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The Ethics of the Ecology of Fear against the Nonspeciesist Paradigm: A Shift in the Aims of Intervention in Nature - by Oscar Horta

The Ethics of the Ecology of Fear against the

Nonspeciesist Paradigm:

A Shift in the Aims of Intervention in Nature

by Professor Oscar Horta


Humans often intervene in the wild for anthropocentric or environmental reasons. An example of such interventions is the reintroduction of wolves in places where they no longer live in order to create what has been called an “ecology of fear”, which is being currently discussed in places such as Scotland. In the first part of this paper I discuss the reasons for this measure and argue that they are not compatible with a nonspeciesist approach. Then, I claim that if we abandon a speciesist viewpoint we should change completely the way in which we should intervene in nature. Rather than intervening for environmental or anthropocentric reasons, we should do it in order to reduce the harms that nonhuman animals suffer. This conflicts significantly with some fundamental environmental ideals whose defence is not compatible with the consideration of the interests of nonhuman animals.

1. Introduction

Humans intervene continuously in the wild. There are several reasons why they do so. In most cases, they do it just for the sake of clearly recognizable human benefits (as when they transform some environment to make it more comfortable and less risky for humans to inhabit or visit). In other cases, they intervene in order to maintain certain patterns of environmental balance. They often do the latter because it is in their own interest. The motives for this can be variable: the promotion of tourism, an interest in getting some resources present in the area in which the intervention takes place, scientific, cultural or aesthetical reasons... In other cases, though, they do it, allegedly, just for its own sake. The assumption then is that there is a certain value in the preservation of such balance, reflected in Aldo Leopold’s well known dictum “[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1966, 262). In spite of this, humans very rarely intervene in nature for the sake of the interests of other sentient beings, that is, nonhuman animals. Moreover, the kinds of intervention they carry out are often harmful for them. In fact, if such harm is ever considered, it is only insofar as it is instrumentally relevant for the ends that are being aimed at. The reduction of the harms animals suffer, per se, is not considered a goal that should be pursued when these kinds of interventions in nature take place. In this paper I will evaluate the reasons we may have to support the ends that different interventions aim to achieve. To carry out such analysis, I will begin with a particular intervention of this kind: the reintroduction of wolves. This measure has been considered in recent years in places such as the Scottish Highlands (see for instance Watson Feathersome 1997; Nilsen et al. 2007; Wilson 2004; Manning et al. 2009; as well as BBC News 1999; 2000 and 2008; Morgan 2007; or O’Connell 2008 for media coverage of the issue). And it was implemented before in places such as Yellowstone National Park, in the United States. This is a measure that would be harmful for a number of animals but has been considered in order to stop certain changes in the Highlands environment, through the imposition on ungulates of what has been called an “ecology of fear” (Ripple and Beschta 2004). Such a measure has been much discussed, but not because of the consequences it would have for nonhuman animals, but rather because of the way it could affect some human (non-vital) interests. However, in dealing with this question I do not intend to restrict my analysis to this particular intervention, nor to this type of intervention. Rather, I will consider it as an example to examine the more general question of what should be the ends we should aim for when we intervene in nature.

I want to say in advance that I do not intend to make a technical case here as regards whether the particular intervention I will tackle might achieve its goals or not. Nor will I try to assess any other alternative ways in which such ends could be pursued. On the contrary, I will try to examine the ethics underlying the acceptance of those ends. I will consider the question of whether it is right to harm animals in order to achieve such ends. I will then consider the reasons we may have to intervene in nature for the sake of a completely different purpose, which is to reduce the harms animals suffer. I will argue that this is something we should aim for even if it strongly conflicted with what environmentalists may regard as valuable. This means that the position I will defend here should not be confused with a criticism of intervention in nature per se. My conclusion will be that we are not justified in intervening in nature when doing so generates more harm for nonhuman animals. But I will also claim that others interventions should be carried out. To defend this, I will proceed as follows. First, in section 2, I will explain the reasons why environmentalists defend the reintroduction of wolves and the ways it would be harmful for a number of animals. Then, in section 3, I will claim that in proposing such a measure they are considering the interests nonhuman animals have in a way that is completely different from that in which they would consider human interests. In section 4 I will argue that treating nonhuman animals comparatively worse than humans in cases in which their interests are equally important for each of them is unjustified. I will claim that it is a form of speciesism. In light of this, in section 5, I will argue that this presents a serious objection to the way in which the interests of animals are considered in cases such as the aforementioned. I will claim that their supporters assume a speciesist viewpoint. Next, in section 6, I will consider the claim that an intervention such as this one could be actually good for nonhuman animals even if we would never carry it out if humans were affected. I will argue that the issue has not been really researched and that there are reasons to doubt this claim. Then, in section 7, I will consider the claim that without apex predators herbivores will end up disappearing from places such as the Highlands. And in section 8 I will claim that this argument is inconsistent with the practice of farming. After that, in section 9, I consider some potential consequences for other animals due to the trophic cascade that the reintroduction of wolves might produce. In section 10 I will introduce another argument by pointing out that there are strong reasons to doubt our common assumptions regarding the aggregate wellbeing of animals. I will consider some facts regarding this that have been presented by Yew-Kwang Ng and Alan Dawrst, which may lead us to conclude that the suffering of nonhuman animals outweighs their wellbeing. Then, in section 11, I will consider whether we may have other reasons to think that this intervention brings about a positive outcome. This might be so according to a biocentric or an environmental holistic viewpoint. I will claim that none of these views can be considered compelling ones. Next, in section 12, I will claim that none of this drives us to reject intervention in nature. Rather, I will argue that it gives us strong reasons to intervene for the sake of the reduction of the harms nonhuman animals suffer. Finally, section 13 concludes.

2. The Ecology of Fear: The Effects of Wolf Reintroduction on Elk and Deer

Reintroduction of wolves is often advocated because it is seen as something good in itself (see for instance Mech 1995). It is often believed that restoring ecosystems previously existing is something environmentally valuable (for a criticism of this view, see Shelton 2004). However, there are other reasons why their reintroduction has been defended. In the Scottish Highlands this measure has been debated recently on the claim that the red deer population has grown too much and is causing significant damage to the local vegetation by grazing.

It has been claimed that the reintroduction of wolves would reverse this process. This claim is based on conclusions drawn from what happened in Yellowstone National Park in the USA in the last decades, where wolf reintroduction was carried out in 1995 and 1996. The last wolves originally living in this park in Yellowstone had been killed by 1926. However, after much debate, seventy years later 31 Mackenzie Valley wolves taken from Canada were brought to the park. Since then, their numbers have grown up to 124 in 2008 (Smith et al. 2009). Many people find it aesthetic to have wolves back in Yellowstone, and this was one of the reasons why they were reintroduced. But this measure was also carried out in an attempt to restore the trophic chain preexisting the elimination of wolves in the park some decades earlier. The reason for this was that, in the absence of wolves, elk were free to move around in the park and flourish, even though for decades humans hunted them in huge numbers. And it was been argued that they were “overgrazing” some of the park areas. This claim was seriously disputed (Yellowstone National Park, National Park Service 2009). But, environmentalists were nevertheless worried about this because elk were grazing one particular plant. They were eating the young aspen shoots before they grew up, so these trees were not reproducing. For this reason, after much discussion, reintroducing the wolves was assumed to be the only reliable way to stop this process.

What are the grounds for this? How can wolves prevent ungulates from eating the tree shoots? Of course, one way is by killing them and thus reducing their number—it is estimated that around 22 elk per wolf are killed each year in the park (White et al. 2005, 36), and that since wolf reintroduction, the northern Yellowstone elk herd has declined by around 50% or more (Smith 2005, 23; White et al. 2005, 35–36). However, the key factor here is something else. It is fear. If wolves are around, their potential victims fear grazing in open meadows, since these are places in which wolves can see them much more easily. So they have to hide in the woods and get their food from bushes and low tree branches (see Ripple and Larsen 2000; Ripple and Beschta 2007; see also Preisser et al. 2005). That is the reason why the resultant biotic relations that arise from this have received the name “ecology of fear”. And the landscape resulting from this, in which even though there are herbivores living in the area they do not graze in open fields, has been called “landscape of fear” (Laundre, J. W. et al. 2010).

Now, the way in which herbivores are harmed by this seems clear. The harm that is inflicted on them is not reduced to their killing, but includes their suffering as well. Fear can be an extremely distressing feeling. And this is not the only way in which they are harmed by the reintroduction of wolves. They also get poorer nourishment as a result of it. This, again, has been observed in Yellowstone: because the elk no longer dare to feed out of the woods, their nutrition had been notably worse since the arrival of the wolves (Christianson and Creel 2010). (In fact, this was, together with the killings, one reason why their population declined. Elk are weaker and more liable to die for other reasons, and they have less offspring [Creel et al. 2009]). We can thus conclude that this kind of measure imposes significant harm on the herbivores who are subjected to an ecology of fear. We could also assume that, on the other hand, this measure benefits wolves. But this would be a controversial claim. Reintroductions do not benefit the actual wolves that are captured, transported and released into an unknown environment. They would be better off if they were left alone in the places they came from (unless they were starving there, or being harmed in some other way). We could nevertheless say that the measure would benefit those wolves who would exist in the future. To make this claim, however, we need to assume an impersonal conception of the good according to which we are benefiting future beings by making it possible that they would exist (a view that entails, for instance, that if we do not have children we are failing to do something good—at least in some respect—for some potential beings). This is a very controversial claim. At any rate, considering the numbers of ungulates and wolves involved (recall that an average of 22 elk per wolf were killed each year in Yellowstone), it seems clear that even if we accept this claim we will still have to conclude that the harm the measure imposes on some animals clearly overshadows the benefits it may bring to others.

3. A Clearly Different Consideration of Interests

The reintroduction of wolves is never met without significant controversy. Many people strongly oppose it. But the arguments for this do not have to do with the interests of nonhuman animals.

Farmers of neighboring areas are some of those who most strongly object to the reintroduction of wolves. They complain that the wolves might kill some of the animals they keep on their property. Of course, their concern is not the good of these animals (after all, they are being raised to be eventually sent by the farmers themselves to be killed). Rather, it is clear that the interest that the farmers have in not having the wolves around is an economic interest. Together with them, hunters often oppose these measures, in order to have more ungulates available for them to hunt. (Alleged concern for wolf attacks on humans is also sometimes expressed as a reason against their reintroduction. However, these attacks are so extremely rare that this seems to be an argument that is simply used by those who oppose the presence of wolves for the other reasons mentioned above, rather than something that may actually be of concern to them).

Now, if we compare the weight of the different interests involved there is an obvious contrast. An interest in not gaining some more money or in getting some entertainment in killing animals is clearly less significant than an interest in not losing one’s life (either by the action of a wolf or by a human hunter). And it is also inferior to an interest in not being subjected to continuous fear and in not being forced to be malnourished. However, the former can be crucial in stopping these measures from being carried out, while the latter are not given any consideration whatsoever. Complaints by farmers and hunters are usually taken seriously, while concern for the wellbeing of nonhuman animals is not even regarded as a serious concern. How can this be? The answer is obvious. The different interests involved in the issue are not being considered according to the weight they actually have for those who possess them. Rather, they are assessed in accordance to whether or not they are possessed by humans. It is clear that if humans, rather than ungulates, were killed and caused to suffer, reintroduction of wolves would not be even discussed. This entails that at least one of the following statements is right:

a. Wolf reintroduction would be a good measure even if a number of humans were killed, terrified and starved due to it.

b. Wolf reintroduction may be considered unacceptable because of the ways in which it harms the animals they hunt.

c. The interests of humans and nonhumans have to be considered in completely different ways.

For most people, (a) cannot be considered acceptable. This includes those theorists who have defended what has been called the land ethic and other environmentalist viewpoints (see for instance Callicott 1990, 103; 2000, 211). If we grant this to be right, we are left with the question of whether it is (b) or (c) we must accept. In order to examine this, I will now consider whether claim (c) can be justified.

Questioning Anthropocentric Speciesism

The view that humans’ interests must be taken into account in ways in which nonhumans’ ones need not be considered has been put forward in several different ways. Its defenses can be grouped into five general categories. First of all, this idea is often taken for granted, or assumed to be right by mere definition. It is claimed that it should be obvious that humans’ interests should count for more than nonhumans’ ones. This view offers no argument in support of the claim it is defending. But there are other ways in which this perspective can be defended. For instance, it is sometimes claimed that we should assume it because humans have an ontological status higher than that of other animals, or because humans are God’s chosen species (see Aristotle 1998, 1254a–1256b; Reichmann 2000). These claims appeal to intrinsic features or to relations whose existence cannot be verified, nor falsified by any means. There is no way in which we may verify that all humans and no other animal have these features or relations, because there is no way in which we can test whether anyone at all can have them. In this way, these claims are similar to definitional ones. They just assume in some way that humans have some sort of privileged status, which is what they would need to prove. So they fail to justify the idea that human interests are morally more important than nonhumans are. But, apart from these ones, there are other ways in which the predominance of human interests has been defended. It has been also claimed that humans have certain features (consisting, basically, of certain intellectual capacities), which no nonhuman animal possesses. And it has been maintained that those features are the

ones that should determine that someone must be morally considered (see, for instance, Descartes 1932; or, in more recent times, Carruthers 1992). Besides, it has been argued in other cases that humans have some special relations of solidarity, sympathy or power in which nonhuman animals are not engaged, and that it is this that determines whether or not we should morally consider them (see, for instance, Whewell 1852, 223). However, as many of those who have worked in animal ethics have pointed out, these arguments fail to draw a line separating humans from nonhumans. There are many humans such as infants and those with cognitive disabilities who lack the mentioned intellectual capacities. And there are also humans who are alone and powerless, and thus fail to have the relations considered to be relevant according to these arguments. This means that if we want to defend the moral consideration of all human beings, we cannot assume the moral relevance of criteria that exclude nonhumans. This argument may drive us to reject the idea that these criteria are morally relevant, something which we may also conclude by means of a different argument, if we consider what follows. Having certain capacities or relations is something that can make us liable to be harmed or benefited in certain ways. But it is not what determines that we can be harmed or benefited as such. This is determined, rather, by the fact that we are sentient beings, who can have positive and negative experiences. Hence, if we want to make our decisions according to what can be good or bad for those who may be affected by them, we need to consider what is relevant for them to be harmed or benefited. If we accept this argument based on an appeal to relevance, we will reject any criteria for moral consideration which differs from sentiency. Hence, I conclude that all the defenses of the predominance of human interests fail, so we cannot consider this view to be justified. If this is right, we must conclude that such a position is a form of speciesist discrimination.

The complete paper is available here -

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Comment by Kerry Baker on January 19, 2012 at 18:41

I don't think this is the whole story. My understanding from a documentary I saw about Yellowstone was that the elk were eating the plants that the beavers use to build their habitats.  When the wolves returned, the vegetation returned and the beavers began to once again build their dams etc.  The result was a return to healthy water levels which until then had been in short supply. The ecosystem in other words improved.

Comment by olly stearn on January 16, 2012 at 9:54

really interesting! very much enjoyed. Paul, i would also be interested to see a discution of the different actions, in regard to reducing suffering in the wild, that consequentialist and deontological positions would sanction. 

Comment by Paul Hansen on December 16, 2011 at 4:23

Postcript: In other words, when considering what is best for “the animals”, we must (according to deontologists) consider more than just numbers when attempting to calculate benefits and harms. It seems we need also some concept of intrinsic value that honors the individual, not merely “the herd.”

Comment by Paul Hansen on December 16, 2011 at 4:13

Oscar, another excellent paper and a worthy conclusion: “Hence, if we want to make our decisions according to what can be good or bad for those who may be affected by them, we need to consider what is relevant for them to be harmed or benefited. If we accept this argument based on an appeal to relevance, we will reject any criteria for moral consideration which differs from sentiency.”

What may go unnoticed, however, is the ways (and problems) by which the attempt to apply this ethic differs between “consequentialist” views and “deontological” views. For example, in theory, a strictly utilitarian approach (like that of Singer) could justify the sacrifice of a few for the sake of the majority (what Tom Regan calls “environmental facism”). This is precisely the rationale that Hitler used when he experimented on a few Jews for the sake of the many “Aryans” [a bogus category] that might benefit. Perhaps you could comment on these two approaches for us.

Best regards, PH

Comment by Kate✯GO VEGAN+NOBODY GETS HURT Ⓥ on December 15, 2011 at 19:28

Hi red dog. Thanks for your great comment. I'm delighted to know that you've saved this and that you'll read it when you get a chance. I'm sure you're extremely busy, yet I have no doubt that this extraordinary paper is worthy of your time. I consider it an essential resource for our advancement in understanding of how, as nonspeciesists, we can properly consider and so do what is best for individuals who are living in nature, and elsewhere.

Thankyou :)

Comment by red dog on December 15, 2011 at 18:49

Thanks for posting this, Kate. I wish I could say I'll read it right away, but I've saved it and will read it when I get a chance. I'm sure it will be a very helpful resource.


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