For heaven on Earth’s sake

An interesting poll was reported yesterday.  Young people are more likely to cite ‘caring for the environment’ as their top moral issue than ‘having a religious faith’.  Admittedly there wasn’t much in it, and both of those answers were way below ‘looking after your family’ which headed the list.

There is a strong moral element in environmentalism, in my opinion.

The way we live on the planet has implications for those people with whom we share it now, for those generations of people that follow us and for current and existing other forms of life.  Using more than our fair share of the world’s resources and riches is stealing from others.

Here are some examples:

  • lacing a carcass with Carbofuran causes pain to any mammal or bird that is poisoned (pain is understating it – agony) and removes natural beauty from the world by restricting the spread of birds such as golden eagles
  • producing 11 tonnes of CO2 per annum (the average for the UK citizen) will lead to a worsening climate which will impose harder conditions on the world’s poor people and cause mass extinctions of life on the planet
  • the diet of the average UK person could not be replicated for all 7 billion of the world’s human inhabitants under any reasonable circumstances and so is selfish and immoral
  • failing to act to improve the way we live on this planet, if you believe that there is something wrong with it, is akin to being complicit in a crime

Picture yourself on another world.  That world is populated by a dominant species that has immense power through technological understanding.  It has decided to limit individual wealth so that the world’s resources are not over-exploited.  Generally speaking the members of the dominant species share those resources fairly equally – there are still rich and poor but the richest only use 10 times as much resource as do the poorest and that gap is narrowing with time.  Unfortunately, the universally shared belief in living within the planet’s resources and sharing things fairly with your fellows does not extend to different countries on this strange world.  There are four major power blocks that are always in some form of conflict over who owns what.  The world as a whole is sustainably managed and within power blocks their is a great deal of fairness but greed expresses itself in terms of constant competition to dominate the world and its resources.  Now tell me, is that a more or less moral world than the one on which we live?

Back on this world, IUCN released a list of the 100 most threatened species on Earth.  I saw no government or church reaction to this matter of little moral importance.



33 Replies to “For heaven on Earth’s sake”

  1. New Speak – Living on Oceania
    Mark says

    1 There is a strong moral element in environmentalism
    2 It has decided to limit individual wealth so that the world’s resources are not over-exploited
    3 Now tell me, is that a more or less moral world than the one on which we live?

    “No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”- George Orwell, Animal Farm

    “In Oceania at the present day, Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist. In Newspeak there is no word for ‘Science.’ The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc.”

    “Some of the animals remembered–or thought they remembered–that the Sixth Commandment decreed ‘No animal shall kill any other animal.’ And though no one cared to mention it in the hearing of the pigs or the dogs, it was felt that the killings which had taken place did not square with this.”- George Orwell, Animal Farm

    “RSPB to destroy rats on Henderson Island

    Conservationists are setting off on a voyage to Henderson Island, one of the most remote places on Earth to eradicate invasive rats from an island where they are killing endangered seabirds.

    The RSPB project, which will see it dropping rat bait on the island from the air, is part of a partnership which will see a ship and two helicopters taking a 27,000km (17,000-mile) voyage around the Pacific to complete three island restoration programmes.

    The RSPB believes that once the rat eradication has taken place, populations of Henderson petrels and other seabirds will increase, while as yet unknown insect species, whose numbers may have been kept very low by the rats, could be found.

    The conservation charity has been planning the rodent eradication plan for some years, and has raised £1.4 million towards the £1.5 million cost of the scheme, which includes a £400,000 contribution from the UK Government.

    Rat poison will be dropped from helicopters in a process that will take two or three days to treat the whole island. The operation will be repeated a week later to ensure no rats survive.

    Richard Cuthbert, conservation scientist with the RSPB, who will be on Henderson during the eradication, said: “Without a full-scale eradication, the wildlife on this island faces a very bleak future, with the Henderson petrel sliding towards extinction.”

    For RATS read BADGERS !
    For PETREL read CATTLE !

    Oh and how do we fund the £1.5 M to do such things when we have limited individuals’ earnings?

    Dream on!

    Perhaps it should be the Religious Society for the Protection of Birds – you could collect on Sundays

  2. Comparing Badgers to rats is of course the kind of moral position that has got us into this mess of environmental degradation and species extinction. Regrettably I think we, as a race, will not be happy until all is extinguished that gets in our way and all we’re left with are Crows and Bluebottles (an approximate quote from the great Miriam Rothchild on Radio 4 before she died a few years ago). I don’t agree with her us ultimately we are a moral species and usually more altruistic than we give ourselves credit for.

  3. Mark’s examples are also interesting

    1. the carcass –lacing exercise – what’s the difference – rats v badgers? “… pain to any mammal etc “
    2. CO2? Why’s everybody flying ‘round the world to achieve it
    3. The UK diet – contains cattle meat – feed the world and let TB in Badgers explode unchecked in both domestic food herds and in Wildlife mammalian populations in the UK – what utter rot!
    4. And as for all of us being complicit in crimes Worldwide – well!?

    Mark – your overall sense of ‘morality’ is – I’m afraid to say – misguided and somewhat adolescent – Mankind (7 billion of us) – like it or not – comes before for example – £1.5 M for thr Henderson Petrel. Putting the H. Petrel before a few billion others – that’s “criminal”!

    But that’s what you do; like the RSPCA getting begging for money to save cats and dogs, sacking its staff and spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on anti-hunting.

    The ICUN publication was interesting – but why worry about these 100 species – the RSPB is going to find many more – hitherto unknown – on Henderson.

  4. The other reason for my optimism is that the next generation is much more in tune with the Environmental challenges facing us – I can see it in my teenage children and their friends. And whilst I am sure there will be some that will continue to make the same old cynical and irrelevant ramblings, I am hopeful that the next generation will continue to make a real difference. It’s just a shame that we are leaving them with with a much degraded legacy.

    1. Gert – many thanks. Your comment, for some unknown reason, headed into the ‘Spam’ box and that’s why its appearance was delayed.

  5. My only comment just has to be that there must be times that you are tempted to not publish some comments.You are incredible,to my mind anyway.

  6. I believe we have the moral duty to help others – both human beings and other species – less fortunate than us, and to give those unable to stand up for themselves a voice. Yes, that’s a belief. And yes, that’s what drives my interest in science – because without it we can’t understand. And without understanding, we can’t be compassionate, and without compassion we will not find solutions to the problems Mark lists as well as many others.

    For me it then follows that you have to care about the environment and wildlife around us. The world is a complicated place – because we’ve made it that way – and so solving these problems is not easy, and is certainly insurmountable without understanding, compassion and cooperation. But we do have a moral duty to solve them because we’ve caused them, and because not solving them will ultimately cause suffering to our own species and to other species with which we share the planet. Caring for others is simply the right thing to do – it’s what’s best about us – and it’s something we are good at when we try.

    And, ultimately, caring about wildlife and the environment we share is to look after ourselves and our own future.

    (Even Trimbush’s!)

    1. Rob I agree with your comments about helping others but the world is probably not more complicated through the intervention of humanity, it is less so because of the destruction of biodiversity we have wrought to natural ecosystems. We have suborned the earths productivity for our own use and folks like Trimbush seem to think thats ok. Wake up mate, we are killing our own planet, or cutting our own throats if you prefer. Not a moral course of action.

  7. To avoid being ridiculous anything claimed as a moral position must pass two essential tests. Is it absolute and is it universally applicable? Claiming that theft is immoral, which I believe is the case, would be made ridiculous if I simultaneously claimed that I should be at liberty to pilfer biros from work or fiddle my expenses. If theft is wrong it is always wrong and and wrong everywhere.
    Rats are an interesting case. I am one of the very few people I know who hold Rattus norvegicus in high esteem. They are intellegent, adaptable, wonderful parents, non-terrotorial, non-aggressive, extremely fastidious, and remarkably brave. They are also probably the most loathed, reviled and persecuted mammal on the planet. I should know, it is a matter of some regret that for many years I ran, amongst others things, a team of people who poisoned rats on a very grand scale indeed. Not a single person ever objected to this enormous slaughter, in fact the only criticism I ever got was for not killing more and faster.
    There is no moral distinction between poisoning a species you like and a species you don’t like. To claim otherwise would ridiculously elevate our personal preferences to the level of a moral law. Obviously there are important practical conservation and legal distinctions which from my point of view entirely justify the poisoning of one species and not another but my advice is to keep clear of making claims about morality. Amongst the very few things that seperate Christianity from its competitors, are the twin injunctions to ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ and ‘let him that is without guilt cast the first stone’. Hypocrisy is an ever present danger for those who wish to pronounce on the morality of others.

    1. Ian – yes, thanks for that. Your argument is a bit weak though. Try reading Chapter 5 in Fighting for Birds for a lightweight scamper through some of the issues. Killing people is wrong but hardly universally applicable. Winning the 2nd World War was, at least arguably, a morally defensible bout of killing. Killing a total stranger for ‘fun’ would be somewhere close to the other end of a moral continuum.

    2. Ian, presumably you don’t hold rats in such high regard that you think they would have colonised many oceanic islands without the assistance of humans. The bird populations of islands like Henderson evolved over millions of years in the absence of mammalian predators. If you are a sentient species and come to realise that you have caused alot of damage to other much scarcer species isn’t it natural that you would want to put it right by being fair to those species you have harmed?

    3. I’m pretty much awake, thanks, Phil! I agree we do need to rethink our relentless plundering and squandering of resources in the short term, because it will damage everything, including us, in the long term. I don’t think I can find much more of a moral certainty than that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have lots of doubts along the way. I do think moral and practical complications have arisen because of the problems we’ve given ourselves if we care about restoring balance and saving species, including our own.

      As Ian rightly says below, hypocrisy is bound to follow wherever people spout moral certainties! Does the end always justify the means? Does saving some farmers’ livelihoods – or generating income at maximum profit, depending on your point of view – justify killing wildlife, even if the science says it won’t work? Does saving a rare petrel from extinction justify killing rats? I myself struggle with the idea of killing grey squirrels, which aren’t here through any fault of their own, to save red squirrels from local (UK) extinction.

      We all have our views, but if we can’t build a general moral consensus on mutually acceptable and desired outcomes (slowing global warming, ending species extinctions, ending poverty, finding happiness) – how can we work out how to get there? That’s the challenge facing our civilisation.

  8. The bitterness and obsession of those who support the abuse of wild animals isn’t surprising; especially in the face of rising awareness among the general public. Please continue publishing their idiotic posts, Mark. They provide a revealing exspose of the warped logic, and twisted world view of their authors.

    Give ’em enough rope. 🙂

  9. An interesting point about morality. The definition is of course also synonymous with ‘rightness’ – not purely based on absolutes – maybe in a religious context yes – but then that is irrelevant to me (not being religious). So I am comfortable that killing rats to save a species is ‘right’, to kill Badgers, a protected species, based on dubious science is ‘wrong’ nothing to do with liking one more than the other so no hypocrisy with that position that I recognise, but then we’re straying into philosophy not an exact science by any stretch.

  10. I have discovered The Black Grouse! It has been reduced to £15 in my local super. It tastes of creosote, but I don’t care, the effect on my jaw following root canal work is just what the Doctor ordered.

    What’s this thread about? I seem to have lost track, because – and I freely admit – I am very, very drunk …

  11. I can fully understand that you wish to draw a moral distinction between the killing of wildlife that you have been responsible for or consider desirable or acceptable and that carried out by others but I’m sure that you will understand if I take a different view.
    Your analogy misses the point. Of course the waging of an aggressive war results in changed practical and legal circumstances which justify violent self defence but that does not alter the fact that the moral injunction ‘thou shalt not kill’ is absolute and universal or it is not a moral law. The fact that individuals and states find it in their view necessary to act outside that rule, and thank God they did in the case of the Hitler War, does not change the rule to ‘thou shalt not kill unless you really feel you need to’.
    Similarly you appear to have been content with the killing of a range of species because you thought it was in the interests of conservation and you are happy that others kill wild and domestic species so that you can enjoy eating them. I personally think you were and are absolutely right to do so. I do the same myself. The principal distinction between these moral positions is that I kill some of what I eat and you pay someone to kill it for you.
    Most of the people who disagree with you or who live their lives in a way you do not understand or wish to share are not bad or immoral. They are simply different and that diversity should be respected not demonised.

    1. Ian – unconvincing, and you wander off into giving me views that I don’t hold. I haven’t drawn the moral distinction that you ‘fully understand’ in your first sentence. Not my words or thoughts.

      My analogy makes a point – I don’t think it misses it. The rule really might be ‘thou shalt not kill unless there is a greater good that justifies that bad’. That’s why a just war is just.

      And your last sentence goes nowhere that I have gone – again, you are over-extrapolating.

      To recap: in your most recent comment your first and last paragraphs don’t represent my views (so I don’t need to attempt to defend them) and your middle paragraph doesn’t make much sense.

      Thank you for your comment.

  12. Mark

    In your blog you asked a question. In the comments you were accused of holding all kinds of extreme views: it seems to me that you have been turned into some sort of straw man by those whose arguments can only be used against such.

    Conservation and environmental issues cannot be separated from and set against other areas of concern like unfairness, hunger and the rest. Abuse and oppression of other human beings usually goes along with cruelty to or disregard for other species. Tolstoy condensed many of the issues facing humanity into one question “what then must we do?”. This implies acceptance of our own share of responsibility for what has gone wrong, and the determination (hence “must” not “should”) to do something about it. It is our choice whether to support RSPB, Water Aid or Greenpeace – for many it will be all three and other causes too diverse and numerous to mention.

    Among the comments on your blog, and in the wider world, I recognise the concept that morality implies a set of laws to be followed, rather than the individual conscientious response suggested above. Surely it is up to each one of us to ponder, question and decide our own actions. In a sense we are all hypocrites, and our humanity makes us behave inconsistently, but there is certainly nothing to be gained by accusing others of being hypocritical.

    Keep up the good work, Mark, and don’t refrain from turning over stones for fear of what may be lurking beneath!

  13. Phil, of course the populations of rats on oceanic islands should be exterminated to protect vulnerable sea bird colonies. That is not a moral issue but one of practical conservation.
    My point is simply that time spent prying into peoples motives and morality is at best wasted and at worst seriously destructive. The likliest way to save the world is enlightened self interest, the fact that if we don’t save the environment we are doomed as a species may get through, sitting in moral judgement on selected groups is a really enjoyable shortcut to hell. Having said that it is almost certainly too late but we should still try.

  14. This is the conclusion of the latest European Union report on Defra’s efforts (?) to comply with their assigned international obligation to eradicate bovine TB:-

    “It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle.

    There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.

    UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections.

  15. Oh dear, I feel I shall turn back into the logical positivist of my mis-spent youth. Reading this discussion it would be easy to agree with A J Ayer that there are three kinds of propositions:
    1 Logical (not beyond the tautological): All golden eagle poisoning gamekeepers are gamekeepers;
    2 Factual (but including statements of feeling): I do not like golden eagle poisoning gamekeepers;
    3 Literally nonsense (including most moral judgements): All golden eagle poisoning gamekeepers act immorally.

    Well, I think golden eagle poisoning gamekeepers (and those who pay them to poison eagles) behave immorally (as well, plainly, as illegally), so I’m obviously resigned to nonsense views. But really we should be careful before attaching “moral” to any view, and although I think the poll is interesting, it tells us nothhing clearly about changing moralities. Not just to play philosophy, whilst I think the young people were asked an interesting question, we can’t understand their answers unless we know what they, individually, meant by “moral”. And it is the same with your question and the responses here.

    In brief, though I know that academically it is now unfashionable, I do still think that moral views are culturally relative. If it were not so, why do most people take the Old Testament as cautionary rather than literal truth? Or most of us find the Victorians at least slightly puzzling?

    The evolution of the idea of human rights has been long and arduous. That of animal rights is still contentious, in the sense that it is still not nonsense (in an Ayer sense) to say that animal do not have rights.

    Indeed I am not sure that I myself think animals do have rights, or at least not in the old-fashioned sense. Therefore to poison them is not to infringe their rights, though it is always (to many of us including me) upsetting. So I am not sure that poisoning a golden eagle is morally wrong in the sense that its rights are infringed (though it is certainly illegal) in a way that poisoning a rat is not. But I do think that poisoning a rat can be OK, whereas poisoning an eagle cannot be. So a “rights” based analysis does not help us.

    But what does? In much human interaction, “moral” views tend to get codified pretty quickly (though decodifed more slowly, as in the law on homosexuality). It’s actually quite hard to think of a moral sphere (apart from general civility) which is nowadays uncodified or unregulated, which is why the injunction to bankers to adopt a new ethical system sounds so odd (though I agree that the law and regulation are not enough – so they should).

    For our relations with the animal and the wider non-human world, it is quite the same. Public sentiment (not sentimentality) has led to laws protecting scarce animals and habitats. Should we look beyond that to an idea of morality? Is there something important, and non-legal, that we want to assert, as about bankers but instead about eagles?

    I’m not sure. Please don’t poison eagles, I like them and the world will be a worse place without them. Please don’t carry on wrecking the environment, I would like my children to live in a place that is not a biodiversity desert. Please stop global warming, I would like to think that my grandchildren will survive peacably to old age. These are my desires, I trust increasingly shared by others, and ultimately enforcible over a minority who do not share them. But can I, or should I, objectify them by saying “poisoning eagles is morally wrong”?

    I would say not. In the end we appeal to our own humanity. We understand better now that we are like, and of, the animals but a broad moral system including them is at least decades away and may never happen. Even more so, saving the planet is not a moral view about the planet.

    So well then the good thing is that the kids care for, or want to care for, the environment.


  16. Dear Mr Coop, During a long life being responsible for killing things I can certainly assure you that I have not and will not eat everything I kill or have been responsible for killing. I have 100’s of thousands of rats, probably millions of Cockroaches, Fleas and Bed Bugs and enormous numbers of House Mice on my conscience and I have to confess that I did not eat any of them. Nor did the thousands of people who insisted on them being killed. I can recall not a single person who showed the least interest in Rat Rissotto or Mouse Kebab.

    1. Nice one, Mr Coghill. However, you appear to have misunderstood the context of the question. But then, I suspect you know that already.

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