this problem is, and that’s probably because it wouldn’t have suited his argument. Instead, he moves on to another writer who better allows him to make his point:

Matthew Scully, in Dominion, a Christian-conservative treatment of animal rights, calls predation “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design. . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.” Really? Elsewhere, acknowledging the gratuitous suffering inflicted by certain predators (like cats), Scully condemns “the level of moral degradation of which [animals] are capable.” Moral degradation? (321)

As a conservative Christian, Scully is hardly representative of the animal rightists. (How many animal rightists can you think of who write speeches for a candidate who supports shooting wolves from helicopters?) This doesn’t stop Pollan from stuffing Scully’s words into the mouths of other animal philosophers. He writes,

A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writings of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals’ animality, too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature’s “intrinsic evil”—and then take the animals with us. (321)

To Pollan, it apparently isn’t important that Singer doesn’t call predation nature’s “intrinsic evil,” and that he doesn’t say that we should “airlift” the animals from it. Reading Singer’s rejection of the idea that we should eliminate carnivores, I can’t help but think that Pollan misrepresents the philosophical discourse. Singer’s treatment of this question is not “anguished hand-wringing” but a matter of philosophical rigor. Rather than arguing that we should end predation, Singer is addressing what Charles K. Fink explains is sometimes called the “predation reductio”:

The predation reductio is an argument which attempts to refute ethical vegetarianism by deducing from it an absurd consequence involving the abolition of natural predation.  “Among the most disturbing implications drawn from conventional indiscriminate animal liberation/rights theory,” writes J. Baird Callicott, “is that, were it possible for us to do so, we ought to protect innocent vegetarian animals from their carnivourous predators” (258).  This charge, in one form or another, is often leveled against ethical vegetarianism.

If Singer had to answer the predation question in the affirmative, that would be a serious problem for his ethical theory. The question has to be asked precisely for this reason; Singer must be able to justify a negative answer for the ethical system to seem reasonable. Pollan seems to miss this entirely, instead mocking Singer for raising the issue: “(Talk about the need for peacekeeping forces!)” (321).

Pollan goes on to tell us why predation is a good thing. He explains,

But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter of morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve — all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. (322)

Pollan would have us believe that the animal rightists’ focus on individuals would lead wild animal species to extinction. But the value of predation might also be explained from a more individualistic point of view. Indeed, the fact that the wolves allow for the continued existence of the herd of deer necessarily means that some individual deer benefit from predation.

When Pollan says that the wolf is “brutal” to the individual deer, he’s only telling us half the story. Certainly, when a wolf eats a deer, the deer that is eaten experiences brutality. That benefits not only the herd but the deer that remain alive. The deer that aren’t eaten face reduced competition for food, and this decreases the chance that they’ll starve to death.

Comments (3)

The interest of a species

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that domestication of animals is beneficial to the domesticated species. He explains,

At least for the domestic animal (the wild animal is a different case) the good life, if we can call it that, simply doesn’t exist, cannot be achieved, apart from humans — apart from our farms and therefore from our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where the animal rightists betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship — to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species. (320)

As I wrote recently, while the domestic animal would not have a good life in nature, animal farms leave less room for wild animals to live “the good life.” But Pollan also makes the case that human meat-eating benefits the domesticated species as a whole. He writes,

For the animal rightist concerns himself only with individuals. Tom Regan, the author of The Case for Animal Rights, bluntly asserts that because “species are not individuals . . . the rights view does not recognize the moral rights of species to anything, including survival.” Singer concurs, insisting that only sentient individuals can have interests. But surely a species has interests — in its survival, say, or the health of its habitat — just as a nation or a community or a corporation can. (323)

The suggestion that a species takes interest in the health of its habitat is surprising, given the factory farms that are the habitat of the overwhelming majority of food animals. How would we even begin to define the health of such a place? Less surprising, perhaps, is the idea that a species takes an interest in its survival. After all, we humans generally want to survive, so why shouldn’t a species want the same?

What’s missing from Pollan’s argument is any discussion of why such an interest should be assigned moral significance. To clarify this point, I think it’s instructive to consider the other examples of collective entities that Pollan says have interests.

Let’s start with a nation. We might say that a nation takes an interest in the health of its environment or its economy, for example. But these are things that are important because they affect the individuals that live in the nation. Polluted air and an unproductive economy cause individuals to suffer. Thus, I would contend that the interest of a nation in the health of its environment or its economy derives any moral significance from the interests of its inhabitants.

We might also say that a nation takes an interest in its continued existence, but I think it would be hard to argue that such an interest has moral significance. After all, I think that if a tyrannical regime were overthrown in a bloodless coup and replaced by a democratic government that improved the lives of its people, most would consider that an unqualified good thing. Nobody (at least, nobody outside of the old government) would lament that the old nation had to come to an end to save the people from oppression.

This suggests that the only interests of a nation deserving of any moral standing are the interests derived from the interests of individuals. Similarly, I would suggest that the morally significant interests of a community or a corporation are those derived from the interests of the inhabitants and the shareholders, respectively.

That brings us back to the interests of a species. This is a question that came up when I wrote about Pollan’s anthropomorphization of Zea mays. Back then I wrote,

There’s a certain appeal to talking about having large populations in many locations as being in the interest of a species. After all, these things increase the chance that the species will continue to exist in the future. But does a species really want these things in any meaningful sense? The will of a species to survive is certainly unlike the will of a human to survive (although the will of the individuals of some species to survive may be more comparable to that of a person’s)…

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about species in this way. After all, it’s far more pleasing to read about a “reckless-seeming act of evolutionary faith in us” (27) than “a mutation, which, resulted in our planting corn for food, but which, in the absence of humans, might have been fatal.” We should realize, though, that when we talk about a species having interests, the word “interests” is merely a shorthand way of expressing more complicated ideas. The same, of course, is true of individuals having interests, but the underlying complexities are very different in the two cases, even though we refer to both with the same word.

I think that the last couple of sentences (to which I’ve added emphasis) are particularly relevant here (in fact, I wrote them with this post in mind). If we say that a species has interests, those interests are not comparable to the interests of individuals. Whereas individual animals can experience forms of suffering that we know to be unpleasant, the interest of a species is something entirely different. A species doesn’t want to exist in any meaningful sense (but its members have an interest in a happy existence). As in the case of the nation, the community, and the corporation, any interest of the species should derive its moral standing from the interest of the individuals. Indeed, Pollan hints at this connection when he condemns factory farms even though they ensure the survival of certain species.

Of course, the idea that we shouldn’t care about species is one that would trouble most environmentally-minded people. Most of us believe that extinction is a bad thing. Pollan is ready to capitalize on this point, sharing with us the story of animal protectionists’ opposition to an ecosystem restoration project on Santa Cruz Island. Pollan’s exposition of that story is so slanted that I’ll be dedicating a lengthy post to it in the near future.

For now, I’ll just argue that the animal rights view doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t worry about extinction. On the most basic level, the interests of the individuals of a species deserve some consideration in the rights view, and a species can’t go extinct without the death of its members. Furthermore, wild animal species tend to occupy complex niches within their habitats. When a species goes extinct, it vacates that niche, which can lead to ecological instability and extensive individual suffering among members of many species. This suggests that supporters of animal rights should oppose human activities that decrease ecological stability, and this will tend to prevent extinction.

This attitude won’t prevent all extinctions, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Over time, ecosystems change even without human intervention, so the loss of some species is inevitable. If the utilitarian view compels us to minimize our ecological impact, that’s not nearly as troubling as the suggestion that extinction doesn’t matter under the rights view.

I should also point out that my comments about wild animals occupying complex niches don’t extend so well to domesticated animals. Even on Polyface Farm, the number of animal species is relatively small. The existing farm animals could be allowed to live out their natural lifespans with minimal suffering, and excess land could be left to wild animals. The rights view, it thus seems to me, should be generally supportive of preserving wild species, but provides no obligation to perpetuate farmed animal species.

Comments (4)

« Newer Posts · Older Posts »
%d bloggers like this: