In his 1901 book Lives of the Hunted, Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) gave the wildlife conservation movement a major boost, including this statement in the foreword: “My chief motive, my most earnest underlying wish, has been to stop the extermination of harmless wild animals; not for their sakes, but for ours, believing that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”
(Visit the Ernest Thompson Seton blog for more about his philosophy.)
Seton did care about animals for their own sakes so I have wondered why he wrote this statement as he did. He spent a long art and writing career establishing the importance of wild animals as whole beings in and of themselves, exhibiting both sentience and morality. Very importantly, he believed that wildlife held inherent rights, especially the right to a home in which to live out their lives.
“Not for their sakes, but for ours,” is a profound statement. In her recent book This Changes Everything, the insightful economist Naomi Klein observes that the earth doesn’t need us—instead, we need the earth. This has profound implications for the environmental movement. Looked at this way, it is as Seton said. We need to preserve wild nature not for instance, for tigers or European songbirds, but for our own survival. The Virtue of Selfishness forces of Ayn Rand should take notice. For all their hated of anything that doesn’t have a dollar sign in front of it, it turns out that saving wild nature is the best way of saving ourselves, the ultimate in selfishness.
Another astute writer, H.P. Lovecraft took on this issue even more vividly. The earth survived for billions of years before we arrived and will survive for billions of years more after we are gone. The question then is not will the earth survive, but will we survive? The evil creature with a name that can’t be spoken since it can’t be pronounced—Cthulhu—is just one of earth’s earlier denizens, a forerunner of those who will come again once we are gone. The earth itself is indifferent to which monsters rule here at any given time.
(Time magazine runs a section called “Briefing.” It frequently provides statistics on nature issues. It has recently reported that 274 tigers have died in India over the past four years leaving a population of under 2000. The magazine also cited the journal Ecology Letters as stating the European songbird population has declined by 421 million individuals over the past thirty years.)
<Rock Dove couple in the Taos-El Prado borderlands, December 12, 2014, dlw photo>