Why Do We Continue To Abuse And Exploit Animals?

It’s a profoundly important question. I tend do go with the simple explanation that we can, we have retrograde beliefs about the moral consideration we should give animals, and doing so often yields profit or profits human in some way (allowing them, for example, to go around saying “MMMM. Bacon.”).

But Dr. Lori Marino and Michael Mountain go deeper. In an attempt to better understand our very troubled relationship with the other species on the planet, they argue that awareness of our own mortality plays a role. The result is a paper for Anthrozoos called “Denial of Death and the Relationship Between Humans and Other Animals.

Here is the abstract:

The focus of this paper is to explore how cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s claim that human behavior is largely motivated by fear of death may explain important aspects of our relationship with nonhuman animals. Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that when we humans are reminded of our personal mortality, we tend to deny our biological identity or creatureliness and distance ourselves from the other animals, since they remind us of our own mortal nature. In support of this, an abundance of peer-reviewed experimental literature shows that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal.” We contend that the denial of death is an important factor in driving how and why our relationships with other animals are fundamentally exploitive and harmful. Even though today there are more animal advocacy and protection organizations than ever, the situation for nonhuman animals continues to deteriorate (e.g. more factory farming, mass extinction of wildlife species, and ocean life under severe stress). We also suggest that developing a new and more appropriate relationship with the natural world would be a key factor in resolving the question that Becker was never able to answer: How can we deal with the existential anxiety that is engendered by the awareness of our own mortality?

Got it? Michael Mountain, in a blog post, explains further, in an effort to better understand whether this dynamic can help explain the disastrous and destructive trajectory of the human race:

Why are we doing this? Why have we created a way of living that’s destroying the only home we have and bringing on a mass extinction that will most likely consume us, too? And all in the name of “progress.” Why can’t we stop?

Those are the questions Dr. Lori Marino and I set out to answer in a paper that will be published in March in the journal Anthrozoos, but is already fast-tracked online here. (You need a subscription to Anthrozoos to access the full text.)

The paper, entitled Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals”, explores the psychology of how and why we humans feel compelled to treat our fellow animals as commodities and resources – and the whole natural world as our property.

The reason lies at the core of the human condition. It’s probably best summed up by the French author Albert Camus, who wrote:

“Humans are the only creatures who don’t want to be what they are.”

And what we absolutely don’t want to be is an animal.

Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety.

And so, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves that we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment.

I personally am comfortable with my animal nature (though that doesn’t mean I don’t try to better understand it and resist its more aggressive tendencies). And I experience joy at the connectedness I feel with regard to other creatures.

That connection is where true empathy comes from, and is the foundation of the idea that while we may be more powerful than other species our power should not be mistaken for moral superiority or the right of dominion. In fact, our power to dominate (and destroy) should be the moral basis for greater consideration and care for other species. We should be stewards, not exploiters. But since that is clearly not a view that our global culture accepts or promotes, I am glad that Lori Marino and Michael Mountain are making a bold intellectual bid to explain why.

Another Account Of Penn Cove

Peter Ward, a paleontologist, writes an account of his life in science. Part of his journey included working for Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin during the Penn Cove captures. Here is what he has to say about the experience:

In 1970 and 1971, I was part of the infamous Penn Cove (Washington) whale hunts. At that time the Puget Sound region, or its salmon-fishing community, despised the orca, which routinely ate half the salmon returning each year to spawn. Trapping was applauded. We encircled pods of 30 to 40 whales with seine nets thrown from fishing boats, and culled and captured with ropes the babies for aquaria. My job was to be in the water with the whales and separate mothers from their young. (I once found my leg down the throat of an enraged mother, who spit me out). Rumor had it the going price for an orca was $50,000. I was paid $50 a day.

But another part of my job was to dive down into the seine nets at night, should the whales try to break out. During those nights I learned more about fear than I ever wanted to know—down 40 feet in low visibility, with a dive light in one hand and a knife in the other to confront the poorly seen but certainly felt struggles of a gigantic, multi-ton behemoth fighting for its life in a heavy net, its massive tail thrashing through the blackness. We mostly succeeded in cutting the whales loose from the nets. But not always. That brought about shame, followed by rage, at myself, and at the greedy, voracious men who then, as now, make money from the incarceration of these intelligent creatures.

Following an expose of the hunts by Seattle TV news reporter Don McGaffin in 1971, some of my fellow divers and I testified to state authorities that our employers had been covering up evidence of whales killed in the hunts. Our proof helped launch a state and then federal law to prevent capturing whales in U.S. territorial waters and giving them a life sentence in solitary confinement. It remains the most important work of my life: helping stop the obscene captures.

It’s always interesting to get a new perspective on Penn Cove. But Ward’s real purpose in his article is to pay homage to the nautilus, the extraordinary and (up until humans come into the picture) resilient mollusc he has spent a lifetime studying:

In 2011 and 2012 I returned to my old study sites in the Pacific, and collected DNA samples that helped confirm that Nautilus pompilius is many separate species. But I also discovered that unlike in the deep past, perhaps only a few thousand individuals make up each species. A few thousand individuals swimming long distances to be caught in a baited trap, from which they are hauled to the surface, killed, and sold for $1 a shell. For buttons and cheap tourist jewelry.

It’s a savage irony. Although the nautilus ruled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, Earth’s changing conditions dwindled the number of species, about 3 million years ago, to less than a handful—or even a single species. Then came the advent of the Ice Ages and a radical drop in global sea level and temperatures, which, combined, created cool, highly oxygenated oceanic conditions similar to those when hundreds of nautiloid species existed. The nautilus was making a huge comeback in diversity, to the point where it may have been poised to once again be a presence in every ocean, rather than its current confinement to the western tropical Pacific.

But as recently as 50 years ago, the comeback hit a roadblock: us. In the Philippines and  Indonesia, the distant nautilus species are being harvested to extinction. Between 2007 and 2010, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that more than half a million nautilus shells or artifacts were imported into the United States alone. Fleets of nautilus boats now scour the coastlines of the South China Sea.

The life of the nautilus is providing its last lesson about chance events. But this time it’s about bad luck. It’s bad luck that nautiluses use their olfactory system rather than vision to find prey, because this trait makes them ludicrously easy to catch. Worse luck comes from a trait over which they never had control: they produce a shell with a visual power that humans covet.

Killer whales. The nautilus. The destructive power of human desire crosses all species.

The Story Of Solutions

The “Story Of” series tries to step up with some new ideas. I’m sympathetic but just not sure they go far enough. The ideas are good, just not big enough to change the world.

Personally, I think the single most powerful change (regular readers know where I am about to go) would be to price everything we buy differently. Instead of just pricing the cost of production (labor and materials), every good should be priced according to its production cost AND its social and environmental costs. Imagine how quickly everyone would change their behavior–the impact on consumption and the impact on carbon-heavy goods–and how quickly businesses would change what the create and sell, and how they do it.

The Spare Life

The older I get the less enamored with stuff I am, though I was never a big consumer or a hoarder.

This guy has gone to an extreme that I aspire to, and would be perfectly comfortable with (psst, please don’t tell my wife):

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did….

We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities. Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products.

There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.

For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less.

Read the whole thing and see if you don’t start thinking of all the things you could do without–despite the endless and persistent insistence of the marketers and companies whose livelihoods depend on convincing you otherwise. So far, they have been extraordinarily effective at creating a world in which more is better, and growing a global consumer culture that is poisonous to the planet, to our pocketbooks and lifestyles, and to healthy relationships and society (the values are all wrong).

And once you have come to grips with the idea that you could be happy with one-tenth of the things you are told you need to be happy, imagine what the world would be like if everyone had that same epiphany. Revolution. Enlightenment. Salvation.