by Russell Edwards*
I. Ecosystems and death
“Do we have to have so many bad ones?” asked the well-meaning teacher. We were being taken through a role-play of ecosystem interactions, at a science teachers’ conference. A great activity, by the way. Each of us represented a species. We were tossing a ball of wool between us, in order to form a representation of the web of relationships in an ecosystem. With each toss of the wool the thrower declared what type of interaction the new link in the web represented. Naturally, the most common type of interaction was predation.
To this teacher, and a handful of others who concurred, predation is “bad.”
As environmentalists, you and I value ecosystems. But in all ecosystems, predation is rampant. If one animal death by predation is bad, then the mass killing that ceaselessly occurs in every natural ecosystem is indescribably evil.
Furthermore, this “evil” is the rule, not the exception. Exploitative relationships between organisms are fundamental to ecosystems. All species except for plants rely completely upon some form of predation in order to provide the materials to build their bodies and the energy to power them. Plants kill each other, too, through competition. Mutualism exists, but even that is inherently extractive: its motivation (through selection pressure) is the getting, not the giving.
That’s just how ecosystems are. If we value ecosystems, we cannot possibly find overwhelming evil in the processes that underpin them. Either we’re wrong to value ecosystems, or, when all things are considered, death in the context of ecology is good. Death provides food to other organisms. Death frees resources for future generations, an essential component of a sustainable, finite system. Death makes way for reproduction and the creation of genetic diversity. Death before reproduction provides selection pressure, shaping diversity into evolution. As Gary Snyder says, “There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”
Most people understand that ecosystems function this way. Yet, as the story above illustrates, many people remain deeply uncomfortable with predation. The usual response is denial—the conception of ecosystems as a harmonious cooperative of peaceful creatures. A denatured nature, as in Bambi or Finding Nemo.
Where is the harm in this comfortable fantasy? Firstly, hidden beneath the denial is a deep-seated ambivalence about nature as it actually is. Secondly, this fantasy writes humans out of ecosystems: if it is bad to prey or be preyed upon, to consume or to be consumed, then the most important modes of ecosystem participation are illegitimate and the only ethical choice is alienation.
II. Be it or lose it
It is a truism in the environmental movement that environmental protection is a matter of “love it or lose it.”
But for me, the need goes further: we must be it or lose it. We must see human beings as part of nature; as animals living in ecosystems, being part of ecosystems. Until our culture makes this shift, the ecological crisis we have wrought will continue to accelerate. Not until we identify with nature will we truly protect ecosystems, not merely as we would a prized possession, but as we would a family member.
This is not just my point of view. It is central to the worldview of many indigenous cultures and is prominent in the environmental movement. “Human beings are part of the natural world,” affirms the opening sentence of the Australian Greens Environmental Principles Policy. Identifying humans primarily as ecosystem participants is a pillarstone of the broad-based deep ecology movement, with particular emphasis given to this aspect by writers Gary Snyder and Paul Shepard. It is also the starting point of ecofeminist analysis for Australian philosopher Val Plumwood, who identifies the human/nature dualism of Western culture as the source both of the ecological crisis and of our “denial of human inclusion in the food web.”
This is a message that has been out there for decades, but has failed to gain traction beyond environmentalists. Why is this? To me, the answer is clear. Our daily existence is not ecological. It is socio-cultural, and increasingly, economic. Our ecosystem interactions are totally mediated by distant third parties. We seldom even enter wild ecosystems, and when we do, we piously “look but don’t touch.”
We live in denial most especially of death. In our own deaths, we strive to deny ecosystems the feast of our corpse. Even so-called green burials exclude scavenging animals, restricting the bounty to microbial decomposers. Perhaps the greatest ecological travesty of all, our food is commodified and distributed by networks of strangers, denying proper ecological realisation both to humans and to the organisms we eat. As Val Plumwood put it, “all our food is souls.” Due respect to the gravity of such an ecological exchange surely demands that both parties participate, consciously and directly.
To genuinely see ourselves as ecosystem participants requires, obviously, that we actually participate in ecosystems. Directly. In hands-on ways that reignite the genetic memory we all possess, of humankind’s natural ecosystem roles. Those roles evolved over millions of years to equip us not as economic consumers, or even as farmers, but as hunter-gatherers. To participate authentically in ecosystems, at least occasionally (and always sustainably) we must enter intact wild ecosystems and spend some time obtaining our basic needs from them. We must find shelter there, gather wood, and warm ourselves by a fire there. We must sleep there, eat, and excrete there. And crucially, what we eat must come from there. We must forage and we must hunt.
Ah, the sharp drawing of breath. It’s a sound I’m sadly familiar with since I came—some years ago—to the realisation above, quit being vegan, and took up hunting. There isn’t space here to preempt the criticism this will draw. I’ll let my argument above stand for itself.
III. Policy reform needed
Australia desperately needs what the Greens alone have to offer: a genuine commitment to govern in the best interests of society and the environment, unbeholden to big business or narrow self-interest. But when it comes to ecosystem participation, its policy positions fall short.
We must defend the right of every creature, including humans, to engage in a full range of natural ecosystem interactions. Greens policy demands this when it comes to nonhuman animals, but support for human ecosystem participation is lacking. The Environmental Principles policy should be augmented to explicitly support sustainable, direct ecosystem participation, including extractive activities such as non-commercial (subsistence) foraging, hunting, and fishing, with this being linked to the existing opening Principle that “human beings are part of the natural world.” This basic ecological right should be extended to everyone, not just indigenous people.
To support this change, it is necessary to remove an overt attack on this right that currently stands in Greens policy. The Animals policy calls for “a ban on recreational shooting of all animals.” Presumably this would apply to conscientious subsistence hunters. Speaking for myself, “recreation”—literally to create anew—is a fair description of the spiritual renewal I find in ecosystem participation. And shooting is the most humane method of hunting available to me.
For this reason, conscience prevents me from becoming a member of The Greens at this time. But I really hope that those members who can see even a kernel of truth in this position will recognise a rights violation when they see it, and speak up to rectify it. I look forward to the day when I can join the fold.
- Devall, B. & Sessions, G., 1985. Deep Ecology.
- Plumwood, V., 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason.
- Plumwood, V., 2012. The Eye of the Crocodile. (Free online.)
- Shepard, P., 1998. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game.
- Shepard, P., 2002. Man in the Landscape.
- Snyder, G., 1968. “Song of the Taste.”
- Snyder, G., 1990. The Practice of the Wild.
*Editor’s note: When you get an enthusiastically appreciative email from a fellow vegan-turned-hunter on the opposite side of planet, you smile. When he sends you a thought-provoking article that echoes many of your own thoughts and feelings, you sit up and pay attention.
The essay above, reprinted by permission of the author, first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Green Magazine, the membership publication of the Australian Greens political party.
To give us some political context, Russell offered these thoughts: “As a party, the Greens stand alone in Australia in providing genuine representation for the environment and social justice. The Greens’ policy positions on animals stem from an abolitionist approach, perhaps reflecting the influence of former Greens candidate and philosopher of Animal Liberation fame, Peter Singer, and former Vegan Society president, Senator Lee Rhiannon, among others. The Greens do not appear to have engaged with prominent competing strands of environmental philosophy which draw attention to the ultimately anti-ecological and anthropocentric aspects of abolitionist veganism. As a result, ecologically-focused hunters are stuck in a no-man’s-land on the redneck-vs-greenie front of the culture wars. This article was an attempt to engage Greens members with other strands of thinking that are more inclusive of humans in nature, and encourage them to rethink their policy position in opposition to ‘recreational shooting.’”
Please join me in thanking Russell for sharing his insights and perspective.