Sunday, November 18, 2012

Should we leave nature to its own devices?

I don't normally present video evidence of particulars for fear of unwittingly appealing to emotion, but I am starting to realize that few people have any concrete sense of what, exactly, "nature" is -- and why it's so dauntingly important that we conquer and, ultimately, destroy it.

Whatever your thoughts on human sexuality, legality, the monetary system, academia, or transhumanism, whatever your qualms with this blog, whatever you think of me, put all of it aside for the sake of this post. This is long overdue; I'm surprised that I hadn't gotten around to making this one sooner.

The Nature Premise

Most polar bear cubs die within their first year of life. If you were to Google this assertion right now, you would be overwhelmed by man-hating articles sensationalizing global warming as a dire crisis; after all, more polar bear cubs die within their first year of life now due to melting ice caps. While I agree that recklessly plundering an island governed by closed system dynamics will increase suffering, it is crucial that we understand that most polar bear cubs died within their first year of life long before humans had any substantive impact on the ecology of the Earth.

Does it matter if we change the number from fifty percent to seventy percent? Is fifty percent acceptable only because the direct cause doesn't know any better? This chain of logic is frighteningly absurd and anti-empathic. When earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis devastate human populations, the non-religious among us note the tragic nature of the event as well as the lack of purpose, goals, or intentions inherent in the destruction -- yet, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis have nothing to do with environmental plundering by humans. We cannot sentence a volcano to a life in prison for the horror that it has wrought upon a town, but we nevertheless note that its interference with our suffering ratio was unfortunate and is something to be preempted for the future. Surely, if we care enough about our own suffering to stop nature from "taking its course" against us, we can do the same for other species, who are no less deserving, and are often cared for in captivity.

Clearly, many of us care deeply about what happens to our species, regardless of whether an incident of suffering is anthropogenic. We consider an eradicated population to be a freak accident, a burp from nature to prepare for and prevent in the future. When thirty people die during a relatively intense hurricane in the United States, not only does the news media abstract the unfortunate fates of the victims for intensive coverage, they also beat us over the head with ways to prevent the scenario from applying to us; you'd think that if you didn't immediately fill up five pitchers with water and freeze them, you'd die of thirst within a week while freezing from the lack of heat in your home.

None of this, whether genuinely devastating or hilariously over-sensationalized, is human-caused, yet we communicate its existence to one another -- in a frighteningly disproportionate way indicative of biased selectivity -- almost constantly, preparing and lamenting, pondering the misfortune of others we don't even know. Certainly, it matters to us as a society.

Why, then, does the fact that far worse has been occurring to non-human organisms every day for one billion years not yield similar empathy and deep concern? It can't be because we're powerless to stop it. We can usually do absolutely nothing to stop the carnage during a serious tsunami affecting human populations, yet the end results are all over our televisions; we discuss them in shock with friends and relatives. Why do we not do the same upon realizing that the few zebras who do not suffocate to death over a six-minute period while in the throes of a lion's jaws slowly starve to death while crapping blood and moaning in agony?

Close to zero percent of the Earth's wildlife population dies from cancer, heart disease, or heart attack. Most are murdered within the first few years of their lives -- usually in horrible, painful ways -- and the few who do not endure this fate are either plagued by disease or eventually starve to death. Those rare few who somehow manage to dominate their competitors and live a relatively easy life in close proximity to resources will eventually get old, yes, but they will not die of cancer. Instead, their teeth will wear down to nothing, and then they will slowly starve to death.

Think about everyone who utters the phrase "world hunger" in a low tone of voice. World hunger is considered by many to be one of humanity's greatest failures, a sign that something has gone horribly wrong, that something highly unusual and incredibly awful has happened. The prevalence of human starvation should immediately prevent us from even considering having a child, and possibly awaken us to the reality of the mechanisms in charge of life on Earth. However, while world hunger is definitely one of our biggest problems, is it a deviation from business as usual for planet Earth the way that we make it out to be? Are we a failure for not being able to provide for every child on this planet, or do we fit right in with everybody else who lives here with us?

The real world hunger problem -- that plaguing trillions of organisms for close to a billion years -- is currently being completely ignored; it is not considered any kind of indication of failure, inefficiency, or aberration. When we think African village, we think starving children, but when we think nature, we think lush jungle -- even in spite of the starvation rate being far higher than our measly fourteen percent.

Animals whose teeth will wear down from old age will feel hunger pangs unlike any that you have ever experienced -- more like the sharp, sweat-inducing, heart-pounding stabbing pains that anyone with a poor gastrointestinal system is familiar with. They will eventually produce diarrhea as stool; they will become fatigued beyond what your worst bout of influenza had induced. They are even likely to develop fungi along the lining of their esophaguses as their immune systems deteriorate, causing swallowing to become horrendously painful.

Worst of all, though, they will endure all of this while having no idea what death is, and will panic from being unable to efficiently utilize their built-in fight-or-flight response; they will come to believe that they will feel this way forever. Anyone who has problems with panic disorder or agoraphobia should be able to understand the seriousness of this. This is the fate of the animals "fortunate" enough to not be murdered, and almost zero percent of aged animals will or have ever escaped it.

Some research has pointed to the possibility that mice and rats who survive attacks from predators -- i.e., the only wild mice and rats in existence who do not die during attacks from said predators -- develop something similar to panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. They then, of course, die a few short years later, usually from some horrible disease or while once again under duress as humongous talons sink their way into flesh.

Baby penguins often freeze to death after wandering away from the warmth of their parents' fur and falling through a hole in the ice somewhere -- even when there are penguins a few feet away, watching them freeze. Why does this happen? Because penguins don't have hands.

Wild chimpanzees often die during childhood from respiratory diseases, none resultant from interaction with humans.

Take a look at your backyard. See that cute squirrel? Ever think about what happens when it's no longer in sight? In a few months, it will be dead from starvation.

These events are not exceptional or exclusive to a particular niche or cluster of species; they are distributed evenly among sentient life. They are not the result of aberration or error; they are necessary for niches to make room for new, more compatible genes. They are not a risk of being sentient; they are a guarantee. Only humans are exempt.

Why do cruel pet owners and greedy farmers bother us so much while the very purpose of sentience -- that is, to motivate organisms enough for reproduction, after which their suffering is no longer useful currency -- is labeled as "just nature running its course"? We constantly take our dogs to the vet and ask that their naturally acquired ailments be treated "humanely." Why do we care so much, even when the cause has nothing to do with human interference, but not when the animal is "wild"? Who are we to decide that only cows and cats are privileged enough to be "taken in" by us for our selfish uses while the rest of the animal kingdom is left to live in squalor? If saving the lives of wildebeests who would otherwise be preyed upon by lions is playing god, then so, too, is saving the lives of our pet parakeets who acquire diseases not transmitted by humans. What's the difference?

Remember that all sentient life is sprung from a negative source, which is the same source of all sentient organisms' motivations for moving forward, eating, having sex, and running from predators. Even pleasure, rare though it is in the wild, is the result of terminating a previously negative experience. When one considers not only that the negative experiences to positive experiences ratio has been incredibly disproportionate for wildlife over the last billion years, but that all of those rare positive experiences are the result of running from a negative experience -- and one is atheist, lacking a belief in any kind of creator or purposeful functionality in the universe -- it should quickly become apparent that life is disgusting and stupid.

The Ubiquity of Torture

Before this post is continued, I would like to present the video evidence that I mentioned earlier. My words seem to fail to convince many of my readers, so perhaps witnessing nature for yourselves will persuade you. Be warned that the following is extremely graphic, and not for the faint of heart.

Did you know that it's not at all uncommon for wild animals to be eaten alive? Imagine how horribly painful that would be. Ever passed a kidney stone? Ever been on the brink of screaming from horrible stomach pains as you relieve yourself from both ends? Ever give birth naturally? Imagine doing all of those things at once, for eight hours, and with no conception of death. Imagine coming to believe while this is happening that it will never end.

Lions eating an elephant alive:

A baboon eating a baby gazelle alive:

A hyena eating a wildebeest alive:

If these videos do not make you wonder if any of this perpetuation for perpetuation's sake is something to be done about, then I don't know how else to convince you. Again, keep in mind that these are not unusual circumstances or some aberration resultant from humans destroying their habitats. This is a regular part of these animals' existences.

A Change in the Cultural Zeitgeist

When I read the comments in any of the above videos, the overwhelming majority are justifications of the natural system. Some are resultant from a religious disposition, but some are simply the result of our dogmatic acceptance of cultural memes in general -- which, in this case, includes the meme that nature is too grandiose and complex for us to touch, and any attempt by us to touch it leads to even worse suffering.

Global climate change is more likely to cause species to go extinct than it is to cause them to suffer, however; the real suffering is again left to the hyenas, lions, baboons, viruses, and parasites.

Consider the historical prevalence of gladiatorial combat and slavery. At one time, gladiatorial combat was not only acceptable, it was considered a blessing from the gods. After all, if Zeus or Apollo isn't knocking down your arena with terrible storm after terrible storm, then you must be doing something right. Why question it? There's obviously an order to what's happening; plus, it hardens us, prepares us for our own struggles in life, so if the gods want it, then so be it.

And slavery? It's all part of Manifest Destiny, of course. It's God's will. We're here to take this land by force because we know how to properly cultivate it and the natives do not. It's not our problem that they're genetically inferior; God intended it.

Lions eating elephants alive? God's will. Or maybe not. Maybe we're atheists, now. But so what? They have to do what they can in order to survive, and if they were to pass up on the elephant meat, they'd suffer a horrible fate of starvation, too.

Oh, wait. They're going to eventually starve to death anyway, so that doesn't make any sense at all. Too complex for us to stop? I wonder why Marcus Aurelius and Abraham Lincoln didn't seem to agree.

Do you want to be like Marcus Aurelius and Abe Lincoln, or do you want to be like every other asshole watching reality TV and farting through existence? Let's do something about this -- by at least spreading the word for now. Who's with me?

Conclusion: Antinatalism is not the ultimate choice

Spaying and neutering all animals on the planet would be a good idea if it wouldn't cause sudden, catastrophic ecosystem collapse, but even then, there could be other planets enduring the same phenomena. The problem isn't that life sucks, it's that the universe was not created by humans. For a billion years on Earth -- and possibly far, far longer elsewhere in the universe -- life has been governed by a series of forces far less efficient or competent than even the most base and insipid despot or criminal in existence.

We do not force people to slave away, building millions of laptops from scratch with their bare hands, just so that a single one of those laptops will actually turn on long enough to send an email before crashing. But that's what the rest of the universe's modus operandi is; that's business as usual outside of the human sphere of influence.

Why are we the lucky ones? Why are we privileged Western humans a percentage of sentient life with a bunch of zeros after the decimal point? I don't want to be lucky.

If you don't see the parallels between this agenda and the previous ones throughout history, if you don't want to stop elephants from being eaten alive like in the first of the above videos, then I have nothing more to say to you.



  2. How is that movie? The opening looked like typical von Trier pretense, but if the above scene is part of a larger sentiment and not isolated, I might check it out.

    1. I found it slow in the cinema. The first half is an interminable drag, as the farce of bourgeois marriage is depicted in detail. The second half is more enjoyable as the apocalypse approaches. If you've an idle two hours, it's not the worst option.

  3. This essay is very good. Sometimes people talk about poverty and suffering being the natural state of humanity, and we can expand that to include all of nature in general. Suffering is the norm, and anything else is the exception. Those of us living comfortable middle-class lives in Western countries often forget this, or sometimes just get so wrapped up in our lives we can't really comprehend the extent of the suffering going on in the world. The deck is stacked against us and other living things (to say the least) as far as enjoyment of living goes.

    I've always liked this clip of Werner Herzog talking about nature:

    1. Suffering is by far the leading cause of motivation among sentient organisms. Baboons don't share food with an alpha male because it makes them feel good to be altruistic, they do it because they're being held hostage by a big, scary lunatic with a gun.

      I enjoy watching nature documentaries and trying to find the "good" moments. Some documentaries are far more biased than others, but even then, it's hard to really see much pleasure in the lives of the protagonists. Pleasure is almost a purely incidental motivator; it's the matter and energy of the universe as we know it, while suffering is the sum of dark matter and dark energy.

      I liked the Herzog clip. On a side note, while he's a pretty good filmmaker, he does tend to digress far too often for my taste, often intentionally relegating himself to an observer. There's no pragmatism in this, unfortunately. There's fascination, and then there's true revulsion.