Monday, January 19, 2009

The Domestic Wrecking Crew & their Rogue Primate Masters

Sometimes I stumble on a book which makes me wonder how I'd missed it previously; in this case it was an author. Two of his books, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance, have been re-released as The John A. Livingston Reader. But when I read somewhere that his Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication, published in 1994, was misanthropic, my curiosity required me to start there.

This is a complex book which explores many ideas, some of which I think are wrong such as his denial of competition in favor of compliance in nature. He contended we anthropomorphize wild species in our own image of aggression and ownership, while at the same time always finding ways to consider ourselves superior to them. Whatever science can never know of what processes are happening within an animal is labeled instinct. "Believing is seeing" was a favorite phrase. When led to believe that something is necessary and that humans are at the center of the world, we have the right to do anything and no justification is needed.

He takes on so-called development: "The 'development' ideologues do not hear the screaming of the buttressed trees or the wailing of the rivers or the weeping of the soils. They do not hear the sentient agony and the anguish of the non-human multitudes--torn, shredded, crushed, incinerated, choked, dispossessed."

An important chapter deals with definitions of self and selves: how do you identify yourself? As one distinct being? Only with the human society as children are trained to do, destroying their early fascination with nature, thereby making it easier to damage the natural world? As part of a larger natural system? Is there a group self-consciousness at work in the synchronized movements of a flock of birds or a school of fish?

Here's an excerpt from one of his other books which ends with this paragraph:
"Now, my point in reporting all of this is not to apply one more layer of mystery (mysticism) to the wildlife experience, but rather to emphasize that when I say that the fate of the sea turtle or the tiger or the gibbon is mine, I mean it. All that is in my universe is not merely mine; it is me. And I shall defend myself."

Much of Rogue Primate explores his thoughts related to human voluntary self-domestication and its consequences: removal from nature, sense of superiority and right to dominance over all which is not human (man must defeat nature), how these underlying assumptions outweigh any other differences within the society, and why he considers animal rights as ultimately self-defeating.

The book's subtitle tells you who the master is; who's the crew? Cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs. Livingston sees domesticated animals, dependent and unnatural with no place in the natural world, as inferior to wild animals as well as destructive of those wild animals' habitat. This is through no fault of their own of course and he has great sympathy for them and believes there is no excuse for how they are treated. They have been mutilated for generations and turned into a product long before being sold as one. I think he overstates the case in how much farm animals are oblivious to the world around them, but it's certainly true compared to their wild ancestors. For all of the concern one has for their plight as individuals, ultimately they shouldn't exist as species.

Livingston explores several of what are considered animal rights issues such as fur and rodeo and always shares the opinion of AR activists, adding a long list of other issues which would make the same point about human dominance. Regarding frequent requests for funds for research to eliminate fatal diseases, he writes, "Life, after all, is fatal. I have often wondered what the medical industry would prefer I die of." And goes on to add a condemnation of medical experimentation on animals.

Ah, I suspected, here comes the "misanthropy" because at this point I was 3/4 through the book and had found none unless daring to question human supremacy qualified.

The AIDS epidemic is a natural response to human overpopulation and hyperdensity. Other species of animals, when faced with a population crisis, must either reduce or suspend breeding (which we will not or, as domesticates, perhaps cannot do), emigrate (there is nowhere left for human surpluses to go), starve (we have begun to do so), or fall victim to communicable disease. Clearly a disease which is sexually transmitted is the most efficient, . . . from the point of view of human population ecology venereal disease has no peer as an agent of control.

Sentiments such as these are offensive to many people. They "objectify" the human phenomenon, holding it up without its gauze wrappings of myth and rationalization. Such objectification reduces us to the level of animals, and that is not acceptable to zero-level humanism. The human enterprise is different. . . .

When the experimenters brutalize, torture, and kill animals in their laboratories they use the word "sacrifice." Since self-immolation is not likely to occur to any mouse, tabby, or beagle, there are only two possible explanations for its use. Either the experimenter believes in the appeasement of the gods through the ritual killing of animals, or someone's moral self-worth is being sacrificed to the higher endeavour. In the case of AIDS, chimpanzees are being used as "models". (A model is an abstraction or representation, a design or pattern; a living being is none of these.) Chimps were chosen because their chromosomal structure is close to ours. They are intelligent, sociable, trusting, defenceless. They are objectified . . . , infected with AIDS, then monitored.
So there you have it, what passes for misanthropy to many people. Mind you, there's no celebration of people dying, no claim that they're getting what they deserve. There's only a statement of facts and a questioning of the morality of deliberately infecting an animal with a disease. Daring to challenge the human right to do anything we choose with facts is enough to earn widespread condemnation. A good friend of mine from college died from cancer in her twenties (likely caused by human pollution) but I never thought that gave us the right to deliberately kill other beings.

On all these issues, Livingston not only agrees with AR advocates, he sees them as dedicated and courageous, fueled by a mixture of compassion and anger (which he and I clearly share, though I'd add some nuances such as a sense of shame and a need for justice). He writes of the "siege mentality" felt by the mainstream when faced by AR advocates, "There is no other way to explain the harsh intensity of the diatribes mounted against them, by 'resource' managers and extractors and their political servants and by pillars of the 'cultural' establishment and their sycophants."

And yet for all this agreement and sympathy, Livingston shares my doubts about the concept of animal rights and its usefulness. I've been wondering lately about the similarities and differences among advocates for wilderness, endangered species, and animal rights, both mainstream and so-called ecoterrorists (though when sending faxes of a black sheet of paper becomes an act of terror, it's hard to distinguish them from the mainstream).

These are broad and fairly obvious generalities along a spectrum, not a black or white choice, but it seems to me that all involved are seeking their own form of a closer connection to the non-human world, and meaning and action in a society they see as wrong or meaningless on basic levels. Within that similarity, I think the split comes with a focus on either urban or rural life, whether one is involved in activities in the natural world, and whether one is primarily concerned with wild or domesticated animals.

And perhaps most crucially, at least for Livingston and me, one's hopes and expectations for the future. Livingston discusses the various meanings of rights at length, an abstraction I've never enjoyed and won't get into. I do not believe in rights as anything other than a temporary effect of the time and place in which one happens to live, and he essentially finds them irrelevant in the natural world. For Livingston, if domestic animals are to have "rights" then wild animals must surely have them as well. The only way this is possible is through a (continued and expanded) complete domination of the wild planet by humans, and an acceptance of the human authority to grant rights to others, a goal he opposes.

There was a time when I believed one world government was a noble goal; though I'd still support ecofascism under current circumstances, I believe that what is ultimately needed (and coming) is a complete breakdown of global industrialism and a resurgence of small and local group life. I see animal rights advocates working within the current system and any future for their ideas as completely dependent on this system continuing--I think the best potential outcome of their work is improved animal welfare conditions which many of them often deride, but their more radical position is what has the positive effect of making welfare concerns seem more reasonable to those who had previously given no thought to the subject at all. Wilderness and endangered species advocates, on the other hand, are trying to save whatever they can for the time which comes after this system collapses, which I consider a more important and more likely scenario.

I find that Livingston's book has helped clarify my thinking on the internal split I've always felt between these two movements. Though I better understand my priorities, by no means does it eliminate my concern over what I've always preferred to call animal ethics issues. I was delighted to recently read an Edward Abbey essay (Days and Nights in Old Pariah--you can search and read it in Google) in which he writes of spending hours with two friends getting a heifer out of hardened quicksand, despite his contempt for what ranchers and cattle had done to the West.

I'll continue to believe there's value on both sides, and I'll continue to offend folks on both sides. After signing up with the nature blog group, I've been amused to learn via tracking that several people have come here, read several posts, presumably enjoying them, then left after reading Locavores and Vegetarians (which only was written because I went to a locavore meeting where the speaker attacked vegetarians, and because so-called environmentalists continue to ignore their hypocrisy in eating meat--though I see Audubon magazine has a good column on the subject and it will be interesting to see what reaction it gets) because I think not eating animals is better ethical behavior than eating them.

I don't mind if they don't want to read my opinions. I've had a similar experience of finding several blogs which seemed promising until a post revealed the writer as a trapper or hunter. And that's why you're warned right up top that you may be appalled. As I believe Abbey used to say, if there's anyone I haven't offended, I apologize. Or Thoreau, "The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"

Livingston's books appear on Dave Foreman's long list of important conservation/nature books, as do many of the other books I hope to write about here. The list is a great resource--check it out.

6 comments:

Terry said...

Interesting post, thanks. I've been surprised sometimes by people admitting that despite their more positive public reasons for defending wilderness or similar things, they know protecting refugia that can re-populate the spaces we'll be leaving might be the greatest outcome of their work. Not a great card to lead with though :-}

greentangle said...

Yeah, not a position which will get the donations and support flowing. But to me, I have to know that they see the same future coming I do and they don't really just think everything will be fine.

I was very glad when Foreman acknowledged this to me when I met him. I was having a disagreement with an AR person along the lines of this post until he acknowledged that he was doing what he does because he needed to on a personal level, not because he expected great results. With that admission, there was nothing important left to disagree about.

Have you read the 10 year old novel Dust by Charles Pellegrino? I just started it so don't consider this a recommendation yet; it's an ecodisaster with 20 pages of science and references at the end.

Northland said...

Excellent review of Livingston's "Rogue Primate"; as well as a Mother Lode of other information and opinion in your blog here.
I tend to agree with you when you say "the best potential outcome of their [ARA's] work is improved animal welfare conditions which many of them often deride, but their more radical position is what has the positive effect of making welfare concerns seem more reasonable to those who had previously given no thought to the subject at all. Wilderness and endangered species advocates, on the other hand, are trying to save whatever they can for the time which comes after this system collapses, which I consider a more important and more likely scenario."
I agree with you about the importance of saving as much wilderness for when our society collapses.
PETA's efforts to halt the slaughter of wolves in Alaska, though not stopping it yet, has highlighted the issue and the AR advocates will ultimately shut down the aerial hunting of wolves and bears through increasingly widespread condemnation.Too bad that much of the gains by the AR movement will be discarded with the future collapse of our urban way of life.
It is strange, the blindsidedness by someone like Foreman, who will always go (proudly) for a meat dish in a restaurant and not see his choice as supporting an industry that works against wild species as well as wilderness, not to mention the environmental destruction wrought by that industry. A bad example, for his admiring dinner companions too.
Next I want to read your "Locavores and Vegetarians" blog. I agree with you that the Audubon story by Tidwell was well written. Beyond a few "Audubon Republicans" who may be incensed, I think that many readers will quit reading part-way through Tidwell's article, because they aren't interested in his message of change any more than they are interested in your message of change. But that is seemingly the way of us rogue primates, who won't change unless it is in our self-interest.

greentangle said...

I think this was by far the longest post I've written and I still wound up leaving a lot out of it. My original plan was to look at the pluses and minuses of each side but then the book got into the mix and kind of took over.

I agree with most AR folks on almost everything (except for the few real hardcore who want to eliminate pets or turn predators into vegetarians etc.) and especially the way they care about individual lives which sometimes get lost on the ecology side.

But I've always tried to tell myself the ugly truth (even when I don't write it all out here) and I just can't take seriously the goal of some eden where all the people become enlightened and all the critters are going to live happily. Great stuff for the moment and that's very important, but no future. And even though as you say, much of their gains will be lost when this way of life collapses, I still think overall it's best for this way of life to collapse. It's like I have one set of values for the moment and one for the future.

Don't know if you've seen the post declaring Foreman a hero of mine. Despite the things I disagree with him about (he'd had one of those steak dinners you refer to in between the two times I saw him that day) he's been involved in so much good that I have to give him his due.

You're probably right that most people won't read Tidwell's entire column.

Eam said...

Another great post. This one actually made me feel something other than despair at the destruction wrought by humanity. I like the notion of leaving something behind that can thrive once we get out of the way.

greentangle said...

Thanks, Erin. Yep, if I didn't at least have the sense of long term optimism which comes from considering what will happen when our overwhelming dominance ends, I wouldn't have anything at all.