by Brian Tomasik
First written: 7 Feb. 2016; last update: 26 Apr. 2017
Yew-Kwang Ng (2016) admirably proposes ways to advance the science and practice of animal welfare, such as implementing humane improvements for farm animals. However, Ng is mistaken to call for environmental preservation as an animal-welfare measure. Given that most wild animals that are born have net-negative experiences, loss of wildlife habitat should in general be encouraged rather than opposed. Moreover, consideration of our impacts on wild animals is essential before we can draw conclusions in other areas, such as whether to reduce or increase meat consumption.
Translations of this piece: Spanish
Note: In this piece, I intended to use the word "habitat" as a less technical way to describe "primary productivity" or "that portion of primary productivity that feeds sentient organisms" (see Tomasik 2016). Usually habitat preservation corresponds to preservation of high levels of primary productivity. However, sometimes disruption of a native habitat increases primary productivity, such as when a pristine desert is irrigated to allow for cattle grazing or when an oligotrophic lake is made mesotrophic due to nutrient pollution. In exceptional cases like these, habitat preservation probably reduces wild-animal suffering. In general, it's not always the case that habitat loss is highly correlated with reductions in net primary productivity, and in retrospect I wish I had talked about "net primary productivity" or "plant growth" rather than "habitat" when choosing the title of this piece.
Ng (2016) assumes that environmental protection goes hand in hand with helping wild animals:
If we take account of animal welfare, even just weighting their relative importance at only 1%, the desirability of environmentally unfriendly growth becomes very doubtful. [... Besides the consideration of impacts on humans,] The additional consideration of animal welfare further strengthens the case for greater conservation and against environmental disruption.
This is a common stance among animal advocates (e.g., Bekoff 2013), and many animal-protection organizations include habitat conservation as one of their strategies (e.g., Humane Society International (Australia) 2014).
Habitat preservation often increases suffering
Unfortunately, habitat preservation probably hurts wild animals in the long run. This is because most small wild animals probably, in my view, experience more suffering than happiness. As Ng himself has argued (1995), for most species, mothers give birth to enormous numbers of offspring, most of which die painfully before reaching maturity (see also Hapgood 1979, Horta 2010, Mannino 2015). As a result of this fact, Ng (1995) argues that natural ecosystems are “not too far from the maximization of miseries” and that given plausible assumptions, “evolutionary economizing results in the excess of total suffering over total enjoyment.” That is, wildlife has negative net welfare.
It seems doubtful that humans will be able to dramatically improve the lives of wild animals, especially if most of the sentience in nature comes in the form of small animals like little mammals, fish, and insects, which are far too numerous to manage and care for. Thus, our best option is to reduce the number of wild animals that exist. As Ng (1995) explained:
a typical individual is destined to starvation, capture, or struggling unsuccessfully for mating. It is difficult to imagine a positive welfare for such a life. [...] It follows that, if we can reduce the number of such miserable individuals, other things being equal, we can increase the level of over-all welfare.
Some of the clearest ways humans reduce long-term animal populations are by decreasing plant growth and entirely eliminating wilderness. Doing this usually causes severe short-run suffering -- such as when rainforests are burned, swamps are covered by buildings, or fields are paved to make way for parking lots. But by reducing wild-animal populations for decades into the future, habitat loss significantly reduces long-term wild-animal suffering.
Not all forms of environmental destruction reduce long-run suffering in nature. For example, while climate change will cause desertification in some places (Romm 2011) – and thereby attenuate wild-animal populations – climate change may make other deserts greener (Claussen et al. 2003). And while fishing reduces the numbers of fish of the targeted species, it may sometimes increase the populations of marine life one trophic level down (Gascuel & Pauly 2009). Evaluating the total impact of any given environmental policy requires detailed analysis.
But on the whole, it seems as though human activity reduces more wild-animal suffering than it causes. McLellan et al. (2014) found that “on average, vertebrate species populations are about half the size they were 40 years ago.” Dirzo et al. (2014) reported a similar trend for invertebrates: A worldwide index of invertebrate abundance showed 45% average decline over the previous 40 years.
The uncertain impact of meat production
Further analysis of wild-animal suffering is crucial for informing all of our work to help animals. For instance, Ng (2016) understandably assumes that reducing meat consumption helps animals on balance:
Moreover, at least for the developed economies, meat consumption is unhealthily excessive. Thus, the higher prices for meat, by inducing consumers to buy less meat, actually make them better off. The costs for humans of improving animal welfare may well be negative!
However, meat production is also “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global” (Steinfeld et al. 2006). For instance, livestock grazing alone occupies “26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet” (Steinfeld et al. 2006). While a complete accounting of the positive and negative impacts of animal farming needs to be done, there’s at least a strong possibility that meat, especially beef, production prevents net long-run wild-animal suffering (Shulman 2013), and given the numerosity of wild animals, this consideration could dwarf the direct agony that animals endure on farms and during slaughter.
So we have no choice but to confront the wild-animal question in order to appropriately steer our activism on behalf of animals. One potential exception is lobbying for animal-welfare measures that don’t appreciably change humankind’s environmental impact, such as improving conditions for laboratory animals or reducing the occurrence of gruesomely botched livestock slaughter. Thus, contra Leadbeater’s (2016) reply to Ng (2016), “a bigger cage” may be a more clearly positive change for animals than complete elimination of factory farming.
Note: See this article for my current best guesses on the interactions between meat consumption and wild-animal suffering.
Should we be extremely cautious about intervening?
Ng (1995) advises “extreme caution before we do anything that may disturb the biosphere.” In an interview (Carpendale 2015), Ng elaborated that he is “not in favour of destruction, as I believe that, in the long term, we will be able to help animals to reduce their suffering”, as well as to amplify happiness via biotechnology.
But I’m doubtful that the lives of most wild animals -- especially small marine creatures and insects -- can be drastically improved without god-like technology. And if humans do develop artificial superintelligence capable of micromanaging the biosphere, it will likely render biological life irrelevant (Bostrom 2014) relative to the extent of happiness and suffering that might be created in digital minds (Blackford & Broderick, Eds. 2014), which in the long run won’t require the biosphere in order to survive.
Moreover, while accepting massive short-run suffering for the chance of much greater long-run happiness may be consistent with Ng’s classical-utilitarian stance (Ng 1990), many ethical viewpoints consider it wrong to let beings suffer in the short term for the possibility of creating lots of new happy beings in the far future. For example, Wolf (2004) suggests the following principle in the case of humans, though it can be extended to all animals:
If people are badly off, suffering, or otherwise remediably miserable, it is not appropriate to address their ill-being by bringing more happy people into the world to counterbalance their disadvantage.
Many people intuitively agree with the notion that it’s bad to create beings with negative lives but not bad to fail to create beings with positive lives (McMahan 1981, Benatar 2008). According to this “Asymmetry”, we should probably prevent wild-animal suffering in the near term, since the possible loss of speculative happiness in the farther future is less morally important than the bad lives avoided in the near future. And of course, it’s also quite possible that wild-animal suffering will not be reduced or will even increase in the far future (Tomasik 2015).
Those who place significant moral weight on preventing suffering or who maintain pessimistic predictions about the future should tend to favor, rather than lament, habitat loss. We should continue researching the effects of environmental policies on wild-animal suffering without flinching away from conclusions that are often unpleasant and unpopular.
About this article
This piece was originally submitted to but not published by the journal Animal Sentience as a commentary on Ng (2016).
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