Animals (Us and Others)

A Bird Man in Antarctica
Noah Strycker
Oregon State University Press ($19.95)

A Pictoral Tour of Animal Pleasure
Jonathan Balcombe
University of California Press ($34.95)

The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea
Kennedy Warne
Island Press ($25.95)

Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act
Joe Roman
Harvard University Press ($27.95)

by Scott F. Parker

You can tell from the titles here under review that the issue at stake is the interaction between humans and the other 3–30 million (and crashing) animals that share this planet. You can also guess that one takeaway message from these books is roughly that the situation is not good. What distinguishes these books from one another, besides their varied foci, is their approach to the question of how we think of animals—as naturally occurring pieces of a complicated ecosystems that we require for our own flourishing or as beings that are somehow worthwhile in their own right.

It’s a distinction that engaged the likes of John Muir, who as he aged turned his public writing toward nature’s utility for us, realizing this as a more effective conservation strategy than complaints like “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! How blind to the rights of the rest of creation!” which he saved for his journals. When we do extend our sympathies it’s usually in the direction of animals most suitable for our anthropomorphism. We’re much less likely to make efforts to protect fish, reptiles, crustaceans, or plants than we are, say, penguins.

Noah “Bird Man” Strycker’s Among Penguins is not a work of conservation literature but a travelogue about a summer spent in Antarctica collecting data on Adélie Penguins. Yet in recounting his time on the ice, he can’t help but make the reader care deeply for the penguins that so enthuse him. Strycker and two research partners are delivered by helicopter from McMurdo Station to Cape Crozier, where 250,000 penguins reside. The background science and history you need to understand what they’re doing is easy to follow, and the penguin depictions capture their curious personalities. About his first encounter, Strycker writes,

It made two more complete circuits of our group, pausing to assess various views. Then, amazingly, it settled down a few inches from the ice drill, stretched on its belly, and took a nap. I sat just a few feet from the sleeping penguin. Such trust was incredible in a wild bird. Only in one other place had I seen this behavior in seabirds: the Galapagos Islands. There, as in Antarctica, wildlife evolved without human predators and lacks the fear of people.

Besides Antarctica and the Galapagos, Strycker has studied birds in Hawaii, Panama, and his native Oregon, among other places—and it is the birds, not the continent, that draw him to Antarctica. So he’s often as out of place as the reader would be in his position: “It is difficult to describe the interior of a subzero hurricane because the experience involves so much disorientation. Imagine standing on the roof of a car traveling a hundred miles per hour on the freeway, in a blizzard, while wearing twenty pounds of insulation, and you begin to get the idea.” Such descriptions are only enhanced with the spectacular photos of birds, ice, people, and shelter included mid-book.

Strycker is quite young, and his list of accomplishments is wildly impressive. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to condescend to his peers who are pursuing more traditional careers, interrupting what is otherwise a generous and inspiring insider tale. There is much to learn from Strycker’s love and study of penguins. As the ice of Antarctica melts, the northern penguin populations are shrinking drastically, but southern populations are flourishing. It remains to be seen what will happen with further melting, but penguins “could become major indicators of climate shifts,” and learning to care about them and their fate might provide a motivation to limit CO2 emissions.

Of course, penguins are cute and friendly. What about animals that are neither? In The Exultant Ark, Jonathan Balcombe attempts to make us care about animals by breaking down the dichotomies we rely on to hold up the distinction between human and non-, dichotomies like which animals are capable of play, gustatory pleasure, companionship, and love.

Discussion of animal behavior is very often limited to the language of evolution; every trait is understood as occurring for some procreative advantage it affords. But whatever the causes of an animal’s behavior, there is still the question of the animal’s subjective experience. Balcombe argues that “evolutionary and experiential sorts of explanations are not mutually exclusive.” For any one observation there are two explanations available. When a pod of dolphins surf the wake of a passing boat, “an adaptationist interpretation is that they are saving energy. An experiential interpretation is that they are having a blast.” No dog owner will disagree with Balcombe’s position that it feels like something to be an animal and that that something can be pleasurable. The more difficult (and more important) sell for Balcombe is to get us to think not just about the animals we have personal relationships with, but about animals in general, so that we might reconsider the many severe cruelties we inflict on animals of all kinds.

The studies he invokes are hard to explain away. For example, when reading that “many studies show that rodents and other animals prefer foraging to eating from a food dish and that they develop psychological illnesses when chronically deprived of opportunities to perform important survival behaviors,” one might think back to when box cake manufacturers found that requiring a single egg to be added left the baker with a feeling of investment and increased satisfaction with the final product that went missing when no egg was needed. Likewise, the photographs that make up the bulk of The Exultant Ark remind us that we are not as different from other animals on our planet as we like to think; the photos are anecdotal in nature, but they are utterly compelling. Whether it’s sea otters linking paws or a marmot sniffing flowers, one must be quite disciplined to have a first response of “that looks like a survival strategy” rather than “they look happy.” One of the real knock-down arguments for animals enjoying pleasure for pleasure’s sake comes from the wild ubiquity of homosexual and autoerotic sex, most famously in female bonobos, who “engage in a bout of GG rubbing [clitoris on clitoris] about once every two hours.” One powerful and unavoidable takeaway from this book is that “if intelligence were defined as the pursuit of happiness, perhaps dolphins or crows might outsmart us.” More controversial is the author’s argument that “the roots of our ill treatment of animals lie in . . . the same sorts of prejudices that justified colonialism, fostered slavery, and barred women from the right to vote.” But there are worse readings of our species’ history than to say those with power have tended to exercise it against those without. Empathy is prerequisite to morality, so just look at those seals in love. Just look.

Recognition of our similarities to other animals and the urge to improve their habitats is not the only reason to take up environmental conservation: what’s bad for other animals is, by and large, bad for us. Consider the world’s mangroves. The state of the rainforests of the sea is dire and Let Them Eat Shrimp is as inevitable as it is devastating to read. Journalist Kennedy Warne has long been fascinated with mangroves and describes them with amour: “They are so thickly encrusted with marine organisms that they are like living paintings—Kandinsky canvases of vibrant color and form.” Warne first wrote about mangroves on assignment for National Geographic; while visiting mangroves around the world he came to see the social and environmental destruction of these regions, and how vigorously they must be protected. Though they make up only 0.1 percent of land surface, their virtues are almost too many to name. Harvested sustainably, they provide “honey, timber, seafood, thatching materials, fruits, medicines, tea, sugar,” among other goods for people who live in their proximity. They also protect land and people from tropical storms, prevent soil erosion, promote biodiversity, and are major carbon sinks—storing it and transporting it to the ocean.

Unfortunately, due largely to shrimp farming, which profits in the same conditions where mangroves flourish, mangroves are among the most stressed ecosystems on Earth. “Shrimp consumption in the United States nearly tripled between 1980 and 2005, while the price halved.” Meanwhile more and more mangrove forests are converted from public assets to private shrimp farms to abandoned wastelands so full of toxins that mangroves cannot even regrow without extensive and expensive rehabilitation. Warne importantly reads the mangrove fiasco in economic terms, too, identifying the market’s failure to account for its environmental destruction that it writes off as an externality. Of course, while destroying an ecosystem may be external to any given balance sheet, it’s not external the life of a single person on this planet. “To walk in a mangrove forest is to become aware of the interlocked worlds of land and sea, human and wild.” The book puts one simple question to the reader: is destroying a rich and crucial environment, ruining the lives and livelihoods of local peoples, and increasing our collective strain on the planet, worth it for cheap shrimp?

A broader look at the state of animals comes from Joe Roman, who in Listed looks back at the history of the Endangered Species Act (signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973), declaiming its success and arguing for broader conservation efforts than those enumerated in that legislation. In so doing, he reports first-hand from the scenes where animals (and some plants) under the protection of the ESA are excelling, struggling, and no longer observed in the wild.

One of Roman’s strategies to improve conditions in these locales is to look at the economic costs of preservation and show that rather than an economic restraint it is often an economic benefit. A group of scientist in Santa Barbara calculated “the value of all the services provided by all the ecosystems, from the forest to the floodplains to the open ocean, across the world” to be $33 trillion a year. As one example of how nature could be worth more than all the world’s economies combined, studies have found that “every dollar invested in protecting watersheds can save up to $200 in costs for new water treatment and filtration facilities.” Similar numbers can be found for forests, mangroves, wolves, pigeons, almost anything you can think to look at. “For every dollar [New York City] spends on maintaining and planting street trees, the city earns $5.60 in benefits . . . [they] absorb lung-damaging sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. They absorb ozone and carbon monoxide.”

The big problem is that the economic models we rely on take unlimited resources as a given. But our forests are no longer plentiful and our oceans are no longer full of fish (over 90% of large fish have now been killed), so Roman encourages us to find new economic value in preserving what remains (and if possible regrowing some of what we’ve lost). One objection to such an economic defense is that it seems to imply that we should only make environmental investments that we expect to yield positive returns. What if saving, say, tigers is a net cost rather than a net gain—should we let them die? Is that the kind of world we want to live in? But, in invoking economics, Roman isn’t beholden to it. He brings morality and species survival into his argument:

The best response may be to do everything we can for the polar bear, the freshwater mussel, the endangered scrub mint, and the whale. There are many ethical reasons to protect all the species on Earth; climate change has added another practical one: protecting biodiversity will store and absorb CO2.

The situation in the U.S., just as on the rest of our planet, is that we’re slaughtering our ecosystems and the flora and fauna they comprise. “Some call our epoch the Anthropocene, as human influence is now planetary in scale. Others have dubbed it the Catastrophozoic or the homogecne.” Whatever you call it, “1600 is a benchmark year; then the age of extinction began in earnest,” roughly two hundred years before the concept of extinction was first taken seriously.

For the reader who struggles to imagine how it was that “until thirteen thousand years ago, North America had more large animals than present-day Africa,” the work of Jared Diamond is a good place to turn. In Guns, Germs, and Steel he describes the combination of accidents of human history that allowed us to conquer the world in the way we have (q.v., like the penguins of Antarctica, and unlike the lions and elephants of Africa, the megafauna of North America didn’t evolve in the company of our upstart species and never acquired the caution required to survive our presence). And more relevant to the outcomes all four of these books want to prevent is Collapse, in which Diamond shows the common features of several societal collapses, most prominently: failure to handle ecosystem destruction. Is this our collapse? The ice of Antarctica seems unlikely to stop melting; the shrimp we add to our salads are destroying the planet’s mangroves; the animals we harm with negligence and intentional cruelty are capable of profound suffering; the economy we pretend will expand forever does have limits; the loss of animals and plants we are undergoing threatens to destroy the environments we need to survive. Et cetera.

Rhetorically, an inspirational sendoff is expected here (and three of the books under review do offer one). But we already know in essence, what they ask: sacrifice in some form, and compassion. It will be hard and it might not succeed. As Roman puts it, “Reducing consumption and stabilizing the human population, even humanely reducing it, will improve the lives of people and wildlife . . . It is nothing short of a reexamination of our lives and values.” So if you’re looking for something positive to end on, here’s something you can count on: geologically speaking, we haven’t been around long and we probably won’t be around much longer. However many animals we kill, even if we kill ourselves, destruction of the Earth itself will take something bigger than us, and there’s some comfort in that.

Click here to purchase Among Pengins at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Let Them Eat Shrimp at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011