The Casual Blog

Tag: Fellow Creatures

Ways of looking at fishing birds, The End of Nature, Fellow Creatures, and the appeal of slavery denialism

Osprey at Jordan Lake preparing to dive

Again this week I spent some time at Jordan Lake looking at the water, trees, and birds.  The birds weren’t as numerous this week, but I saw ospreys and great blue herons catch a number of fish.  Even watching the inherent violence of animals eating other animals, there is something peaceful.  They’re doing what nature designed them to do, as they’ve always done.  

 

I got my first relatively high end photo printer this week.  Hunt’s photo supply offered a big discount on a Canon Pixma Pro 10, and with the pandemic lock down still in force, I decided to experiment with some home printing.  It was not a smooth take off.  After putting some parts together, I ran into software problems, and ended up spending the better part of an hour on the phone with the Canon customer support guy.  There is definitely a learning curve to making good prints, but after watching a few instructional videos, I managed to make a couple that I thought were promising.  

As I worked on my prints, it occurred to me that there are a lot of levels of nature photography, and different ways of looking at the pictures.  A photograph can pull us closer to a moment of reality, but it can also do the opposite.  When I see a picture of a bird catching a fish, I might just think, that’s a picture of a bird catching a fish, and not think much else.  That is, I might mistakenly think the photo fully contains the event, and for that reason not even bother to look carefully at what can be seen of the event.  I could be thinking, I could always look at it later, and never do it.   

Great blue heron and fish

On the other hand, I might decide to look harder, and consider the species of bird, the species of fish, their ages, the location, the weather conditions, and other particulars of the moment.  At the same time, I might get some sense of the existential terror of a particular fish and the ecstasy of a particular bird.  I sometimes notice how certain birds can look beautiful and repulsive at the same time, the last remaining dinosaurs.    

Speaking of extinction events, I’ve been reading The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben.  The book was published in 1989, as the possibility of massive environmental destruction from manmade climate change was coming into focus, so it is dated.  But the basic science hasn’t changed, and a lot of his account is dead on target.  As with his recent book, Falter, he has a gift for putting these difficult issues in perspective, which makes it possible to think productively about them.

I’ve also been re-reading Fellow Creatures, Our Obligation to Other Animals, by Kristine Korsgaard.  Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, makes the case that we are not justified in treating non-human animals as objects to be exploited, and that they are entitled to respect.

Her argument is built on her extension of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which I find difficult.  I suspect that if I fully understood Kant, I would not be a Kantian, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever know for sure.  Still, struggling with his theory of morality seems like good exercise — brain calisthenics.  And Korsgaard is surely doing something worthwhile in investigating our relationship to non-human animals and whether any system of morality can exclude them.  

I was happy to see that Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable work on the 1619 Project. Her original introductory article is here.   As I’ve noted previously, the series published in the New York Times along with a podcast   proposed new ways of thinking about the role of slavery and white supremacy in forming America.

It was surprising that George Will used his column  to attack and distort the message of the 1619 Project.  Will is a very intelligent person, and his column is a reminder of how being intelligent does not at all inoculate people against such mental tendencies as denial and bias.  

That is, one can be both smart and prone to denial and delusion, including denial that slavery was an essential, formative element in American democracy.  Will’s attack on the 1619 Project does not, of course, mean he is himself a racist.  But it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is woven into our culture, and how uncomfortable it is to look straight at the racism of our past and present.   Will’s anger at the challenge to some of our founding myths is understandable, but his obfuscation is a regrettable service to white supremacy.  

Considering sunflowers, and a proposal for survival: population control

Sunflowers--2

This week I spent some more time with the sunflowers at Dix Park.  There were a lot of pretty ones, including some at least eight feet tall, and others that had passed their prime.  I learned from signs there that sunflowers are the only flowers with flower in their name, and that they point themselves toward the sun during the day.  

Dix Park was formerly the site of Dorothea Dix Hospital, North Carolina’s first institution for the mentally ill, which was progressive when it was opened in 1856 and not so much so when it was finally closed in 2012.  The sunflower field is on top of a former garbage dump (officially, a “landfill”). The sunflowers are grown as an industrial crop that provides fuel for city vehicles.  

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The connections between mental illness, institutions, garbage, and urban transport take us in one direction, but sunflowers take us in another.  They stand up tall and shine, and without any effort, cheer us up.  I put one on my phone for a new screen saver.

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Last night Sally and I watched The Inventor, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  Holmes recruited investors with promises of revolutionizing medical testing with new technology. It turned out that the technology was not actually in existence.  There were hundreds of employees, including some trying to build a testing machine that corresponded to Holmes’s idea, but they never made a successful model.  

In the documentary, we see Holmes presenting herself and her idea, and she’s undeniably attractive and impressive.  It’s easy to see how a lot of successful and sophisticated people believed in her.  It isn’t altogether clear what she herself was thinking. The human mind has an amazing capacity for self delusion, so Holmes may have believed a lot of her own baloney.  It may be that she started out as a cockeyed big dreamer and, as the impossibility of the dream became clear, ended up as a wanton fraudster.    It’s an interesting psychological puzzle.Sunflowers-0431Speaking of puzzles, I finished Christine Korsgaard’s important  but sometimes difficult book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.  Korsgaard is a brave soul. She challenges the almost-never-questioned assumption that humans have a right to do whatever they want to non-human life.  If there is no such right, what humans are doing to non-human life is monstrously evil.  For example, we kill more than 50 billion farm animals a year.  It’s not an easy subject.

Korsgaard suggests that the earth would be much better off without so many humans, which is almost certainly true.  I was surprised, though, that she doesn’t press more on the issue of restraining population growth as a bridge to a less broken world.  

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Our politicians’ ridiculous fearmongering over immigrant invasions is a distorted-mirror reflection of a real problem:  there are too many people on the earth, and many more are coming soon. There are not enough natural resources to sustain all the people that are here with their existing and hoped for consumption patterns.  Those consumption patterns are already disrupting non-human life on a massive scale, including widespread extinction of entire species. At the same time, resource conflicts are disrupting various countries, creating millions of refugees, and undermining governments.

And the problems are getting worse.  The population, which is now around 7 billion, is still growing.  For all our current global population to have the American level of consumption would require the resources of 4 earths.  And we’re expecting 4 billion more humans by the end of this century, so we’ll be needing almost two additional earths.  

But we only have the one.  Climate change and other environmental problems, such as air pollution, fresh water loss, and soil erosion are all exacerbated by increasing populations in a negative feedback loop.  

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Here’s a simple example:  as there are more people who need more food, a changing climate and environmental degradation will make it harder or impossible to grow enough food for all.  And industrialized agriculture, already a major contributor to climate change, in attempting to produce more food, will likely further degrade the environment.  For a fuller accounting of very possible near term environmental destruction mechanisms, read The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

At present, our default mode for addressing this population problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist.  There is, to be sure, a sense in which it could take care of itself: people in excess of the earth’s carrying capacity will likely die by the millions or billions.  However, adopting this solution would be horrible, not only for humans, but for all the non-human life that the desperate humans would extinguish in their losing struggle to survive.  

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Beginning with better education on family planning, we could slow the pace of population growth, and eventually arrive at a population that could exist without irreversible planetary destruction.  Korsgaard suggests the possibility that reproduction might be regulated with some sort of licensing scheme. As she notes, we don’t let people drive cars without demonstrating the necessary skill set, but we have no skills requirement for parenting.  

Any change like that would be controversial, of course, and perhaps we’d conclude that’s not a good approach.  But if we’re hoping to avoid horrendous destruction of human and non-human life,  we need to get creative and get to work; there’s no time to waste.  At present, our governments aren’t working on the population problem, or even talking about working on it.  How can that be OK?

 

Thinking about animals: puffins and other wild things

Yates Mill Pond

Last week I was notified that I had a spot on a nature photography trip to Lubec, Maine, after waiting for some months on the wait list.  The trip, sponsored by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, has as a prime objective shooting Atlantic puffins, which nest on nearby Machias Seal Island. They’re comically beautiful little birds. With only a week to get organized, I joined the GNPA, booked a room,  bought a plane ticket, arranged for a rental car, and started cramming on Maine and puffins.  

On Saturday, Sally did a hike at Yates Mill Pond park, and saw a family of 5 red-headed woodpeckers.  I took my equipment there on Sunday, and couldn’t spot the woodpeckers, although I’m pretty sure I heard them.  With our hardwood trees now fully leafed in, it’s hard to see birds, but there were plenty singing there on Sunday.  I’ve been refreshing on my bird song ID skills, and recognized perhaps a dozen familiar songs and calls. There were perhaps a dozen more that I couldn’t identify, so I’ve got a lot to learn.  I also took some pictures there of a great blue heron.

A great blue heron

Also last week, I went out to Anderson Point park east of Raleigh on the Neuse River.  It had been a long time since my last visit. The place used to be one of the best places to hear and see birds in Raleigh.  But, as I discovered, the park is now completely gone, replaced by single family homes. It made me very sad to think of the wild creatures that used to thrive there which lost their habitat and their lives.  

Humans are extremely dangerous to non-human animals.  Even when we’re not killing them to eat or just for the fun of it, we hardly give a thought to eradicating them by taking their territory.  This is bad for humans, inasmuch as it makes our world less varied and beautiful, but, obviously, worse for the victims.   

We’re taught from an early age to regard humans as inherently superior to other beings, and as somehow having an unlimited right to exploit and murder those beings.  But the support for this position is dubious.  We tolerate this situation because we’ve been deeply conditioned  to avoid and ignore it.  But it doesn’t take a moral genius to see there’s something not right here.  Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee, and also hard to know how to address it. 

Christine Korsgaard has a go at it in her recent book, Fellow Creatures:  Our Obligations to the Other Animals, which I’ve been working my way through.  Korsgaard, an eminent philosophy professor at Harvard, comes out of the Kantian tradition, but disagrees with Kant’s view that non-human animals are not entitled to moral recognition.  After a multi-stage analysis, she concludes that there is no principled justification for treating the lives of non-human animals as having less value than homo sapiens’ lives. The great Thomas Nagel gives a good summary and endorsement of Korsgaard’s book in The New York Review of Books (subscription required).