Why I am not an environmentalist

Par David Olivier Whittier

This text was written in 1988 and unsuccessfully proposed for publication in the environmentalist journal Silence. It was subsequently published in issue #7 (1993) of the Cahiers antispécistes journal.

Machine translation; revision in progress!

20 min.

Generally speaking, environmentalists appear to me both as deifying nature and as having a very narrow and static conception of it.

I am surprised by how few people in France in the alternative movements have taken the step of stopping eating meat. To eat meat is to order the killing of a sentient being who lives and who places all the value she can on the only thing she possesses, her life.

I oppose the ecologists because, for them, when the fox eats the hare all is fine as long as it “preserves the balance of nature”, whereas I see the suffering of the hare. Only by being very closed-minded about what this actually means can one find it “good”. Environmentalists in nature see only species; without human intervention, these species vary little, at most imperceptibly; the resulting impression of stability gives a vague feeling of calm, of security; for them, this justifies speaking of the harmony of nature.

Torture is permanent in Latin America; is it harmonious? Environmentalists think it is good that the fox kills the hare because it preserves an order. Torture also preserves an order.

Jean Dorst, renowned naturalist:

Those who want to abolish hunting are often unaware of the close connection between life and death. Hunting should be judged without any sentimentality and considered as a “normal” activity and as the legitimate exploitation of natural capital for the benefit and sporting satisfaction of man1.

This is the way many environmentalists view things. However, this attitude overflows with contempt for so-called sentimentality, that is, for the feelings we can have for these beings who are like us, to whose suffering we must turn a blind eye because they are, as we call them, “animals”, while scientific logic and simple common sense imply that we too should be called animals.

Environmentalists often do not like hunting. Often, I am sure, out of dislike for the pleasure of killing. But when brought to talk about it out loud, only one point comes to the fore: do hunters degrade nature or not? Any sympathy for animals is muted as if it were a shameful sentiment. So some environmentalists find allies among “good” hunters or, even more often, among anglers (you know, those peaceful people who, after impaling some maggot, lowly animal, make the gasping fish dangle on a hook that tears the flesh from his mouth). These are “good” hunters and anglers when they preserve the balance of nature.

Poster with a drawing of a fox with a mouse between his jaws. “Don't shoot! It's a hunter – hunting is natural!”
“Don't shoot! It's a hunter – hunting is natural!”

This poster, which shows a fox holding a mouse in his teeth, is the work of the ASPAS (“Friends of Foxes and Other Stinking Animals”), that is, environmentalists who present themselves as “friends” of (certain) animals. With the aim of getting (human) hunters to stop killing foxes, the ASPAS salutes those hunters “who protect nature and respect other hunters”. It does not occur to them that predation might be an unfortunate reality.

Ecologists are often fascinated by predation. The animals they care most about are predators (foxes, wolves, lynxes, raptors...). Rarely does a nature TV show go by without some bloody-but-so-beautiful scene of lions hunting gazelles. Ecology textbooks focus on the study of “food chains” – even though animals do much more than eat.

The “balance of nature”

Preserve, balance, nature: the environmentalist creed. But, as you can see, “nature” has never been in a state of balance:

a) Nature is all there is; nature is simply reality. Homo sapiens is part of nature. Everything is natural, including concrete, cars and nuclear power stations.

If man has, undoubtedly, and in an ill-defined sense, an intelligence that is greater than that of all other living forms, this is a natural specificity. Hares run better, humans reason better, and, even if they were to destroy the whole planet, this would be only the result of natural evolution.

This does not detract from our ability to choose. We can be against cars, nuclear power plants and meat consumption not because they are “unnatural”, but because of the suffering and death they cause. I am part of nature and any choice I make will be natural by definition. Nature does not decide my choices.

When I say we are animals I am not referring to an “animal part” in us. We are animals, 100%. We are also humans, 100%. That does not make 200%, any more than if I say that water is 100% a liquid and 100% a hydrogen compound.

b) Nature, with or without humans, is not balanced. It is the realm of harmony and dissonance, of continuity and slow or catastrophic transformations, of memory and innovation. It is the realm of adaptation and maladaptation.

All multi-cellular living beings die sooner or later. An organ devastated by time can no longer function, the whole organism is poisoned by its own waste products, the lungs shut down, the organs suffocate; the muscles lack oxygen and produce lactic acid. To survive. What a great adaptation to the situation! Everything dies in a process of decompensation, in panic. The blood of the hare mauled by the fox seeks to coagulate to stop the wounds of flesh about to be digested. Where is the harmony?

It's that all-providing “Mother Nature” has provided nothing for death. With few exceptions, what happens to an animal at death does not affect the future of the species. No physiological adaptation to this situation has therefore occurred over time. How an animal dies is no longer of interest to “Mother Nature”, despite death being part of her order. How death comes, in terrible suffering or calmly, does not matter; what matters is that it should come since the animal is now of no use!

Harmony for the hare may be found in her long hind legs, which often allow her to escape from the fox. But the survival of the fox species over time shows how limited this harmony is.

The adaptation of animals to their environment is a relative notion. Swallows come to France in summer to eat flying insects; it is warm and fairly dry. But when it rains for twenty days in a row, they catch nothing and die by the thousands. And so do their nestlings; in any case, few of them are destined, even under “normal” conditions, to survive more than a few months.

Climate change is a constant phenomenon. The Quaternary glaciation destroyed many of the European plant and animal species.

Different kinds of plants grow in different soils and climates. “Organic” cultivation aims to “respect nature” by giving each plant its “natural conditions”. In fact, in nature, few plants grow in their “ideal conditions”. They grow where they can, to the extreme limit of the areas where they can survive. Stunted, deficient plants are a reality of nature. Besides, the notion of “ideal conditions” is absurd. A cactus basically needs as much water as any other plant. It is not “well adapted” to the desert, it is less maladapted than others and has settled in the desert because of the lesser competition it finds. Subsequently, it may have lost its defences against, for example, moulds, which are not a great problem in a dry environment; the result is a plant that suffers permanently from thirst and is unable to live in a damp environment. It is a natural misfit.

Nature is all about continuous innovation. In England, foxes were driven out of the countryside and settled in the cities. In the countryside, they dug burrows. In the city, they fend for themselves. But their instinct to build burrows has not just disappeared! To survive, they go against their instincts. Their first cause of death is, by far, cars. The species is proliferating, you may answer? See the harmony, see the crushed corpses! (No need to go to England, in France we have pigeons and cats).

Man is destroying the fauna and flora; I have heard that a species disappears each day. Is this a new, scandalous, unnatural phenomenon? When continental drift joined North and South America, much of the South American fauna was exterminated by predators from the north, whom they were unaccustomed to. A repulsive phenomenon perhaps, but how could it have been unnatural?

Nature evolves by going against nature. Foxes and rats in cities, homosexual cows, chickadees in England that uncap the milk bottles left by the milkman, are unnatural. The hare that runs to escape death also goes against his laziness, against the part of his nature that is hostile to effort.

My back hurts, because man's ancestors went “against nature” by standing up.

I do not deny natural harmony entirely. It exists necessarily. Fish have gills and live underwater. One may say that this is good, adapted, harmonious. But this harmony gives me no orders. No animal “obeys” nature. If he has instincts that's the way he is, he does not obey his instincts. No fish-god commands the individual fish. Nature does not obey nature, it is nature.

Natural laws

Lion holding a human between his teeth. The human says: “Actually, predation isn't so great.”

I do not deny the specificities of Homo sapiens, since it is that: a species. These specificities matter to me. I can go against my instincts, against a part of myself. I can choose. Actually, I believe that every living being chooses, in a sense, since it has contradictions. But man does so more clearly. To chain myself to a nature-god would also be against my nature.

I much love nature, that is, reality. I love life, which is part of this reality, I love pleasure and happiness, and also that of others. Pigs are animals that I find immediately likeable. I find it unbearable to consider what is done to this being in farms and slaughterhouses. What a waste! What folly to reduce a sentient being to meat, for the mere pleasure of eating meat!

I find this outrageous, whether I like the animal or not, whether she is intelligent or not, pretty or not; I don't reduce nature to my mere personal preferences.

There are vegetarians who claim that eating meat is unnatural. I don't believe this. It seems likely to me that humans are, by evolution, adapted to some extent to eating meat. In any case, I don't care. What matters is that we can live very well without eating it.

I like nature very much, I like what it brings, life, pleasure, I don't like what it takes away, suffering, death. I like cats and mice.

I don't like hunting because I don't like that birds are killed. Jean Dorst calls this sentimentality. But no, it is just the awareness of the value of the joy of the birds' lives.

I am fully aware of the existence of death. As for the “close connection” between life and death that Jean Dorst refers to, in quasi-mystical terms, no, I don't see it. I only note that every multicellular living being dies some day; it is something I deplore, but can do nothing about for the time being. Just as I can do nothing, or very little, about the lack of food in poor countries. Famine may well be natural, but that doesn't make it right to pick up a gun and shoot four or five little Ethiopians for one's pleasure and sporting satisfaction. That pleasure and sporting satisfaction are such serious matters in the eyes of Jean Dorst! I do not look down at them; all pleasure is a serious matter for me. But what contempt he has, like so many people, for what does not correspond to a productive, institutionalisable, profitable human activity! Sentimentality! Jean Dorst is a serious person. So are generals, and if a soldier does not want to harm the “enemy” he is being “sentimental”.

Jean Dorst is right to say that hunting is a normal activity. Predation and cancer too – no matter what the mystics of nature may say – have existed for millions of years.

I am not an environmentalist, because do not care for preserving the “balance of nature”. I do not believe as environmentalists do in the existence of this balance. And I believe that reality as it exists is a good thing, but I want it to be better. Just as those who have cancer want to live, even if living means a risk of getting cancer.

An ethical question

If you want to live without asking too many questions, you have to make your ethics simple, even if it is not based on anything. Ethics can be going to mass and going home to sleep. It can be to follow the laws, to be a good grocer and sell your South African oranges without ripping anyone off. It can be to try to follow the "laws of nature", by inventing them beforehand, like we invented God.

I have no simple ethics. My ethics are based on happiness as something to strive for, on unhappiness as something to avoid. This, I believe, is the only serious basis for an ethic. But I am not sure what happiness or unhappiness is. I know clearly that these words have meaning for me and other humans, and I have little doubt that they have meaning for cows and fish. I think they still mean something to lobsters and insects, and for plants I don't know.

It's easy to have an ethic that, instead of questioning things that are difficult to change, decides to call them "good". I want to see my morality as built on real things; happiness and suffering are real to me, like water or stones, even if current physics doesn't know them. I cannot then, by convention, baptise anything as 'good'. And also, it involves living in uncertainty, in ethical insecurity. Is it good to kill a snake to save a large number of frogs? When they eat so many insects? The latter eat each other or harm the plants. I don't know if they suffer, the plants, if they suffer when they choke each other, poison each other, shade each other. In many cases, I don't know what is right. Or maybe what is right is too hard to take: with every step I risk crushing ants. Perhaps I should kill myself, to save ants? I won't do it.

But there are simple things to do. Not eating meat is one. But in my forced incoherence, I am open to criticism from those who are easily taken in by the certainties of the century. In discussions with meat eaters, it is rare that I do not hear: "You eat plants, they are also living beings. This from people who don't give a damn about the fate of animals and plants. It's true that it's easier and more coherent to be a 100% bastard than a 50% bastard.

One wonders how it is that with an ethic based on "the natural order of things", "harmony resulting from competition and selection", most ecologists are left-wing, socially progressive. Ecologism à la Pétain, à la Hitler seem to me to make more sense. A homosexual ecologist will often be asked: "but... homosexuality is against nature! Some will answer that man is not like nature. In their minds, nature remains the domain of immobility, of "natural laws" that must be obeyed, a domain which, despite its impressive diversity, is ultimately very poor, where freedom does not exist.

When I have given up criticising someone, it is because I finally despise them. One wonders whether environmentalists respect nature or whether they are held in awe by it. I have not given up criticising nature. I have more respect for it than most environmentalists have.

The ecologists are generally progressive, but their adoration of nature leaves deep marks. Not to mention the deep ecology trend, which fortunately I think France is not very affected by (they are, for example, in favour of letting Ethiopians die, in the name of natural balance), one only has to look at the treatment of immigration by the Greens' programme: "reluctantly", they are not in favour of opening the borders, for social, economic, etc. reasons. One can logically deduce from this that they are also necessarily in favour of deporting those who would have returned anyway, for residence permits, identity checks, etc. All this because, prostrate, they are not in favour of opening borders. All this because, prostrate as they are on the human level before "social laws", "laws of the economy", they are blind to the simple fact that nothing can justify discriminating between people according to their place of birth. They go so far as to claim that they want this ban for the good of the people, just as an issue of the magazine La Hulotte calls I don't know which predator a doctor for his victim, without seeming at all aware of the cynicism that this represents.

The ecologists are blinded at the human level by the "laws of society" as they are in general by the "laws of nature".

Opportunities for action

In England there are over three million vegetarians. Silence has, to my knowledge, never mentioned this. Many of these people are motivated by a refusal of violence against animals. The French alternative movements find it quite natural to talk about conviviality, about other human relationships, while coldly envisaging that in their ideal society everyone would slit their pig's throat, raised in an organic and decentralised way. In the meantime, they eat battery-farmed calves, while remaining sensitive to the problem of hormones, in case it threatens their health, or they buy their organic rabbits from the local organic cooperative.

In England and North America there are strong anti-vivisection movements, there is the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), anti-vivisection commandos. The French alternative press is completely uninterested. However, a small movement seems to be developing in France; the ALF exists, as does the commando that recently freed dogs at the INSA in Lyon.

The suffering that humans inflict on other animals is also vivisection, the daily torture in laboratories. I am against it, even when it brings a real benefit to humans. If someone showed me that sacrificing a cat could save millions of people from AIDS, I would probably hesitate; but that's not how the problem is posed. Without mentioning military experimentation (combat gas must be tested), which is easy to condemn, I note that all animal experimentation is for the convenience and benefit of humans; if humans want a particular anti-cancer drug, why should they risk testing it on themselves? If humans are sufficiently motivated in their desire for an artificial sweetener for their soft drinks, why would they not risk a little of their health or their skin for it? Instead of condemning to death and suffering rats that have, a priori, no desire to gorge themselves on cyclamates? I do not deny the scandalous nature of many human experiments, often carried out without the subject's knowledge, but how can one find less scandalous the daily sacrifice of millions of animals for causes large or small that do not concern them, by cowardly experimenters (pardon the word, which is part of their vocabulary of self-satisfied do-gooders) encouraged by a cowardly public that would not dare to undergo a tenth of what they inflict on other beings?

The barriers that make people feel safe

As you may have gathered, I put the life of a human being on the same level as that of another animal. For me, there is nothing particularly sacred about human life, no more so than the pleasure of drinking a soft drink. Life is made up of small and large pleasures and displeasures, and we risk our lives and those of others because we find it more convenient to have a car. You risk your life for the pleasure of smoking. But to put the life of an animal and a human being on the same level! What a scandal!

It is, in fact, that we are afraid. This "sanctity" of human life appears to be a conquest, a guarantee against Nazism, against imposed "euthanasia", against executions, etc. What an effective guarantee! What an effective guarantee! The car: 11,000 deaths per year in France, often the complete victims of a choice that others have made out of pure convenience. During wars, this "sanctity" seems to become all of a sudden quite relative. Not to mention the more or less programmed famines that leave people quite indifferent.

The French "new right" has had little difficulty in appearing as the champion of freedom of thought, in the face of the number of rattles to which "left-wingers" frighteningly attach themselves. Revisionism is responded to with an attempt to ban contradictory examination of history; torture with human rights, rape with assizes. Some people respond to vivisection with "animal rights", an absurd notion, not only because the idea of rights itself seems absurd - I don't want to develop that here - but because as long as it is considered normal for the fox to eat the hare, what right does the hare have? Some "animal rights" charters grant them the right to be killed humanely!

To explain why I am against Nazism or racism, I need more words than if I were to come up with a slogan about the "sanctity of human life". Longer and more complicated, my explanation may seem less assured. So be it. But how effective has the taboo on racism been for years? This taboo is falling apart today. If it has limited or delayed the damage, so much the better, but it seems to me to have prevented people on the "left" from thinking.

The fundamental distinction that is made between humans and other animals is reassuring. Everyone has a place in this society, is recognised, has an identity card, is protected by the law. These laws are supposed to guarantee that not even the smallest tramp will be treated like a dog. The security provided by social norms has, despite appearances, little to do with physical security. People are more afraid in our society of becoming non-standard, of losing "social security", or of losing their pension, than of dying in hospital in a standard way. If people are more afraid of being attacked in the street than of dying in a car, it is because they are afraid of being confronted by someone who does not respect the norms, and of not knowing how they are supposed to behave.

We must accept to live in intellectual and ethical insecurity. Not for pleasure, but because the world is cruel and very poorly known and because we have to be honest. I don't have any ideals to propose at the moment. The end of capitalism, an egalitarian, convivial society, even one populated only by vegetarians, is for me a palace revolution in the animal kingdom as long as there are hares killed by foxes.

The environmentalist's good conscience

Faced with the massive destruction of the environment by man, environmentalists cling to the myth of Mother Nature to be preserved. I am revolted by the extermination of foxes; this may seem contradictory to my revolt against what foxes do to hares. I have a problem there that I don't know how to solve. And I have other, even more difficult ones. Why should I, in order to call a problem a problem, be able to propose a solution, if possible within the hour? No one knows how to cure AIDS, but that doesn't mean we can't be aware that AIDS is a problem. And, above all, to look for solutions.

But it is frightening. If we go against the order of nature, how far will we go? Out of fear, we decide that nature is good. By definition. My attitude is really dangerous, I know that. I don't want to turn the universe into a planned, man-made world. Synthetic food for foxes, contraception for hares, I'm only half happy with that. I have a problem that I don't know how to solve, and I'm unlikely to find a solution, even a theoretical one, as long as I'm (almost) alone in looking for one.

The deification of nature seems to me not only sterile, but also somewhat cynical. Few environmentalists "follow" nature when it disturbs their own person. Preserving nature is fine, but being predated by a lion, no thanks! It's good for the gazelles. Since their species survives! But does one less environmentalist endanger the human species?

Species preservation, under the guise of wisdom-deep-rooted-in-the-cosmos, often hides a simple and dry utilitarian attitude towards nature. No compassion for the gazelle. It is pretty to look at, so we just have to make sure there will always be more of them. Jean Dorst makes it clear: nature is capital for man's amusement. We must preserve the passerines: they protect our crops from insects. Down with nuclear power plants: their waste goes up the food chain to us. No one thought of evacuating the rabbits around Chernobyl, which were condemned to a very painful death.

"People first" say the environmentalists, the authorities, almost everyone. In England, this has been given a name: it is "speciesism", like "racism" or "sexism".

Another meaning of nature

Lion holding a human between his teeth. The human says: “Actually, artificial food for lions isn't a bad idea.”

I believe, and this is personal to me, that nature, i.e. reality, has a meaning, or rather several. And the meaning that seems important to me is the widespread desire to enjoy life. This desire must have played a role in evolution, but it is not remotely confused with the preservation of the species. Deer that masturbate against trees are not seeking the preservation of the species.

The only respect I have for nature, and that respect is great, is respect for this desire to enjoy life. This poses problems. But I believe that it is going, if not in the direction of nature, at least in one of its directions. The only one that interests me.

1. Quoted in the consumer journal Que choisir?, Summer 1985, column «Hunting».