by Brian Tomasik
First written: 12 Apr. 2015; last update: 6 Mar. 2017


It's often assumed that animal rights and environmentalism go hand in hand. However, one major rift between the philosophies arises from the problem of animal suffering in nature. While environmentalists typically wish to leave wilderness alone, animal advocates should support research into whether there are ways to reduce the harms that wild animals endure. Given that suffering plausibly dominates happiness among the smallest and most numerous wild animals, humanity should think twice before spreading wildlife to new realms.

This post was reblogged on the Reasonable Vegan website: "Why Vegans Should Care About Wild Animal Suffering"

Translations: Spanish, Portuguese, Czech


As a child, I loved to watch nature documentaries. I found scenes in which predators chased their prey particularly exciting. I was saddened to learn that humans were reducing wildlife habitats, since I regarded nature as beautiful and fragile. As a teenager, I wrote letters to Congress in defense of preserving various wilderness areas. I thought I would grow up to become an environmental activist, because I believed that environmental conservation was the most effective way to help future generations of people.

Then, in 2005, I learned about animal rights, and everything changed.

Initially, I thought that concern for animals went hand in hand with environmentalism. One of the first books I read about animal liberation was Peter Singer's Practical Ethics, which not only opposes speciesism but also supports ecological preservation. Most vegans are environmentalists and often employ environmental arguments on behalf of reducing meat consumption. It seemed natural that humans should stop harming animals through habitat destruction. And, I assumed, since animal happiness matters for its own sake, destroying habitats is a great loss of wild-animal joy that would have existed. I thought that my newfound concern for animals only reinforced my prior environmentalism.

Environmentalism vs. animal rights

A few months after realizing that animals deserved ethical consideration, I began to see contradictions between animal rights and environmentalism. Some of the differences between the two ideologies are well known. A classic example is hunting of overpopulated deer, which environmentalists generally support but animal-rights activists generally oppose.

However, the most significant problem was the widespread suffering of wild animals. Environmentalists cherish ecological balances among prey, predators, parasites, and pathogens. But if we have strong empathy for individual animals, we realize how awful it feels to be eaten alive, die of malnutrition, or succumb to a fatal virus. We rightly oppose human diseases like HIV or human deaths from natural disasters, even though human overpopulation is one of the biggest sources of environmental destruction. So why the double standard when it comes to wild-animal diseases or disasters?

Humans, even in hunter-gatherer times, enjoyed pretty good lives compared with most animals: A decent fraction of babies reached adulthood; risks from predators were relatively low; and life expectancies were measured in decades, allowing for long periods of life before individuals faced the pain of death.

Unfortunately, most animals aren't so lucky. In many species, adult individuals live no more than a few years. A mother typically gives birth to large numbers of offspring, of which all but two must die before reproducing on average in a stable population. Animals lower on the food chain may remain frequently vigilant, watching out for danger. And run-ins with predators have the potential to produce lasting psychological damage analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chinese mantisThe situation is worst for those animals that are most numerous: Small fish, insects, etc. Adult insects often live at most a few months, and each mother gives birth to tens or hundreds of offspring. On average, a baby insect may live only a few days or weeks before dying, possibly excruciatingly, from predation, cannibalism, parasites, or harsh weather.

Upon realizing these points, I became less optimistic that animals in the wild experienced more happiness than suffering on balance. Indeed, I concluded that the opposite was probably true. As economist Yew-Kwang Ng put it in one paper: nature's "evolutionary economizing results in the excess of total suffering over total enjoyment." This cast doubt on my prior environmental efforts. In previous years when I had been advocating for habitat preservation, I may have actually been increasing suffering.

"Natural" doesn't imply "good"

Many vegans oppose human killing of animals but accept animals killing other animals in the wild. For instance, Marc Bekoff is "against hunting, especially by people who don't need the food", but he also supports predator reintroduction: "we need to make room for wolves and other native carnivores who are re-colonizing areas from which they were extirpated."

According to this logic, a human eating a fish is bad, but a penguin eating several pounds of fish per day is acceptable. Humans hunting deer is wrong, but wolves hunting deer is acceptable. However, to the fish and deer themselves, being killed feels horrific, regardless of the hunter. (Indeed, being torn apart by wolves might hurt more than being shot.)

A common reply is that predation in the wild is different from human hunting because predators need meat to survive. As Katelynn Chambers said in an online debate: "a comparison between lions eating gazelles and humans eating animals is very weak. This entire debate is about the morality of eating animals WITHOUT a need. Lions NEED to eat gazelles. If they did not, they would ultimately die." But we don't apply the same logic in human cases. Suppose a starving lion was attacking a human. Would we stand back just because the lion needed food?

The conflict between a predator's right to food and a prey's right not to be eaten is not one versus one: The average wolf kills about 20 deer per year. Arthur Schopenhauer recognized the asymmetry between predator and prey interests when he wrote:

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.

(This quotation should not be taken literally, since it neglects to mention that prey also enjoy parts of their lives prior to death.)

Many people implicitly or explicitly believe that what's natural is good. Vegans reject this moral framework when it's used to defend omnivorism on the grounds that humans are naturally omnivorous. Yet some animal advocates are not always so quick to reject the appeal to nature when it comes to wild-animal suffering. For instance, in explaining why PETA doesn't protest lion predation, one person on Yahoo! Answers said: "[Factory farming] is not natural. Lions eating Gazelles is natural." Another echoed: "Lions do it for survival and it's natural."

But nature is not optimized for compassion; it's optimized by the cold, harsh forces of evolution. As Richard Dawkins notes: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Rather than seeking merely to preserve the brutalities of nature as environmentalists advocate, we should study how different ecological policies affect wild-animal welfare and give greater support to those that we expect, after careful research, would reduce wild-animal suffering.

Are we helpless to affect wild-animal suffering?

Peter Singer has expressed skepticism about changing nature to help wild animals: "for practical purposes I am fairly sure, judging from man’s past record of attempts to mold nature to his own aims, that we would be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife, than to decrease it." But if, as seems plausible, wilderness contains more suffering than happiness, then that claim is incorrect, since human appropriation of wild-animal habitats plausibly has reduced wild-animal suffering, even without humans trying to do so. According to a 2014 "Living Planet Report": "animal populations are roughly half the size they were [...] 40 years ago." And a similar trend appears true for invertebrates, according to a 2014 paper in Science.

There are reasons for concern about humanity's ecological impacts. For instance, climate change will increase the chance of global instability and warfare in coming decades, which will not only harm humans in the short run but might also produce lasting worse outcomes for the far future of sentient life. It's important to balance competing values when making environmental choices. But we should at least consider wild-animal suffering rather than either focusing exclusively on human problems or just assuming that wild animals have generally good lives.

Billions of wild vertebrates and quadrillions of wild invertebrates are suffering right now across the globe. This is an urgent tragedy, but unfortunately it's not the worst-case outcome. Some futurists have proposed spreading wildlife to other planets, via such hypothetical techniques as "terraforming" or "directed panspermia". Others envision running immense numbers of simulated realities in the future. Such simulations might contain vast populations of wild animals or other sentient creatures. Typically, little consideration is given to the subjective experiences that these animals would endure. The easiest and most important way that we can reduce wild-animal suffering is to avoid spreading it.

Religious scholars have long wondered: Why did God allow so much suffering in nature? If we spread wildlife to new realms, it will be we who have to answer that question.

Further reading