Nature Is Violent

And it's the height of human narcissism to think we could change that.

Dec 15 2015, 5:20pm

Image: Hoberman Collection/Getty

When it comes to issues of environmental ethics, it's common to argue from the gut, with advocates on any given side of an issue defaulting to vague, emotional statements about natural "harmony" and what is "felt" to be right. The "Bambi effect" and other reductive ecological representations have helped facilitate a Western view of nature as a placid space. In reality, nature is brutal.

In a recent article, Vox contributor Jacy Reese introduced a new, sweeping argument to the mix of emotional pleas for environmental change: that humans should contemplate and intervene in the experience of all suffering by wild animals.

Equipped with the viral story of Cecil the Lion and the subsequent debate over trophy hunting, Reese suggests that our obligation goes beyond the alleviation of human-induced forms of suffering, to the eradication of "natural agonies" such as wildlife disease and the pain visited upon prey by predators. He also unintentionally offers readers an instructive look at why arguing for environmental approaches through self-centered assumptions is foolhardy, arrogant, and often immensely destructive.

It is the height of narcissism to assume that humans can fully understand and predict an ecosystem and then drastically alter its functioning.

Reese neither explains why we have a moral duty to end animal suffering, nor indicates which forms of suffering we should prioritize. Using dramatic examples of eye-gouging and venomous attacks, he focuses on the pain suffered by prey animals as something we should work to alleviate, but offers no possible methods for doing so. This is perhaps unsurprising: it is not easy to solve the natural world's fundamental tendency to be "red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson put it, in the space of a paragraph. Moreover, good intentions do not justify the arrogance of believing humans can fundamentally restructure the principles that govern biological life.

In a rhetorical move that betrays the piece's hollow logic, Reese cites the "natural suffering" omnipresent across ecosystems as a clarion call to action. But whose suffering is most important? Preventing the suffering of prey animals (through population reductions or isolation from predation) would necessitate starvation of obligate carnivores; does an antelope outweigh a leopard?

Someone has to feed the cubs. Image: Jon Connell/Flickr

The assumption that humans can overcome the basic mechanisms by which energy flows among living things (individuals, species, communities), and by which natural selection occurs, highlights a fundamental hubris. The belief that humans have a complete understanding of ecological relationships, and are capable of thoughtfully rearranging essential ecological features, has historically produced horrifying mismanagement.

Make no mistake: it is the height of narcissism to assume that humans can fully understand and predict an ecosystem and then drastically alter its functioning toward a desired goal, particularly one guided by vague notions of morality and sympathies alone. The assumption that wildlife ought to receive vaccinations, for example, is decidedly human-centered—Reese seems to suggest that we make stewardship decisions for wild animals based on the same ideals that govern dimensions of human well-being. One does not need to be a philosopher to conclude that this high-handed attitude is misguided. Pragmatism and a nose for history will suffice. When humans tinker on a large scale, unintended consequences can quickly manifest.

DDT bioaccumulation is a classic example: the insecticide was considered "safe" until it began decimating predatory bird populations. Management experiments ranging from the elimination of top predators to the suppression of wildfires have left us with complex ecological quandaries and no easy solutions. Yet Reese casually speculates that "eliminating diseases in wild animals would presumably act as it has in human populations, allowing the animals to live healthier and happier lives." "Presuming" the hypothetical benefits of an ecological intervention has gotten us in trouble before. The introduction of cane toads to Australia was "presumed" to eliminate pest beetles while leaving other native species unharmed; today, the poisonous invasive species is the culprit in declines of several native predators.

In contemporary ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment—predation is hypothesized to regulate species abundance and behavior in many systems. Even as our understanding of food web relationships has improved, we often find ourselves surprised.

In the long-studied Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the hypothesized relationship between wolves, elk, and vegetation has been widely publicized. As elk populations have declined in recent years, some researchers have argued that a predicted cascading, "top-down" effect in which elk browsing decreases and habitat recovers from overuse, is indeed in action. Notably, wolf reintroduction in the GYE was deliberately undertaken not for human gain, but rather to be ecologically restorative. (Reese, with his views on predation, may view the reintroduction as immoral.) Yet recent work has also linked declining elk numbers to an unanticipated phenomenon: population declines in cutthroat trout and whitebark pine, both key food sources for grizzlies, has led bears to more frequently predate upon elk calves.

Wolves of Yellowstone's Canyon pack. Image: Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

The delight of studying ecology is documenting and linking these fascinating, and sometimes alarming, effects. To suggest that we understand enough about ecosystems to make such broad-scale changes as artificially driving population sizes and managing the very act of predation virtually guarantees disaster.

Reese refers to "ripple effects" caused by intervention, but sees the history of unintended consequences only as an admonishment to proceed with caution. He suggests "testing" ideas at smaller scales before implementing them—though how one would test, for example, the alleviation of suffering by predation is unclear. Would we experimentally isolate rabbits from foxes? Will foxes be fed a protein substitute to compensate for lost nutrition from prey? What resources would be required to produce such a substitute? How will prey species that compete for resources respond to isolation from predation? How many pieces of a complex food web must be experimentally isolated in such an experiment, and how shall an ecosystem be replicated? Nothing, ecologically speaking, is as simple as it first appears.

This is not to say that humans should not intervene in the natural world. On the contrary, we must: as creatures with the inclination to dramatically alter the natural systems on which we depend, we have a duty to manage ecosystems in ways that balance immediate human needs against function and long term sustainability.

The decades-old field of restoration ecology focuses on rehabilitating ecosystems degraded by erosion, invasive species, deforestation, and other human impacts. But cost and pragmatism must play a role in all such efforts. For example, Reese's suggestion that we reduce animal populations non-lethally using birth control ignores real world evidence. In feral horses, short term birth control has not only proven expensive and impractical over large areas, but also questionably effective in reducing herd numbers.

Protecting a species ultimately means conserving its relationships with both the living and nonliving features of its environment.

In the case of wildlife disease, it is important to balance management goals with research and an abundance of caution when considering interventions. Dr. Melia DeVivo, whose research focuses on the population-level impacts of chronic wasting disease in free-ranging mule deer, said in an interview that "management of wildlife should be guided by science and not by feelings. While we never want to see any individual suffer, it is in our best interest to use appropriate intervention tools when it is necessary, proven effective, and guided by scientific research."

And there's the rub. It's tempting to defend the life of one sick deer, but the best way for a well-intentioned human to protect sustainable ecosystems in the long term is to think above the level of the individual, even beyond a given species. Protecting a species ultimately means conserving its relationships with both the living and nonliving features of its environment—a wild population of grazers cannot survive without forage and space. It's one reason why current debates over potential endangered species listings—for example, the sage-grouse—have focused on conserving species as a means to conserve their habitats (and the other plants and animals in them).

Reese suggests that "nowadays many of us have little contact with the wilderness, making it easy to view nature with rose-tinted glasses," yet his view of the natural world is hopelessly human-centric and smacks of the same blithe naïveté he seems to see in others. Such hubris merits a hard encounter with Thoreau's "vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature," or else Ecology 101.

Our dire, ever-warming future, compounded by an escalating series of positive feedbacks (loss of albedo, the greenhouse gases released by the thawing permafrost) is a lesson in what happens when humans reengineer the world. If we continue to alter the biosphere with such reckless impunity, as Reese would suggest, our fate as a species may be far worse than that of the antelope upon which the leopard drops from the tree. At least the antelope didn't see it coming.