Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Exploitation and the “Resource” Mentality of John Wayne

In a previous blog post, I suggested that the history of animal exploitation was like a centuries-old ‘trail of tears’ in that, just as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forcibly separated Native Americans from their homelands, so the treating of animals as mere commodities separated them from their natural lives and habitats. In the case of the Cherokee and other tribes, white Americans sought to acquire their land and the tribes were simply “in the way.” In the case of animals, their skins and meat could be used and sold, so trapping and ranching became profitable and commonplace. 

Here I would like to extend the comparison by suggesting that viewing ‘nature’ essentially as a resource leads to the disrespect or abuse of any indigenous creatures—whether “indians” or animals. This “resource mentality” seems to emerge wherever wilderness is perceived as a frontier to be feared or conquered. Dictionaries generally define ‘wilderness’ as uncultivated and undeveloped land or, psychologically, as any place in which a person feels lost, without guidance, or perplexed. 

This resource mentality was reflected in a comment John Wayne made in an interview many years ago. When asked whether he thought the U.S. government had treated the indians fairly, he replied, “Well, they had the land for hundreds of years and never did anything with it.” [emphasis mine]

The notion that the land and its occupants, if not to be “wasted”, were things to be used reflects a worldview or paradigm in which people are essentially estranged or alienated from ‘nature.’ At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that various cultures have embraced two contrasting models of Nature:

Expanding the domain of moral considerability to include nonhumans requires a new ethical paradigm of respect for all individual lives, regardless what species they belong to, and takes into account the similarities as well as the differences between ‘man’ and ‘nature’, or ‘self’ and ‘world’ (others). The traditional Western ethical paradigm (with roots in Manichean and Platonic dualism, Baconian science, and Cartesian dualism) has sustained a seemingly false dichotomy of “nature over against humanity” or matter against spirit, a model that emphasizes or encourages competition and exploitation (social Darwinism, if you will), sometimes with devastating consequences to the natural environment. To counter those effects, we need a holistic ethical paradigm that attempts to unify organic life and regards humans as both part of nature and morally responsible for it, a model that emphasizes harmony, integration, and cooperation. 

Of course, to develop this into a full-blown academic thesis, more work is needed. Precisely how the second model might translate into public attitudes and policies is a query worth exploring. People are generally more motivated by the need to survive than by a sense of biophilia.

Some conservatives defend free-market capitalism as religiously as their faith: for them, neither is questionable. Their assumption seems to be that private enterprise, without the constraints of “green politics,” is the managerial context that best ensures the wise use of natural resources. After all, it is argued, no profit-motivated capitalist or industry is going to deplete a resource beyond its ability to return revenues and enhance the owner’s net worth. In short, “owners make the best stewards.”

The theory sounds valid. But in practice, its success depends upon four conditions: (1) The ability of the capitalist or industry to perceive a resource as limited; (2) Their ability to calculate the true (environmental and social, as well as monetary) costs of extracting the resource; (3) Their integrity and commitment to sustain the resource, rather than to exhaust it; and (4) The pressure of the society or community in holding the industry accountable to that end. Any abuse of a species, habitat, or resource can be traced to the absence or failure of one or more of the above conditions (perception, calculation, commitment, and ac­count­ability). 

Absent these four safeguards, the pursuit of burgeoning scales of production and consumption leads to a greedy “drill, baby, drill” mentality that disregards both animal welfare and ecological integrity.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Republicans have historically been supportive of conservation. On April 28, 1971, President Richard Nixon reminded Congress that to preserve wilderness is a sign of “the self-restraint that marks a mature society” and that knowing wilderness is a way to gain “the becoming humility that accords nature’s domain an equal right to coexist with the domain of man.” President Nixon, who signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to give the federal government “needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage—threatened wildlife,” said: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.” Sadly, the Republican record on the environment has gone down hill ever since James Watt’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior under Reagan.


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