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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, October 22, 2012

    Whitebark Pines, Grizzlies, and Speciesism

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011
    Jim Macdonald
     
    Yesterday, the Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld a District Court ruling which held that grizzly bears should remain classified as threatened on the endangered species list.  The court accepted the argument that climate change has had the effect of exacerbating a beetle infestation that has dramatically reduced the number of whitebark pines, whose nuts are a major source of nutrition for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.  Whitebark pines themselves have been candidates for inclusion on the endangered species list, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined listing them because they argue they have other priorities.

    Without getting into the details of what this practically means, let me lay something else out there.  In the past year and a half, Greater Yellowstone has seen three fatalities due to bear attacks.  In previous recorded history, only six human fatalities from bear attacks in the entire ecosystem had ever been documented.  Some have argued that the spike in fatalities is proof that grizzly bear numbers have adequately recovered; others have argued that the number of human and bear encounters are on the rise because climate change is having an adverse effect on grizzly habitat.

    Answering who is right about that is for people with much more technological knowledge than me.  What I want to call attention to, though, are the ethical assumptions that are underneath all of this.  The first thing I notice is that very few would care about the protection of whitebark pines if it were not for saving grizzly bears.  So, the question is: What underlies the speciesism, or the judgment that one species is worth more than another?  Why is it that the government can say that whitebark pines are endangered but decline to list them as endangered?  Related to this, why is it that a spike in the number of human and bear encounters is necessarily seen as a problem?  More to the point, why is it that anyone could argue that the correct population threshold for grizzly bears might be determined based on problems that it might cause to the human community?  Is that not also speciesism?

    Admittedly, I am not a speciesist.  I can find no reason to hold human values and desires as being ethically more worthy than those of bears or pine trees.  I also do not understand why the human affinity for animals should therefore make them more valuable than an obscure species of pine trees or even to the beetles who are benefiting from climate change.  But, rather than argue for that position, I am curious what rational justification others might have for why a human-based ethics is right.

    It is easy in these discussions to throw around ad hominems.  You can attack someone as a hypocrite because they eat, because they don't commit suicide because some other animal might need a meal, and because of other things of that sort.  That is not a rational justification, however.  Perhaps, we are all hypocrites and yet all are wrong.  Or perhaps there is some other reason besides ethics that keeps us from slitting our wrists so that we can become fertilizer for a new forest.

    It just seems that there has to be an answer, or else why save bears at all, why protect Yellowstone, and why do any of the things we do?  Is it really just a social whim?  And if we do find that beetles and whitebark pines really do matter, then why don't we resist the urge of couching our support in such blatantly anthropocentric ways?  Why can't we have a discussion about whitebark pines without relating them to grizzlies and relating grizzlies back to what a large constituency of humans feels about them?  Can't we see them and love them for what they are?  What does it matter if there are one or a million human/bear interactions if there is a chance that all bears might not survive?  (Note that I am not saying that human and bear interactions should be encouraged; what I am saying is that it is not the ethical basis from which to argue for the recovery of a species).

    At this point, the discussion is open.  What grounds our prejudices in favor of one species over another?  If we have natural prejudices (like the prejudice to desire our own survival), is that necessarily the basis for all our policy decisions?  Do all our prejudices rise above every other consideration?  If not (as I would argue), where do we draw those lines?  Or, perhaps, we need to stop having a God complex and stop drawing so many lines.  With that, I'll leave these unanswered questions hanging from my own pine tree of sorts.

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    Comments

    Jim,
    i like the relation of this article to its under pining ethical questions.

    I start with the assumption that we are motivated by a basic need to propagate the species and that this need translates into a will to live (given there are not extreme extenuating circumstances). From this need to live, in combination with the ideas of mutual aid, it makes logical sense that the more humans alive the larger the chance that i will survive(this is not always true but it is true a majority of the time). it is also true that within an ecosystem all parts depend on each other and this would link humans to all other forms of life in a kind of mutual aid. i would say that the human bias comes from our general belief that people can help us more than animals or plants but that feelings of connectedness with nature(which we are of course a part of) comes from the need for a symbiotic relationship with nature. I think it is important to save the trees because we need them to maintain this ecosystem and we need the bears as well and that we  must strike a balance regularly as opposed to thinking there is one singular system that corrects the problems for ever. that is to say we should attempt to be a balanced part of an ecosystem and, if we intend to maintain an ecosystem, to attempt to balance that ecosystem. i to would not necessarily find human values above those of nature but only in the relation that a human may be causing harm to a larger ecosystem that would jeopardize humans which would then relate back to human ethics and morals. i would add finally that on the grandest scheme there is no difference between animals or trees or us or rocks for that matter.

    in summary, the value of trees and bears is directly related to human values and it is necessary to see ourselves as part of the ecosystem and see the effects of our actions within an ecosystem.
    i agree heartily that human/bear interactions are no way to measure the appropriate bear population because this views bears as being intruders in our space as opposed to equal participants in this ecosystem.
    Mike D

    Interesting. I don't think there is a person alive (certainly myself included) who doesn't base their actions on constant prejudices and favoritism. I choose to eat plants rather than animals because I see so much evidence (scientific and personal) that they think and feel and are conscious and sentient in the ways we can sense and measure, and I don't feel that as much with plants. But, I don't claim that animals are "objectively" more important than plants, or rocks, and they are all equally integral to the ecosystem. We are the only creature who has made ourselves an absolute enemy of the natural world, and yet we favor ourselves over all others because that's the way we're programmed, through culture and biology. How to live with as little speciesism as possible? That is a question to which I have never come up with an answer...and people are generally disgusted when I even use the phrase "speciesism". Our culture, on its public face, rejects the concepts of racism and sexism (although do they really?) but attempting to extricate ourselves from prejudice and cruelty against all other beings turns us into a laughing stock within our society. Yet is there a more important ethical dilemma in the world than how to treat everyone and everything around us in the most compassionate and unbiased way possible? I don't think so.

    A story shared by many Native American tribes in the Northwest warns us, in one way or another, about transgressing species boundaries.  Coyote tries to be a leaf and falls from the Cottonwood, puts his eyeball back in crooked and wanders off to some other mischief.  Or, Bear seduces a young woman and they den down together, causing all sorts of problems.  The lesson is we can only be human, even if we can also wonder about, pay our respects to--- and also kill and eat---other beings.

    It's easy to see why we favor bears---they are strong and resourceful, and also the most like us.  A mother Grizzly standing on her hind legs to get a look around is strikingly human.  (It's even said that a skinned bear looks just like a person.)  And with their habit of roaming far and wide, they represent the wild still around us and within us---so they make good logos for environmental groups.

    It's not as obvious how we relate to a whitebark pine---but it's not impossible to get a sense at the higher elevations where they thrive that they help hold the soil to the mountainside, give shade to a weary hiker, and astound us when they grow gnarled and stunted from a crack in the rock.  I'd say we want them there for more than just keeping our favorite grizzlies well fed.

    Is anyone saying we should get behind the pine beetles?  We know that periodic disturbance---blowdowns, beetle kills, fires---makes a patchwork of different habitats that support biodiversity.  But those red trees, they are so unsightly.

    In "Politics of Nature," Bruno Latour rejects what he terms "Science"---that is, that we can objectively formulate knowledge about a "Nature" that is external to us.  (Granted, he writes from France where there is little wild nature left remaining.)  In this view, the division between humans and Nature has always been an illusion.  Latour proposes that we understand Science instead as "the sciences," which can inform us but never actually make our decisions for us.  Curiously, while he rejects deep ecology (which seeks to attribute intrinsic worth to all other creatures) as panning to "Nature," he advocates for "collectives" of beings formed around particular issues rather than the usual scientific dualism---humans on one side, everything else on the other.

    A collective of humans, grizzlies, whitebark pines, and pine beetles might start with the question:  what do all of you want to be fully realized beings?  Of course, the human sciences would provide the main adjudication.  Unless a pine tree gets the notion of trying to be a human.

    to the question of being behind pine beetles. while i am very ignorant on the ecosystem that they, bears, pine trees, and everything else form i would certainly say, and i think you would agree, that if the pine beetles were going extinct they would be worth saving and i think that would qualify as being behind the pine beetles.
    i agree that Science(uppercase S) does not exist objectively within human understanding and that science(lowercase s) is a much more appropriate understanding of science in relation to humans. i would also agree that the sciences can never actually make decisions only inform them and that this is the same difference as the one between knowledge(science) and wisdom(application of knowledge). I agree that the division between humans and Nature is an illusion but i also continue to use the word nature to mean its current definition in society for the ease of discussion.

    as to the dualism of humans on one side and everything else on the other, i think that while this certainly does not describe the situation in whole it does describe part of the situation and that even from this view it is logical to protect the other players in our ecosystem, namely the bear, the pine tree, and the pine beetle today. that is to say, it is to humans selfish benefit that those creatures continue to survive.
    finally, i think a collective of humans and trees cannot really exist, only a collective of humans that recognize the importance of trees to their own survival. only humans have a need for a collective as trees cannot maliciously destroy their own environment, trees have a built in regulator on their own destructive force(their inability to make decisions), humans have a built in regulator as well but it comes in he form of conscious understanding of the effects of our actions.

    Mike D

    First of all - to Julie - thanks for contributing to the discussion here.  I think it was really interesting that both you and Mike mentioned the rocks, suggesting that biocentrism also is a type of prejudice.  I would wholeheartedly agree with that.  Until someone can tell me why it's a contradiction to deny that anything conceivable has more value than something else, then we should admit that we are only constructing the moral community (that is, those with moral standing to be counted as members of the community) based on nothing more than dogmatic impulse.

    But, I want to address Marshall, as I think he is the one saying things here which give me the most reservations.  I want to be careful with his points, so let me repeat them in italics.

    A story shared by many Native American tribes in the Northwest warns us, in one way or another, about transgressing species boundaries.  Coyote tries to be a leaf and falls from the Cottonwood, puts his eyeball back in crooked and wanders off to some other mischief.  Or, Bear seduces a young woman and they den down together, causing all sorts of problems.  The lesson is we can only be human, even if we can also wonder about, pay our respects to--- and also kill and eat---other beings.

    This is to say that one being cannot become what it cannot become.  That doesn't say that much, however, because coyotes and humans both inhale oxygen.  Plants and humans both reproduce cells.  Rocks and humans are both constantly in some state of motion no matter how much they may seem at rest.  Yes, all things must have something that makes them unique, or else the distinction would be meaningless.  They must also share things of which they are the same or they would not all properly be called things.  That is, beings have a universal quality such that all beings are beings, and all beings have particular qualities such that they are the unique beings that they are.  Much of the study of metaphysics in philosophy is devoted to sorting through the quagmires involved in the question of universals and particulars.

    I guess my problem with the opening is that it doesn't say much.  Humans are humans; so what?  What is it to be human?  Is being ethical reduced to human prejudices?  Even if only humans consider ethics - for instance, maybe dogs can be good, but maybe they don't stop and think about what goodness is - would it mean that ethics is reduced to human passions?  The question is begged what it is to be human. 
    I would argue that humans are as Aristotle states, the rational animal.  Ironically, the human capacity for grasping reason as reason (all animals reason; do they stop and think about what reason means?), has been used by many to assert the superiority of humans, which then leads to the leap that humans are the only worthy members of the moral community.  Actually, I think that all the human capacity to reason about reason entails is that humans don't necessarily have to see themselves as superior because we reason.  That is, there is a world outside our prejudice.  That is what it is to be human.  It is why we can forgive a bear for killing someone in the forest; we might not be so forgiving of someone who kills a bear.  We'll be more forgiving of a newborn than a grown adult.

    It's easy to see why we favor bears---they are strong and resourceful, and also the most like us.  A mother Grizzly standing on her hind legs to get a look around is strikingly human.  (It's even said that a skinned bear looks just like a person.)  And with their habit of roaming far and wide, they represent the wild still around us and within us---so they make good logos for environmental groups.

    This may get at something of our prejudice.  I have no doubt I can identify more with most animals than I do with most non-animals.  We can communicate to some extent.  We see behaviors we recognize in ourselves.  It seems we are attracted to that which we can understand better.  Aesthetics and coherence with our experience do seem to be tightly wound ideas.  Of course, perhaps, this should put us more on our guard.  A lot of things are palatable and yet not healthy.  We can eat a poisonous but tasty fruit.  There is a whole world in chemistry labs devoted to the science of what flavors can be produced that will keep us coming back for more.  When we see a species hierarchy that develops precisely because it arises from our prejudices, wouldn't it be prudent for us to not cater to those instincts?  If whitebark pines become merely a palate choice, aren't we straying from reason?  Isn't that how racial divisions, gender divisions, and class divisions often arise?  People are attracted to likes; they then build moral and ethical systems and choices rooted in those likes.  But, outside of those likes, is there any reason to globalize that into a moral system? 

    I'd argue we should be wary of these logos and those who would capitalize simply from our desires.  That isn't to say we should stop feeling kindred with bears; it's to realize that we shouldn't build a moral system off of it.  It should be to own up to the limited nature of our perspectives.

    It's not as obvious how we relate to a whitebark pine---but it's not impossible to get a sense at the higher elevations where they thrive that they help hold the soil to the mountainside, give shade to a weary hiker, and astound us when they grow gnarled and stunted from a crack in the rock.  I'd say we want them there for more than just keeping our favorite grizzlies well fed.

    I would for sure.  Humans have an affection for trees.  Look at the Gallatin Valley, which was originally treeless.  Now, people have planted them everywhere.  Someone can no doubt trace that to our roots in trees as primates or whatever.  Still, the issue remains that perhaps we need to be more on guard about what we are doing.  So many of us would like to see revolution, but what if it is a revolution still ultimately rooted in systematizing human prejudice?  Yes, we have our own prejudices, and we will act on them.  Should we be constructing a world, however, that is beholden to them?  There are a lot of implications in that question that we'll no doubt keep pursuing over time.

    Is anyone saying we should get behind the pine beetles?  We know that periodic disturbance---blowdowns, beetle kills, fires---makes a patchwork of different habitats that support biodiversity.  But those red trees, they are so unsightly.  

    I disagree with that feeling.  I really love how the patchwork and diversity in the forest looks.  I remember how Yellowstone looked just a handful of years after the 1988 fires and what interesting mosaics were created from the top of the mountains.  I didn't know Yellowstone any other way, and I was in awe of the power of the fires and what shapes they created.  The beetles do the the same for me.  And because I have the worldview I hold, I root for those that no one roots for.  I don't really want to see the forests all gone, and perhaps because I don't believe the beetles will actually do this (as they will run out of fuel or some other force will intervene), I enjoy looking at their work - even though it is tempered with knowing that trees have died, trees whose being I can scarcely understand.

    But, I realize I'm in the minority.  Even human prejudice breaks down into individual prejudice.  None of us are strictly of a kind; we are unique and each contains immensely unique beings with us to infinity.  My cells are unique; the components of my cells are unique.  No two oxygen atoms are indeed the same in every respect.  And, even within those atoms is even more that we cannot possibly grasp.  Each thing has its own motion, and empowering that motion necessarily gets in the way of another being's motion.  The only thing - as Julie argues - is that no one besides a segment of humanity has dared to systematize and justify it as the only way things should be for everything else.  I wouldn't dare enforce a rule that says people need to appreciate pine beetle destruction the way I do.  (And note, I'm not even making an ecosystem argument - ecosystem's are simply other sorts of beings of which we can have or not have a prejudicial relationship toward).

    In "Politics of Nature," Bruno Latour rejects what he terms "Science"---that is, that we can objectively formulate knowledge about a "Nature" that is external to us.  (Granted, he writes from France where there is little wild nature left remaining.)  In this view, the division between humans and Nature has always been an illusion.  Latour proposes that we understand Science instead as "the sciences," which can inform us but never actually make our decisions for us.  Curiously, while he rejects deep ecology (which seeks to attribute intrinsic worth to all other creatures) as panning to "Nature," he advocates for "collectives" of beings formed around particular issues rather than the usual scientific dualism---humans on one side, everything else on the other.

    This is a potentially attractive idea.  I'd be open to the idea as one arising from our practical reality so long as we are humble about the values and rules of conduct we come up with.  In Sheapeater societies, the dogs ate first and ate the choicest food because they were essential to the survival of the tribe.  It would be strange to enforce that on every society not because dogs might not be worth more than humans but because it is hard to know what grounds universalizing such an idea would consist of.  I think we necessarily live in collectives, though, and it would be helpful to think of our community outside of the human/nature paradigm.  Dogs and rocks and cracks in the wall make up our real communities.  Right now, I have a window looking out on the Bridger Mountains in my collective.  The point is that the extent of our prejudice seems best confined to the immediacy of our sense experience.  The problem, though, is that we must recognize that not everyone and everything is so lucky as to be able to define their communities this way.  There are global systems that must be opposed.  They must be dismantled before we can truly appreciate a collective that involves even the crumbs on the ground.  A good start is recognizing the ways in which we are falling short.

    A collective of humans, grizzlies, whitebark pines, and pine beetles might start with the question:  what do all of you want to be fully realized beings?  Of course, the human sciences would provide the main adjudication.  Unless a pine tree gets the notion of trying to be a human.

    Perhaps ... I think it's more likely that such a collective doesn't really start; it already is.  It becomes the dominant human paradigm when humans recognize that their rational nature doesn't make them superior to everything else and that there isn't a continuum in nature that goes from the most human to the least human.  When that happens, one will realize that pine trees dead and alive never left the collective.  We did, and now we're back.  It still might mean that the human stops the beetle from killing the tree needed to build a house (sorry grizzly bear), but it will no longer insist and act as though that's the way things should and must be.  Thus, it will still be a world full of troubles and misery; it just won't be one that has to deal with the myriad other troubles caused by the human vanity of believing himself (and, yes, I mean himself) as superior.

    I just need to lose the irony and then we're mostly on the same page.  I have no bone to pick with the pine beetles (or forest fires, or avalanches)---but plenty of people talk up biodiversity while still wanting to pick and choose.  Wanting grizzlies but not pine beetles.

    There are plenty of ways to know the world outside of setting up science experiments.  I am just saying that our supposed primacy in the world is reflected in our dominant epistemology (science as study of objective nature), and that getting past this requires a reordering.

    At the same time, it is one thing to declare all beings equal, and another to hammer out a forest management plan.  (At this point we are "managing" forests whether we think we are or not, as the die-off of whitebark pines shows.)  We can't say what is best for an ecosystem---but we can make informed decisions that are maybe also humble.  Having partial knowledge is different from being superior.  But it is still partial knowledge.

    (It is actually a koan, no joke:  something like "How do you comprehend a pine tree?")

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