Source: New Scientist
Date: 12 April 2020

Red in tooth and claw

Nature red in tooth can claw
It is hard to be honest with children about how nature really works,
but we need to acknowledge the suffering of wild things, says Richard Smyth

We believe all species should be herbivorous” seems an ambitious mission statement. It doesn’t seem any less ambitious when it is followed by the declaration that “currently we use donations for... online promotion, and equipment needed for podcasting. In the future we would like to have enough to hire researchers.”

But this is where the “herbivorisation” project, an idea taking shape on the fringe of the fringe, is at. Headed by philosopher David Pearce, futurist Adam James Davis and ethicist Stijn Bruers, Herbivorize Predators aims to develop a way “to safely transform carnivorous species into herbivorous ones”, thereby o minimising the sum total of suffering in the world. It is difficult to take the idea very seriously. One predator biologist I spoke to called it “pretty shaky” and “completely misguided”. Another told me it was too ridiculous to comment on. I can see why. The whole thing reeks of technophile overreach. By any measure, predation is a key component of Earth’s ecological engine. Taking it away is almost impossible to imagine, except as the most wafty of hypothetical.

But is there, perhaps, a case for making room to think and talk more about the suffering of wild things? In a recent piece for Vet Record, the journal of the British Veterinary Association, Alick Simmons, an animal ethicist and the UK government’s former deputy chief veterinary officer, noted that “we treat our animals inconsistently”. We have, argued Simmons, created standards of care that vary wildly depending on whether a creature is wild, kept as a pet, farmed, used in research, hunted or considered a pest. Slaughterers and those using animals in scientific research are held to stringent welfare standards. Meanwhile, pest controllers and gamekeepers carry on more or less as they please. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. We could even look beyond the harm caused by humans and reflect on the scale of animal suffering that might not be our fault, but that we nevertheless live among, everywhere, all the time, without ever really thinking much about it. The stark calculations of philosopher and animal activist Oscar Horta, for example, suggest that each time a single cod reproduces - turning out perhaps 2 million eggs, almost all of which die - “we can expect that 200 billion seconds of suffering is experienced”. This, Horta mercilessly adds, amounts to 6337.7529 years of suffering.

I have been trying to come to terms with this kind of reality, not as a conservationist or an ethicist, but as a parent of two small children. It isn’t hard to show kids the beauties of nature: they are right there every time we walk in a wood or turn on the latest BBC wildlife documentary.

What is harder is to tell the story of how all this beauty is made. Evolution-the slow-grinding mill that, in coldly sorting benefit and cost, has turned out every variety of bird, mammal, plant, insect, sponge, fungus and protist that ever lived - is a horrible way to make wonderful things.

It is difficult to be honest with kids about how wildlife really works - about how the blue tits over the road will lose about 80 per cent of their chicks every spring or how, of those newly hatched turtles David Attenborough is carefully stepping around, 999 out of 1000 will die before they grow up. This is because most of us aren’t in the habit of being honest about it with ourselves.

It is brutal out there. But the question, contra the herbivorisers, needn’t be “what do we do about this?” We can simply ask of ourselves that we face it squarely and see it clearly, and that we don’t flinch from it when we think about the meaning of nature, the meaning of wildlife.

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