colin f lane

Wilderness: NYRB

Nussbaum, Martha C. 'A Peopled Wilderness'. The New York Review of Books, vol. LXIX, no.19, December 8, 2022, pp. 21-23.

The fascination of an idea of 'wild' Nature lies deep in the thinking of the modern environmental movement.

Here, in a nutshell, is the Romantic idea of Nature: Human society is stale, predictable, effete. It lacks powerful sources of energy and renewal. People are alienated from one another and from themselves. The Industrial Revolution has made cities foul places where the human spirit is frequently crushed (as in Blake's 'dark Satanic Mills'). By contrast, out there somewhere — in the mountains, in the oceans, even in the wild West Wind — there beckons something truer, deeper, something uncorrupt and sublime, a type of vital energy that can restore us, because it is the analogue of our own deepest depths. Other animals are a large part of this 'wild': of Nature's mysterious and vital energy (think of Blake's 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright').

The typical Romantic scenario is that of a solitary walk in wild Nature: Chateaubriand describing a visit to Niagara Falls using stock Romantic tropes that have raised doubts ever since as to whether he ever went there; Rousseau's Reveries of the Solitary Walker; Goethe's Werther flinging himself into the embrace of the winds; Shelley feeling, even, that he himself is the wind; Wordsworth's lonely wandering ending in a more tranquil epiphany of golden daffodils; Henry David Thoreau taking to the woods around Walden Pond. 'Wild' Nature summons us to deep emotions of wonder and awe, and through those emotions we are renewed.

Is this constellation of emotions helpful in thinking about how we ought to approach other animals? I believe it is not. The Romantic idea of 'the wild' is born of human anxieties, particularly about urban and industrial life. Nature, in this conception, is supposed to do something for us; the idea has little to do with what we are supposed to do for Nature and other animals.

If by 'Nature' and 'the wild' we mean the way things go when humans do not intervene, that way is not so good for nonhuman animals. For millennia, Nature has meant hunger, excruciating pain, often the extinction of entire groups. When we compare 'the wild' to the factory-farming industry, or to the less ethically sensitive forms of zoo captivity, it looks somewhat more benign; but used as a source of normative thinking in itself, the idea of Nature does not offer useful guidance. As John Stuart Mill correctly says, Nature is cruel and thoughtless.

Even the time-honored idea of the 'balance of nature' has by now been decisively refuted by modern ecological thinking. When humans do not intervene, Nature does not attain a stable or balanced condition, nor does it attain the condition that is best for other creatures or for the environment. Indeed, to the extent that natural ecosystems do sustain themselves stably, it is typically on account of various forms of human intervention, such as spraying for damaging parasites, intervening to maintain a habitat's vegetation, and policing against poachers. The 'balance of nature' idea looks different from the Romantic idea, but it is really a form of it: our (urban) lives are marred by competitive anxiety and envy, but Nature is peaceful and balanced. The idea has its roots in human need and fantasy and is not supported by evidence.

One might grant that the current status quo is that humans dominate everywhere, while still recommending that humans simply back off and leave all the 'wild' animals in all of these spaces to do the best they can for themselves. Even that proposal would require active human intervention to stop human practices that interfere with animal lives: poaching, hunting, whaling. And it would be, it seems, a gross abnegation of responsibility: we have caused all these problems, and we turn our backs on them, saying, 'Well, you are wild animals, so live with it as best you can.' It is not clear what would be accomplished by this pretense of a hands-off policy.

Nor is it clear that we can ethically be standoffish, even in instances where we have not caused the problem. If we are there looking on, in control of and monitoring animal habitats, it seems like callous stewardship indeed if we permit mass starvation, disease, and other thoroughly 'natural' types of pain and torment. We would be watching these calamities, but refusing to try to stop them.

Killing insects does not inflict a harm of which my theory of justice for animals can be cognizant, because my theory insists that sentience is a minimal threshold for justice.