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Nathan J. Robinson: How wild animals became the proletariat


The fact is, wild animals do not make sense under capitalism. Capitalism operates according to a quite simple set of rules. Your desires are respected in accordance with the amount of financial resources you have available to you. Every wild animal is poor, thus no wild animal gets a “vote” over how resources are used.

Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs

The trouble for walruses is that they do not spend money. If a walrus’ preferences were backed with cash, if it could say “I will give 10 American dollars for the right to sit on this pack ice for an hour,” an entire industry would arise catering to the needs and desires of the species. They would be offered package vacations and timeshares and cruises, all with multiple financing options. Like all other wild animals, however, walruses are universally broke. There is no money to be made in giving them what they want, and so to the extent that they ever get it, it will be because the thing a walrus would prefer happens to coincide with the thing a wealthy set of humans also happens to prefer for the walrus. The fate of the walrus poor is entirely dependent on the whims and fancies of the human rich.

If you have watched the second episode of the new David Attenborough documentary on Netflix, you have probably cried all over your keyboard. There is an emotionally shattering sequence in which too many walruses try to squeeze onto too little land, due to the disappearance of ice. The overcrowding is extreme, and the tens of thousands of walruses look both unhealthy and unhappy. (The smell is unimaginable.) Some try to avoid the crush by ascending to higher ground. Unfortunately, the terrain is rocky, and walruses tend to be waddlers rather than climbers. Attenborough narrates some of the most disturbing footage ever to appear in a nature documentary, in which unstable walruses lose their footing and plummet to their deaths from the top of cliffs. We see them at the moment they slip, watch them fall through the air, and then see them lifeless on the ground. It is in every way horrible.

Inclusion of the footage has been “controversial with viewers,” apparently, because people don’t like to be made uncomfortable, and David Attenborough films are supposed to just let you get high and rhapsodize over how totally amazing nature is. The introduction of climate change is turning them into a real bummer. They’re getting too real. But Attenborough has made it clear that he’s not playing around anymore: “The Garden of Eden is no more,” he declared.

Of course, we know why the Garden of Eden is no more. It’s the catastrophic effect on the rest of the planet of our species. A new United Nations assessment has warned that “human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” with about a million presently facing extinction, “many within decades.” The report is—as these things increasingly tend to be—a bleak read. As the New York Times summarizes:

In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”

But there is something curious about the report, too, something you might not notice without the skeptical eyebrow-raising cynicism of a grumpy leftist. The report talks a lot about the damage we are doing to other species. Yet it makes the case for action primarily on the basis of our own self-interest. The very first section of the report’s summary, before it gets to describing any of the actual harms, is about the “vital contributions to people” made by nature. It attempts to alarm us about the situation by showing that nature is “essential for human existence and good quality of life,” and “most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable.” Don’t do it for the animals, do it for you.

This framing appears in the Times coverage, too:

“For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.” A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.

I think we can all understand why U.N. scientists feel the need to make the pitch this way. It is very hard to get people to care about nature “for its own sake,” but “trillions of dollars in non-monetized benefits” are another thing entirely. If it can be proven that biodiversity contributes to the global economy, then we might yet be persuaded to preserve it.

But what if there are plenty of species that don’t contribute to the global economy? What if their existence is unnecessary for our own well-being? What if they are actually an impediment to economic growth, and respecting their lives would actually require trillions of dollars in costs to us? What if walruses are economically useless? What then?

I have never liked the word neoliberalism, but I seem to end up using it a lot, because it accurately describes a certain ubiquitous ideological tendency, one that sees “maximizing economic value” as a wholly good thing. If you want to criticize something that maximizes economic value, such as turning all the rainforests into palm oil plantations, the only argument it leaves available to you is that this doesn’t actually maximize economic value, that the rainforests contributed more to GDP than we thought. I have written about how the same tendency occurs in education policy: Market conservatives will say that public schools or humanities departments are an inefficient way of maximizing human capital, and market liberals will say that actually there are many under-appreciated economic benefits.

Perhaps the U.N. report is right that we should “introduc[e] incentives in line with the value of nature’s contribution to people.” I am not yet ready, however, to stop thinking about nature “for its own sake,” about nature’s contribution to nature. I do think “for its own sake” is a wholly unpersuasive way of putting the case, and sounds almost tautological (preserve nature because it is nature). A better way of saying this is that animals have lives and desires, and their existences have value independent of what they are able to do for us.

“Economistic” logic, in the absence of a clear moral understanding of what creatures deserve, can lead you to justify the most horrifying things imaginable. Let’s say, for instance, that some mad scientist genetically engineers the Perfect Creature. It is a companion to human beings, it entertains them, they can use it as food—it is maximally efficient in satisfying us. If we were to wipe out 50 percent of the world’s wild animals through a program of industrialized murder, and devote the land to cultivating the Perfect Creature (which, by the way, is capable of restoring ecological imbalances better than the inefficient mixture of absurd-looking species we have now), global GDP would grow by trillions of dollars, and human happiness would skyrocket. Then what would the U.N. tell us? That we should severely under-develop the global economy to save hippopotamuses For Their Own Sake? What have they ever done for us except maul us, chew us, and drown us? The Perfect Creature is perfectly nice.

The fact is, wild animals do not make sense under capitalism. Capitalism operates according to a quite simple set of rules. Your desires are respected in accordance with the amount of financial resources you have available to you. Every wild animal is poor, thus no wild animal gets a “vote” over how economic resources shall be used.

The problem for animals is that they are not for anything. They are simply there. Those of us who wish to save them from having their habitats destroyed to make way for new Walmart supercenters might endeavor to find ways to make their lives profitable. We can pitch “ecotourism”: Save nature because people will pay to come and look at it. But it might turn out that you only need 1 percent of nature as it currently exists to satisfy tourists’ demands. As long as you preserve a walrus that people can come and look at, the rest will remain an impediment to Growth. The walrus labor supply exceeds the human demand for walrus labor. And just as you are only compensated under capitalism to the extent that you are able to do something valuable for people who already have money (sorry, children, old people, and disabled people, you should have learned to code), animals are granted permission to live solely to the extent that they are capable of generating benefits for humans.

Wild animals are therefore a kind of massive global proletariat, being exploited and destroyed by the merciless human bourgeoisie. The lucky ones are the ones that have a marketable skill, such as “being a pet,” and can exchange their labor (companionship and amusement) for room and board. Dogs do pretty well because we happen to like them. Pigs, unfortunately, have discovered that even though they are just as emotionally sophisticated as dogs, we enjoy their company less, and their most marketable commodity is their flesh.* Pigs might be comparatively fortunate, though. At least we have a financial interest in preserving their lives, even if it is for the purpose of violently ending those lives and then devouring the carcasses. Some species are simply “in the way” of global development. They will be be exterminated, because they do not matter.

Human civilization is, for the millions of other creatures with whom we share this big blue planet, a death machine. We build roads through their homes, and then any of them who try to cross will be smushed to death. We torture and kill billions of them in our food system. We are boiling their whole planet, and if we keep it up for another 50, 100, or 1000 years, how many of them will make it?

I am not one of those environmentalists who believes human beings are a cancer on the planet, although there are days when I look out at some lifeless tract of suburbia, one where every wilderness creature has been extinguished, and the thought does enter my head. I like us, and I am hopeful about what we can do together. But we don’t just need to adopt the U.N. framework and recognize the monetary value of nature. We also need to develop empathy for creatures other than ourselves, and a sense of solidarity with fellow proletarians of all species. It sounds silly, I know, but I don’t see how else we can keep the brutal logic of efficiency from causing death on an unimaginable scale.

If you are trying to order the world rationally, the existence of the flamingo is absurd. Our attempts to justify it will fail. “Oh, yes, we definitely need these, because… ah, well, they’re awfully fun to look at, aren’t they?” We need a view of the world that doesn’t require things to justify themselves at all, that respects their existence “for its own sake” and loves them because their very presence on earth is the miraculous result of a highly improbable process. The funny-looking critters who live alongside us are not tools to be exploited for increasing our satisfaction but fellow passengers on this mystifying voyage of our Spaceship Earth.

The same “inherent value” logic should govern treatment of other humans. Why do people “deserve” to be taken care of, even if they don’t “contribute”? Because the very existence of life is such a rare and special thing that people are their own justification. Nobody should need to prove that they have some unique benefit to offer the rich that means they deserve to eat or be free of illness or go to college. The world is a place of abundance that can be shared in by all, if we can free ourselves from the miserable ideological prison of economistic thinking. Neither we nor the walrus should need to have capital in order for our lives to have value.

*Of course, when I speak of “markets” and “exchange,” some people may note that animals are actually simply enslaved, since there is no moment at which they are asked to sign a contract and given the option to leave. But I have never been one of those naive people who thinks this kind of “freedom” is very meaningful, so I see no need to make a distinction between the two types of systems.

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