A few years ago, when I was undertaking studies in a naturalist certification program, a botanist and visiting conservation lecturer introduced our class to the term biophilia, which means “love of all life and the living world; a love of all life forms.” Immediately enamored of the concept, I was equally compelled when the botanist asked, “And do you know why biophilia is so important to conservation?”
“It’s important,” he said, “because we save what we love.”
We save what we love.
At this point in the course, I had already become deeply troubled by what repeatedly struck me as a stark incongruity between the curriculum and environment of the nature center’s classes, and the life-loving theme of the classes themselves. These incongruities included (but were not limited to): the several aquariums in the nature center lobby in which had resided for many years numerous captive native turtles rescued from various injurious situations, whose “rehabilitation” consisted of little more than squatting on the same dull rocks and staring through the same impassable glass, day after day and year after year.
How my heart sank to see them.
I once interrupted a lecture being held outside beneath the center’s picnic shelter, to ask if we couldn’t pause the class to get a ladder and pry back the screen netting affixed to the shelter’s interior above us (which was there, I was told, to prevent birds from roosting in the beams and pooping on unsuspecting picnickers), and inside of which a sparrow nonetheless had found herself trapped and was frantically flapping to get out.
After kneeling and tapping the director of the center as inconspicuously as possible, alerting her in a whisper to the bird flailing above in distress, I was curtly told that “it was fine,” “happened all the time,” and could be “dealt with later.” Disheartened and embarrassed, I went and stood at the back of the shelter, weighing the trapped bird’s distress against my own discomfort at the prospect of further disruption, and a growing sense of despair for what increasingly felt like an utter disregard, even contempt, for the lives of the actual individual animals in our midst.
Indeed, as I dismally observed the panicked bird hurling herself against the wire mesh, one after the other the small grey mounds of clotted debris that were scattered around her resolved into feathers fastened to pairs of curled, dried feet. I counted the rotting bodies of nearly twenty other birds. (Less quietly this time, I again approached the center director, imploring that someone release the sparrow. She sighed and said someone would tend to it after class was dismissed, and I waited around to see that they did).
Fast forward to the class that first occasioned our introduction to biophilia. The lecture concluded with each of us being given a specimen jar and butterfly net, and instructed to go outside and capture as many bugs as we could find on and around the flowering plants. Needless to say, many insects were clumsily crushed in the ensuing fervor. I carried my net as far as the woods, then lay it down at the base of a tree and disappeared into the forest.
Populations vs. Individuals
What is this obsession, among conservationists and environmentalists, with caring for other animals only in terms of their “populations,” “carrying capacities,” and “biotic communities,” their relative status as “endangered species” and “keystone ecosystem engineers”— all concepts invented by anthropocentric humans with a stake in “managing”— if not outright eradicating— said populations?
Similarly, such categories as “pest,” “farm animal,” and “meat” subsume distinct individuals into foggy abstractions easily discussed over tea, even as their mechanisms violently denude their victims of personhood, personalities, and subjective vitality. And humans invoke these pernicious categories as though they actually correspond to some objective ontological reality, as though some animals simply exist to be farmed like crops, inventoried and managed like merchandise, poisoned and trapped like so much nuisance cosmic garbage.
Correspondingly, these erasures occur on such a large scale that they inevitably induce a sort of statistical numbing in consumers attempting to contemplate the myriad “ghosts in our machine.” Take chickens, whom we kill at a devastating rate of nearly 9 billion lives annually in the U.S. alone.
Take possums, whom we have so maligned and denigrated under the category of “vermin” that few can imagine them as caring mothers,
much less individuals deserving of love or respect:
Take fishes (whom most of us cannot even think to call fishes, just as consumers of chickens say “I love chicken” instead of “chickens.”)
Take, frankly, any farmed animal or any species of animal killed for sport or tradition, and you will find a widespread refusal to acknowledge these animals as individuals, as subjects with meaningful emotional lives and unique characteristics and preferences. It is the opposite of personification; beyond objectification, I have often thought of it as no-oneification: the turning of someone into no one.
I’m Nobody. Who Are You?
So I am thinking about all of this on Earth Day, about biophilia and saving what we love, because it seems increasingly clear that there is no hope of “saving the earth” if we do not believe in the inherent value and save-worthiness of the individual lives that make up Earth; if we cannot even conceive of billions of individuals as individuals at all.
In her brilliant essay, Thinking Like A Chicken, Karen Davis points to this failing as one of the greatest moral impoverishments of conservation ecology and environmental ethics:
“Adherents of environmentalism have rapped animal rights advocates on the knuckles for caring about “little things,” like individuals and beings with feelings. By contrast, environmentalists operate in the big realm:
They at least attempt to listen to the entire fugue of rocks and trees, amoebas and heavy metals, dodos and rivers and styrofoam. Animal rights, by contrast, is a one-note samba. Where environmentalists worry about salt marshes and all the plants and creatures therein, animal right activists worry about the suffering of individual animals. Where environmentalists worry about the evolution of island endemics, animal right activists worry about the suffering of individual animals. Where environmentalists worry about species extinctions, animal rights activists worry about the suffering of individual animals” (Knox 1991, 31-32).7
A question for environmentalism concerns the nature of the big realm it claims to represent and worry about. If, ecologically regarded, the concrete manifestations of existence are inconsequential, what substance does this realm possess? What are its contents and where do they reside exactly? Can the ecosphere be thus hollowed out without being converted to a shell?
An ecologist once said in an interview that the individual life is a mere “blip on a grid” compared to the life process. Yet, it may be that there is no “life process” apart from the individual forms it assumes whereby we infer it. The “process” is an inference, an abstraction, and while there is nothing wrong with generalizing and speculating on the basis of experience, to reify the unknown at the expense of the known shows a perversity of will.
How is it possible, as the environmentalist asserts, to worry about “all the plants and creatures” of a system while managing to avoid caring about each and every one? Why would anyone want not to care?
I know of no composer or lover of music who disparages the individual notes of a composition the way some environmentalists scorn the individual animals of this world.”
Trashing Animals, Trashing Earth
In this same essay, Davis also takes a look at environmentalists’ attitude toward domesticated animals, particularly animals exploited for food:
“As usual, farm animals are relegated to the wasteland of foregone conclusions in which they are considered to be not only ecologically out of tune but too denatured and void of autonomy for human morality to apply to them. The recognition that human beings are specifically and deliberately responsible for whatever aberrances farm animals may embody, that their discordances reflect our, not their, primary disruption of natural rhythms, and that we owe them more rather than less for having stripped them of their birthright and earthrights has not entered into the environmentalist discussions that I’ve encountered to date. The situation of these animals, within themselves and on the planet, does not appear to exact contrition or reparations from the perpetrators of their plight, while the victims are per se denied “rights,” of which the most elemental must surely be the right of a being to be perceived before being conceptually trashed.”
[See also our feature, No Matter How Humane, Eating Animals Means Treating Them Like Trash]
It is no coincidence that our systematic destruction of animal lives, which is in large part facilitated by our refusal of their subjectivity, is also destroying the planet. The WorldWatch Institute has noted, “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease.”
“Fortunately,” as A Well-Fed World‘s director Dawn Moncrief notes, “the foods that most promote human well-being are the same foods that cause the least harm to animals and the environment. Plant-based foods maximize human health, minimize harm to animals, and conserve natural resources to better feed our growing global population.“
Instead of subscribing to the violent and grandiose delusion that only humans are unique individuals, that other species exist for us to exploit and manage (and matter only insofar as they are not “endangered” or “extinct”), let us rather embrace a truly biophilic ethic, an “ethics of reverence for life,” which is to say, a vegan ethic.
Saving the earth means acknowledging the worth of all our fellow inhabitants. The minute we see their lives are worth saving, we begin to save ourselves, and begin to heal our imperiled planet.
“Life is life’s greatest gift. Guard the life of another creature as you would your own, because it is your own. On life’s scale of values, the smallest is no less precious to the creature who owns it than the largest.” – Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
Note: I asked my friend Linda Clark, a vegan and writer I deeply admire, if she’d also meditate on the term biophilia for Earth Day. You can read her wonderful essay over at her blog, There’s An Elephant in the Room.