• inquisitive
    7
    Hi all, first of all let me apologize if I have miscategorized this. Also, please understand I don't have a formal education in philosophy and neither have I read very many books on the topic. I am very much just and arm-chair philosopher. I am also not an avid writer and as such this may be somewhat badly formatted and edited. Lastly, English is my second language. I think I have a pretty good grasp on it, but if some of my ramblings are incoherent to you, I'd be happy to elaborate and explain.

    Now, for my actual question, which is quite lengthy I'm afraid. I wasn't able to find a similar discussion here or anywhere I looked, so I decided to start a new discussion. I hope you find the topic as intriguing as I do. Most of this is introductory, to give you insight on my train of thought. The very condensed question is the one in the title.


    Recently I have been thinking more and more about climate change. It is becoming very clear that, despite all the deniers, it will be a serious problem for the planet and its species – including humans, which is tragically ironic. In our maniacal efforts to maximize our own well-being and pleasure, we will ultimately bring on our own demise. If I knew anything about history, I could probably draw some parallels to great empires of the past that met a similar demise. It seems that this is part of our way of life, at least in so-called advanced (high-culture?) civilizations.
    Further thinking about this circumstance led me to realize that humans are (to my knowledge) the only species who have managed to shift their daily struggle past that of mere survival; we strive for things like materialistic pleasure, academic or career success, personal recognition and self-actualization. For many of us, daily thoughts are not centered around the goal of making it through a tough day, or perhaps a hard winter. We don’t think: “where will I find food today”, like an animal might. Instead, we contemplate whether we would prefer pizza or french fries. To my mind, this is a huge (if not the biggest) differentiating factor between us and all other animals.
    Then there’s our immense selfishness. Not just towards other people (especially those we don’t know and have no emotional connection to) but more strikingly towards everything else in this world that is affected by our way of life, which includes almost every living organism. Of course I realize not every human has all of these privileges. There are many people out there, both in poor and wealthy regions, that struggle from day to day to put food on their and their family’s plates. But the fact of the matter is, that as a species, we have transcended the struggle for mere survival.

    I calculated my carbon footprint the other day to see how selfish I am being. The result: My way of life produces around 9 tons of CO2 per year. That is slightly below the average for my nation, but still far beyond the international average and even farther beyond the 2 ton goal, that is used as a reference value to fight climate change. The most baffling part of it to me was the estimated 3 tons I produce alone just for food and drink products. That’s already 50% above the goal! I suspect much of this comes from imported foods and industrial farming.

    This brings me to another point which really gets to me. The scale of industrial farming is something most of us are not confronted with in our daily lives. However, I recently saw some images and videos and read articles about the horrible mistreatment that is par for the course in all kinds of large-scale animal farming. Pigs – which are said to be as smart as or even smarter than dogs – are held in pens where they have no room to move whatsoever. There is disease, workers mistreat the animals by beating them, throwing them around. The same is true for cows. There are heart-wrenching videos that show how unwanted calves from dairy cows (which have to have calves once a year to keep producing milk) are thrown around by workers, breaking their legs and sometimes dying before they would be slaughtered. What adds to the sadness of the situation, is that this has been shown to produce lower quality meat, yet it is still a major problem. One could be quick to judge and blame the individual workers who commit these atrocities, but in truth the system is at fault. There’s just too much demand for dairy (and other products). Additionally, if you are familiar with such things as the Milgram-Experiment, you will know that it is easier to be ‘evil’ than one might think.

    The points on carbon footprint through food and the mistreatment of animals combine for a shattering conclusion: we are both abusing these animals and destroying their habitat – which they have exactly the same right to as we do – in the process.
    To go slightly off-topic: It seems to me that climate change and crimes against animals are some of the most compelling arguments for veganism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love to eat meat and I do eat meat quite regularly. I don’t agree with Vegans who claim that all forms of killing animals for food are bad, evil or unmoral. However, the way we procure meat, especially the cheap kind, in modern farming is simply cruel. This is beside the main point I am making though, so I will keep it at that to avoid getting sidetracked.

    Taking into account the points above one could argue then that this inevitable demise of our species may well be the only good thing to come out of this catastrophe (it is just a shame that most others will go down with us). It would of course be pointlessly cynical to suggest that we should therefore just continue on with the destruction by pumping out CO2 and cutting down rainforests like we have been doing. But maybe the moral decision would be to not prepare for the hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters that are bound to hit us with increasing frequency and strength.

    Maybe we should let nature remove the worst parasite she has ever known?
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    The points on carbon footprint through food and the mistreatment of animals combine for a shattering conclusion: we are both abusing these animals and destroying their habitat – which they have exactly the same right to as we do – in the process.inquisitive

    So this is where philosophy would start (as any intelligent person accepts the reality of climate change and ecological footprints). Do animals have "exactly the same" rights here? I don't see a good argument that they do.

    Taking into account the points above one could argue then that this inevitable demise of our species may well be the only good thing to come out of this catastrophe (it is just a shame that most others will go down with us).inquisitive

    And you will find many expressing that sentiment via numerous posts on this forum. However, the philosophy will lie in making some more rigorous moral argument.

    Maybe we should let nature remove the worst parasite she has ever known?inquisitive

    Or Nature's most successful expression of its true self? So far at least?

    The problem you have is that only humanity has any moral choice here. It is only us who can act according to some agreed insight.

    Now it could be the case that we are unthinking enough - for perfectly natural reasons - that we can't in fact make a moral choice about the state of the planet we are creating. We are institutionally wedded to a particular evolved lifestyle and are just not that intelligently adaptive.

    Or it could be the case we are weighing up a couple of big decisions on which way to go.

    Largely we are comfortable with an anthropomorphised planet - one where all wildlife has been domesticated or put in a reserve. We can love our pets. We can farm our meat humanely. We can have a few wildlife parks to preserve a tamed version of the untamed past. And that is what would make the majority of the world's population happy enough. So a new morality could be built around fostering those objectives. And that has already been happening.

    Then when it comes to planetary climate change and ecocide, we could either vote for a drastic end to growth and a shrinking of the world population, or gamble on our ingenuity to save us. We could place our bets on nuclear fusion, nanotech, geo-engineering - all the usual technology get-out clauses. And if those dreams come true, would that be immoral?

    If we instead vote for voluntary suicide of some sort, then is the sum total of human misery going to be less? The unwinding of the global social system could be spectacularly nasty, as we see in any failed nation state. How moral is it to suggest just letting go of the steering wheel until the car crashes off the road? Only a planned wind-down seems moral. And then we have to make a judgement about that human capacity to entertain and execute any such plan.

    So examine your presumptions here.

    Can humans be unnatural in the way you argue? Even parasites are a universal aspect of nature.

    Do animals have rights if they don't have responsibilities? Morality hinges on the actual possibility of making a reasoned choice.

    Is it wrong that humans might anthropomorphise nature? Is that against nature, or simply the next stage of its development. Cows, dogs and chickens fit into the modern world better than bison, wolverines and dodos. That is just evolution at work - now that evolution has taken on a further cultural-level dimension in the humancentric era of the anthropocene.

    I mean I agree that the world is going to shit in plenty of ways. We can see a host of challenges converging that will make 2030 to 2050 a close run thing for civilisation.

    But that is why philosophical clarity is paramount. We have to know what to actually worry about as our priorities. Cruelty to farm animals might be way down that moral list, for example.

    Yes, I would agree that farming ought to be as kind as possible - given we've made these animals our moral dependents. That is the good middleclass view. But then how fast is artificial meat developing as the alternative? Maybe the real dilemma is what to do about all the soon to be struggling ranchers - the human cost of what could be a technologically-produced social shift. So in that view, we can shelve a problem soon to become a historic one so as to focus on the next issue which is quite liable to follow in its wake.

    And again, letting civilisation collapse will surely only ensure great animal suffering, vast ecological damage. The dwindling band of survivors are not going to have many compunctions about exactly how they survive.
  • inquisitive
    7
    First off, thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. It's clear you've thought about this a great deal more than me so bear with me here.

    Do animals have "exactly the same" rights here? I don't see a good argument that they do.apokrisis
    I don't see a good argument that they don't. What sets us apart in a way that would grant us more rights over an animal? Do we not have the same right to the land and resources as them? Do they not have the same right to pursue their own interests as we do? Theirs may stem from a more instinctive place, but I don't see how the capability of rational thought grants us more rights.

    Or Nature's most successful expression of its true self? So far at least?apokrisis
    Well, I suppose that depends entirely of one's definition of nature's true self and whether this is a successful version of it. One could argue that it is the least successful, for example if you propose that a successful expression would be organisms living in relative balance to one another as they do in many ecosystems. Humans have clearly upset any such balance.

    The problem you have is that only humanity has any moral choice here. It is only us who can act according to some agreed insight.apokrisis
    Yes, it is only us that can act like that, but does that not put a great deal of responsibility on us that we are simply dismissing?

    Largely we are comfortable with an anthropomorphised planet - one where all wildlife has been domesticated or put in a reserve. We can love our pets. We can farm our meat humanely. We can have a few wildlife parks to preserve a tamed version of the untamed past. And that is what would make the majority of the world's population happy enough. So a new morality could be built around fostering those objectives. And that has already been happening.apokrisis
    I think you are being too optimistic here. How many people really care about farming humanely? The president of the US is in the process of reducing the number and size of natural parks right now. Clearly there are a great number of people that still don't care.

    Do animals have rights if they don't have responsibilities?apokrisis
    Do infants? I am not sure I understand why the absence of responsibility precludes one from having significant rights.
    Cruelty to farm animals might be way down that moral list, for example.apokrisis
    I agree with that, I was mainly using it as an example for the atrocities we commit without even noticing it most of the time.
  • Bitter Crank
    9.8k
    What sets us apart in a way that would grant us more rights over an animal?inquisitive

    Humans have the capacity to create things such as rights, other animals don't, and we have granted those rights to ourselves, and not other animals.

    Yes, it is only us that can act like that, but does that not put a great deal of responsibility on us that we are simply dismissing?inquisitive

    Absolutely.

    I think you are being too optimistic here. How many people really care about farming humanely? The president of the US is in the process of reducing the number and size of natural parks right now. Clearly there are a great number of people that still don't care.inquisitive

    I'm all in favor of expanded national parks and humane farming, but the two are separate issues.

    Why don't more people care about humane and organic farming?

    1. They don't know what animal production looks like, humane or not.
    2. They have no practical control over how animals are raised.
    3. In fact, we produce more animal protein than we need (at least Americans and Europeans do). However, we can not feed 325 million Americans, plus export, with humane animal practices. We can't feed ourselves or produce food for export if we pursue strict organic crop production, either. I wish we could, but we can not -- at least right now.

    I haven't seen the inside of a large animal production facility, because access is tightly controlled to prevent diseases from being introduced by visitors. Animals have been mistreated for a long time -- there are injunctions against maltreating animals in the Bible. Most people do not approve of mistreating animals, be they pigs, chickens, or their dog and cat. I don't think that savage mistreatment of large animals is routine, but the way chickens are raised amounts to something pretty close to abuse.

    A small farmer with 30 to 50 cows can know each cow individually -- even if they all look alike to outsiders. If you are milking 5,000 cows, the cow becomes just a unit of production. If you have 25 chickens, you can take care of them individually by yourself. 25,000 chickens -- they are just a mass of feathers and chickenshit.

    Do animals have rights if they don't have responsibilities?inquisitive

    Because we are "alienated" from nature (most of us anyway) we don't understand how vital plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals are to us. I am not ready to give animals rights, but I am ready to accept that we have responsibilities to the ecology we live in, if we want to continue living at all (as a species).

    Cruelty to farm animals might be way down that moral list, for example.inquisitive

    I'd put it fairly high on the list of moral responsibilities. The worst thing farm animals do to us (99% of the time) is fail to cooperate quickly. True, a cow or a horse can kick and the injury can be severe--so stay out of the way of those hind hooves. A pig can bite, but they usually don't. It's not a good idea to present one's hand or foot to a pig, so don't. But pigs and cows don't always quite get what we want them to do next. So, they may need encouragement to move -- but that doesn't require breaking their legs or causing painful injury.

    My guess is that workers who mistreat animals are themselves being mistreated by the owners.
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    What sets us apart in a way that would grant us more rights over an animal? Do we not have the same right to the land and resources as them? Do they not have the same right to pursue their own interests as we do? Theirs may stem from a more instinctive place, but I don't see how the capability of rational thought grants us more rights.inquisitive

    What sets us apart is that we can make the choices, they can't. We can have rights because we can accept responsibilities in fair exchange.

    Now we can decide to be the guardians of nature rather than the exploiters. There is that choice. But unless you can make some argument about morality being an objective fact of nature, or some divinely-ordained reality, then moral relativism applies. Our discussion of how things go for animals is going to be framed within that particular understanding of rights and responsibilities.

    It is incoherent to claim that animals just have objective rights unless you can specify how those rights would arise as part of objective reality. It is easy enough to support the subjective possibility that we might chose to grant or withhold those rights just because we humans have some wish. Moral relativism doesn't have an ontological problem. But moral absolutism certainly does.

    Well, I suppose that depends entirely of one's definition of nature's true self and whether this is a successful version of it. One could argue that it is the least successful, for example if you propose that a successful expression would be organisms living in relative balance to one another as they do in many ecosystems. Humans have clearly upset any such balance.inquisitive

    But what if we are evolving towards a new balance?

    I've posted a ton on this issue - how modern technological humanity is a natural expression of nature's desire to entropify a vast amount of fossil fuel tucked away under the ground - so I won't go into that here. You can search my posts for "thermodynamic imperative" if you like. :)

    Yes, it is only us that can act like that, but does that not put a great deal of responsibility on us that we are simply dismissing?inquisitive

    I agree that we are dismissing our responsibilities. We do have scientific foresight. So we are wrong not to be applying it. Just hoping for the best isn't the most moral course of action at all.

    So I'm a big critic of the state of play. I am simply making the argument here that for these discussions to be effective, they have to be really honest about the moral realities. As you seem to agree, veganism could be considered a dangerous distraction in its irreality.

    On the other hand, maybe veganism is required to really make people confront necessary change with an open mind. When I see vegans having an effective impact on the big issues, then I would take the view that it is not so irrelevant.

    I think you are being too optimistic here. How many people really care about farming humanely? The president of the US is in the process of reducing the number and size of natural parks right now. Clearly there are a great number of people that still don't care.inquisitive

    The pace of change here is pretty fast. I've seen trendlines on veganism which would suggest the whole world converting in a generation or so at the rate it has become middleclass trendy.

    Likewise, farming practices are changing at a gallop where I live - New Zealand. Cow sheds are now being built with cow back-scratchers. The cows choose when to come in and get milked by robotic milkers. Stuff that would be unthinkable ten years ago is becoming the norm, such is the pressure to be "ethical" when selling to an increasingly informed middleclass public.

    So sure, humanity is going to make choices about how humane to be depending on economic trade-offs. There is no perfect world. But that may still be what is morally right if you are a moral relativist seeking to arrive at a rationally balanced view.

    You have to establish your moral framework before you can work out its consequences. Are you guilty of having moral wishes before you have established the framework that could legitimate them?

    Do infants? I am not sure I understand why the absence of responsibility precludes one from having significant rights.inquisitive

    Infants grow into adults. And they can't become well-formed moral beings unless they are treated as beings which can learn to grow into their responsibilities within a moral order.

    Then more generally we extend rights to those who are dependent on us - the disabled, the simple, etc. Perhaps this is sentimental, perhaps it is rational. That is a matter for debate. An argument can be had both ways. Societies that can afford it, certainly do choose to care on the whole.
  • inquisitive
    7
    Do animals have rights if they don't have responsibilities?inquisitive

    Cruelty to farm animals might be way down that moral list, for exampleinquisitive
    Hold on, those aren't my quotes, they're from apokrisis.

    Humans have the capacity to create things such as rights, other animals don't, and we have granted those rights to ourselves, and not other animals.Bitter Crank

    That makes sense in a way, but it also sounds selfish. Imagine saying: "western society has created rights and we have granted those to ourselves, and not other civilizations (i.e. natives on colonized continents)."

    I'm all in favor of expanded national parks and humane farming, but the two are separate issuesBitter Crank

    Yes, my phrasing was bad there. I was merely trying to show that there is clearly still a lack of caring for nature.
    I don't think that savage mistreatment of large animals is routine, but the way chickens are raised amounts to something pretty close to abuse.Bitter Crank

    You'd be surprised what you can find with some Googling. From a certain scale onwards (and depending on the country and its laws/policing) most farm animals receive bad treatment.

    I am not ready to give animals rights, but I am ready to accept that we have responsibilities to the ecology we live inBitter Crank

    I have trouble with the fact that you don't see animals as beings that deserve rights (maybe limited compared to ours). However, your admission of responsibility seems 'good enough' to work with as a strategy. I think that's what a lot of the argument comes down to - a complete shift is probably impossible, but we need to move in this direction I believe.

    My guess is that workers who mistreat animals are themselves being mistreated by the owners.Bitter Crank

    That may be true and it's part of the reason I specifically excluded judgment of those people. It's a result of the need for very high productivity.



    But unless you can make some argument about morality being an objective fact of nature, or some divinely-ordained reality, then moral relativism applies. Our discussion of how things go for animals is going to be framed within that particular understanding of rights and responsibilities.apokrisis

    I don't believe complete moral relativism is a useful concept. Perhaps this is where our divide lies. I think there has to be a certain amount of moral realism in the world. Would you not agree that there are things that are objectively bad? I don't like to use extremes, but consider rape or genital mutilation.
    It seems to me that one can reasonably argue that any moral framework which justifies these acts is not a moral framework that should be applied. You can relativize issues like veganism, because the circumstance that animals eat one another is a natural truth. I'm not an expert on the subject, but it seems that a sudden change of diet to exclude all animal products can be harmful to ones health because certain nutrients aren't present in a purely plant-based diet.

    Likewise, farming practices are changing at a gallop where I live - New Zealand. Cow sheds are now being built with cow back-scratchers. The cows choose when to come in and get milked by robotic milkers. Stuff that would be unthinkable ten years ago is becoming the norm, such is the pressure to be "ethical" when selling to an increasingly informed middleclass public.apokrisis

    That's a great development, I hope we can continue to move in that direction. Maybe purely "ethical" pressure isn't enough though? It seems to me that government regulations are still too lax here.

    Infants grow into adults. And they can't become well-formed moral beings unless they are treated as beings which can learn to grow into their responsibilities within a moral order.apokrisis

    So the reason for giving infants rights is purely of a pragmatic nature?
  • tom
    1.5k
    Recently I have been thinking more and more about climate change. It is becoming very clear that, despite all the deniers, it will be a serious problem for the planet and its species – including humans, which is tragically ironic.inquisitive

    What is the best temperature for the earth? What is the optimum level of CO2 for life?
  • inquisitive
    7
    What is the best temperature for the earth? What is the optimum level of CO2 for life?tom

    Hi. I'm not sure what you're alluding to. Are you implying that recent climate developments may in fact not be negative? I think you would be quite alone in that assumption. We can show that changes in climate are harmful to species, especially if they are as rapid as human made climate change of the past two centuries. I don't think there's an "optimum" CO2 level as such either, though I would propose that the optimum 'range' for CO2 is lower than the current levels. Yes it may be good for trees technically, but the planet as a whole, as a system, does not benefit from such high levels.

    If we're simply talking about the planet earth itself and not including living things, there probably is no "best temperature", but that is a largely irrelevant thought experiment anyhow.
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    I don't believe complete moral relativism is a useful concept. Perhaps this is where our divide lies. I think there has to be a certain amount of moral realism in the world.inquisitive

    Hmm. The obvious reply is that you can't just claim an ad hoc mixture of moral relativism and moral realism. It has to be one or the other. Either morality has objective truth or its a subjective choice.

    But then my own position is founded on a Naturalism, which does take a mixed view. It grants nature an objective telos. To describe nature properly, we must recognise in particular its global tendency to entropify. The "good" is defined in terms of physical concepts such as symmetry breaking and the least action principle. So nature does give our moral choices an objective basis in its own fundamental set-up.

    We can see this showing in traditional moral codes. Morality normally encodes the habits that make for a healthy society. They are the ways to act that create organismic-level success for a culture. Morality is objectively adaptive behaviour.

    And then the same organismic view allows for moral relativism. To the degree we are not constrained by nature - not constrained to act in adaptive fashion - we are free. What we choose to do makes no difference. We can invent silly rules if we like. Should we eat pork or not? Once we can farm pork cleanly, the choice makes no objective difference.

    So my view does mix the objective and the subjective. A natural system is a mix of laws or constraints, and accidents or spontaneity. But that is very different from the usual claim of moral realism where some particular moral facts "just are". And why they are is either not explained, or explained via some transcendent mechanism.

    Would you not agree that there are things that are objectively bad? I don't like to use extremes, but consider rape or genital mutilation.inquisitive

    Is this a good way to argue? Can you prove the objective case by choosing the most easily shared subjective reaction?

    There are cultures where genital mutilation is considered a norm, a good thing, a cleansing act. Rape likewise has been socially licensed in various circumstances - even just in notions of being "a good wife".

    Of course, subjectively, I find such cultural attitudes archaic and repellent. But then I'm likely a product of a very similar time and culture as you.

    So simply feeling these things to be "automatically bad" is what needs to be questioned. And coming up with rational arguments why they just are "objectively immoral" is always going to be suspiciously easy. Arguing for what we want to believe is second nature for folk.

    An honest approach to morality would have to be prepared to think more deeply. The question might be, what difference does rape or genital mutilation really make to Nature? Is it one of those meaningless cultural differences, like scarification or kilt-wearing? Or is it objectively mal-adaptive evolutionary behaviour?

    It seems to me that one can reasonably argue that any moral framework which justifies these acts is not a moral framework that should be applied.inquisitive

    That's a philosophically shallow approach. It boils down to the view that others who didn't grow up my way, in my culture, are probably wrong when they seem to disagree with my socially inherited belief system. They are wrong because I am right.

    It is the completely subjective view. Not at all an objective one.

    I'm not an expert on the subject, but it seems that a sudden change of diet to exclude all animal products can be harmful to ones health because certain nutrients aren't present in a purely plant-based diet.inquisitive

    Veganism can be a healthy diet. But overall, we are evolved to eat like hunter/gatherers. Consuming wheat, or drinking animal milk, are more unnatural than boiling a squirrel so far as our digestive system is concerned.

    However if we were actually talking about an objectively nature-honouring human diet, then every modern supermarket is the grossest abuse of that. There are immoral levels of sugar, bad fats, preservatives, colourings, etc, in what gets sold.

    So which is the bigger social crime - factory farmed chicken or sponsorship of kid's soccer by "sports drink" manufacturers?

    I'd admire any true vegan. So not one who lives on pasta and noodles. But really, given the way the food industry is set up, you would also have to have a crank's level of intensity to overcome all the obstacles put in the way of achieving that "perfect diet".

    Maybe purely "ethical" pressure isn't enough though? It seems to me that government regulations are still too lax here.inquisitive

    Customer pull is more effective than government push. New Zealand is unusual though. For a start, most of the farming happens out in open fields still. As BitterCrank says, once you have production hidden away in big barns, its going to be a different story.

    But to get back to the high level view, I think it is amazing just how much we have already changed the ecology of earth. When it comes to terrestrial mammalian ecosystems, it is now mostly a planet dominated by domestic animals.

    Vaclav Smil has written great stuff on this like Harvesting the Biosphere.

    So your OP was about the morality of what humans are doing to the planet. My reply is that we need to be careful about our definition of what is natural, and hence what might be objectively "good" about the way we are indeed transforming the planet.

    And then to get anywhere on that question, we need to be aware of the real facts. So factory farming seems just the tiny tip of a much vaster iceberg of human-made nature.

    If the domestication of the world's ecosystems is a moral dilemma, then vegans are ultimately just as caught up in that as meat eaters.

    I may as well paste the relevant bits of an article I did on Smil a few year ago....

    Smil says the human population has grown 20-fold in the last 1000 years and nearly quadruppled in just the past century. The numbers are still swelling by 230,000 every day.

    So by his calculations, between 1900 and 2000 – allowing for the fact that humans have got on average somewhat taller and rather fatter – the global anthropomass has grown from 13 to 55 million tonnes of carbon (Mt C) by weight, or from 74Mt to 300Mt if you include the water and the body’s other mineral elements.

    That is a lot of flesh to feed obviously. But Smil says bottom-line is what scientists call HANPP, or the human appropriation of net primary production – the amount of the planet’s total harvestable plant growth that this many humans now take as their share.

    And Smil says it is about a quarter. That is, 25 per cent of the annual terrestrial phytomass production, the conversion of sunlight to plant material, winds up one way or another supporting the 55Mt of human carbon.

    Hey yes, we rule!

    The calculation is complicated of course. It includes not just the plant growth directly for food but also our take in fuel, fibre and timber.

    And nearly half the HANPP figure represents the global loss of photosynthetic potential due to erosion, desertification, human created forest fires and the building over of good land – all the ways we have taken away from the Earth’s usual productivity.

    Smil notes the world’s big cities now cover nearly 5 million square kilometers. In the last 2000 years, he says, with deforesting and other deprecations, humans have cut the total phytomass stocks from 1000 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon to 550Gt.

    But there is good news in the HANPP. At least farming efficiency has been keeping it somewhat under control.

    Smil says it is estimated that a third of the Earth's ice-free surface has been taken over by human agriculture, some 12 per cent for crops and 22 per cent for pasture.

    However because of the green revolution of the mid-20th Century – the switch to industrialised farming with diesel machinery, petroleum-based fertiliser, irrigation schemes and new crop strains – the figures have not blown out quite like they could have.

    Over the past century, the global HANPP has only doubled from the 13 per cent supporting 1.7b people in 1900 to the 25 per cent supporting 7.2b people now.

    And looking ahead, even with the global population expected to hit 9b by 2050, the human share of the Earth’s photosynthetic bounty may only hit 30 per cent.

    Well, that is unless biofuels are needed as an alternative energy source and the resulting agricultural expansion balloons HANPP out to 44 per cent, as some studies suggest.

    ...

    From a New Zealand perspective, this is where Smil’s book gets especially thought provoking. Because as well as the anthropomass and the phytomass, there is also the story of the zoomass – the drastic shift from wild to domestic animals in terms of the planet’s mammal population.

    Smil calculates that the agricultural revolution of the past century has seen a seven-fold increase in plant production. In 1900, humans grew 400Mt of dry matter a year. Now it is 2.7Gt. But because humans like meat on their plate, half this phytomass goes to feed our farm animals.

    We know the equation of course. It takes about 10kg of grain to produce 1kg of burger meat. And Smil says the consumption of meat in developed countries has shot up from just a few kilos per person per year to over 100kg.

    In 1900, the world had 1.6b large domestic animals including 450m head of cattle and water buffalo. Today, that number is 4.3b, with 1.7b cattle and buffalo, and nearly 1b pigs.

    In terms of biomass, the increase is from 35Mt of carbon to 120Mt. So about double the 55Mt of humans treading the planet in fact.

    Wild zoomass has naturally gone skidding in the other direction, halving from 10mt to 5Mt during the 20th Century. With large grazing animals, the drop has been especially severe says Smil. Elephants have gone from 3Mt to 0.3Mt, the American bison is right off the radar at 0.04Mt.

    Tot it up and the numbers are a little bonkers. The combined weight of humanity is today ten times the weight of everything else running around wild – all the world’s different mammal species from wombats to wildebeest, marmosets to rhinos.

    And then our livestock, the tame four legged meals soon to end up on our dinner table, outweigh that true wildlife by 24 to 1 all over again.
    Talk about transforming a planet within living memory. The world is now mostly constituted of people, cows, sheep, goats and pigs.

    As Smil says, the balance has gone from 0.1 per cent 10,000 years ago, to about 10 per cent at the start of the industrial revolution, to 97 per cent today. There may still be tens of thousands of wild mammal species sharing our Earth, but really they don’t add up to much of any consequence.

    Again, just think about it. We harvest a quarter of the biosphere now. Ourselves and our four legged meals outweigh other terrestrial mammals by a combined 34 to 1.

    And no, I’m still not sure I can quite believe Smil’s numbers either. Sometimes in life you are left just shaking your head.
  • tom
    1.5k
    Hi. I'm not sure what you're alluding to. Are you implying that recent climate developments may in fact not be negative? I think you would be quite alone in that assumption. We can show that changes in climate are harmful to species, especially if they are as rapid as human made climate change of the past two centuries. I don't think there's an "optimum" CO2 level as such either, though I would propose that the optimum 'range' for CO2 is lower than the current levels. Yes it may be good for trees technically, but the planet as a whole, as a system, does not benefit from such high levels.inquisitive

    What is your reason for proposing that the optimum CO2 "range" is lower than it is today?

    Plants disagree:

    https://www.csiro.au/en/News/News-releases/2013/Deserts-greening-from-rising-CO2

    Sure, I'm quite alone if you don't count scientists.
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    The ecological issue is more about stability. Rapid change is what causes "problems".
  • inquisitive
    7
    What is your reason for proposing that the optimum CO2 "range" is lower than it is today?

    Plants disagree:
    tom

    I granted you the fact that higher CO2 levels may be positive - at least short-term - for plants, simply because it's a fundamental part of photosynthesis. But what are you trying to say here? Plants are part of the planet as a whole and the planet is deteriorating due to the rise of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It's simply a fact that this gas, among others, upsets the balance of the earths atmoshpere, which sends it into a spiral where water vapor in the air is accumulated (which is a massive part of the warming effect) which in turn by raising the temperature of the air allows even more vapor to be absorbed, and so on and so forth. A NASA article on the matter states: "Increasing water vapor leads to warmer temperatures, which causes more water vapor to be absorbed into the air. Warming and water absorption increase in a spiraling cycle."

    But this is kind of off-topic anyway and I honestly don't feel like discussing the truth of climate change.

    The combined weight of humanity is today ten times the weight of everything else running around wild – all the world’s different mammal species from wombats to wildebeest, marmosets to rhinos.

    And then our livestock, the tame four legged meals soon to end up on our dinner table, outweigh that true wildlife by 24 to 1 all over again.

    That's truly staggering. Thanks for the excerpt, very interesting.

    That's a philosophically shallow approach. It boils down to the view that others who didn't grow up my way, in my culture, are probably wrong when they seem to disagree with my socially inherited belief system. They are wrong because I am right.apokrisis

    I don't think that's what I said. It's certainly not what I meant. Would you agree that the major disagreement between our views comes from you leaning more relativist than me?
    And I don't think relativism and realism are as divided as many seem to claim. It seems like there's a bit of a false dichotomy there. Some truths can be established definitively, while others cannot. Perhaps the reason for that is even that we haven't discovered the underlying truths of most things. If I remember correctly, Sam Harris uses the example of showing maximum well-being through Neuroscientific methods. If we can clearly show that a certain thing creates the most well-being and well-being is the thing we optimize for, then we have established a moral truth. I am butchering Harris' point here but you are probably familiar with it anyway.



    To be honest with you, I think we've reached the point where I've exhausted my current knowledge of the underlying philosophical concepts as well as my own beliefs and thoughts. It's been very interesting to think about and discuss this!
  • Bitter Crank
    9.8k
    Hold on, those aren't my quotes, they're from apokrisis.inquisitive

    Yes, I was aware that those were apokrisis's quotes, but I wanted to address my response to you, since this is your thread.

    I have trouble with the fact that you don't see animals as beings that deserve rights (maybe limited compared to ours). However, your admission of responsibility seems 'good enough' to work with as a strategy. I think that's what a lot of the argument comes down to - a complete shift is probably impossible, but we need to move in this direction I believe.inquisitive

    The reason I don't believe animals other than humans have rights is that they can not articulate anything about their rights. Pigs can not object that their rights are being trampled. So, it is our responsibility to act AS IF animals had rights. If there are animals that should have specific rights, it would be our fellow primates.

    When animals were domesticated, they became our charges, and with it the choice to treat them well or badly, morally or immorally. Beating, starving, torturing... an animal is immoral. It's sometimes against the law, as well.

    Take castration: I don't think farm animals have a right to reproduce, but if we are going to prevent them from being normal males animals, then their testicles should not be removed without anesthesia. Cows should not be branded. Calves should be treated gently (ditto for piglets, lambs, chicks, etc.)

    Treating animals humanely is probably not possible within industrial animal farming. So, we can do without industrial animal farming, and produce less meat. I like meat, so I would find higher meat prices very inconvenient, but we should be heading in the direction of less meat production for environmental reasons, if not animal well-being reasons.

    One thing about the abuses of industrial farming: Industrial farming didn't invent animal abuse. The idealized small family farmer sometimes did (or does, where there are small farms) the same things that big industrial operations did.

    You'd be surprised what you can find with some Googling. From a certain scale onwards (and depending on the country and its laws/policing) most farm animals receive bad treatment.inquisitive

    I'm a pro at googling. However, I also grew up in a small-farm agricultural county and I've seen what run of the mill animal abuse looks like. Most farmers like their animals, and treat them well. Some don't. What goes on in industrial turkey farms, egg production facilities, etc. is very unappetizing and goes down hill from there. Feed lots are grim places, and very unhealthy for both the animals and for the environment, and us.
  • tom
    1.5k
    I granted you the fact that higher CO2 levels may be positive - at least short-term - for plants, simply because it's a fundamental part of photosynthesis.inquisitive

    OK, so you refuse to answer my questions about the optimum temperature and CO2 levels.

    At least we have established that you are wrong in describing me as "alone" in suggesting there are benefits to higher CO2. Certainly farmers across the world experience this in higher yields and in less need for irrigation. It is estimated that in temperate latitudes an increase of 10% is achieved, freeing more land for wildlife.
  • inquisitive
    7
    The reason I don't believe animals other than humans have rights is that they can not articulate anything about their rights. Pigs can not object that their rights are being trampled.Bitter Crank

    Ok, that's a good point I actually hadn't considered. I agree with a lot of what you say in this post. However, I still think some rights can be inherent, whether or not the being the rights are attributed to is aware of them or not. For example, when slavery was still widespread, some slaves may not have been aware of the fact that they had such things as human rights, which they could demand to be honoured.
  • Bitter Crank
    9.8k
    Plants disagreetom

    Plants may like a bit more CO2, but they don't necessarily like the added heat that goes with it. Some plants get eaten to death by the insects that are not killed off by the normal cold winter, for instance. There are millions and millions of dead conifers that are being killed by insects against which they have no defense. They die, then burn.

    Some plants don't get to reproduce because the insects that pollinate them aren't available, owing to earlier warmth in the spring. Some plants are blossoming before the pollinators are out and about. Or they blossom early, get frosted, and are totally screwed for that year.

    Quite a few plants are marching boldly northward, but they aren't marching nearly fast enough to avoid the approaching heat wave.
  • inquisitive
    7
    OK, so you refuse to answer my questions about the optimum temperature and CO2 levels.

    At least we have established that you are wrong in describing me as "alone" in suggesting there are benefits to higher CO2. Certainly farmers across the world experience this in higher yields and in less need for irrigation. It is estimated that in temperate latitudes an increase of 10% is achieved, freeing more land for wildlife.
    tom

    And we have established the that you are refusing to answer my question as to why you are trying to push this point. What are you trying to say? I don't get it. Do you think climate change is a good thing?

    The reason I have "refused to answer" your questions as you put it (though I am quite certain I did in fact adress them) is because I cannot give you exact numbers. If you have them, why don't you share them with us.

    (edited for punctuation)
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    Would you agree that the major disagreement between our views comes from you leaning more relativist than me?inquisitive

    Probably it's rather that I expect morality to have an adaptive natural function. So I would critique it in terms of some objectively-supported notion of evolutionary optimality.

    And thus the moral code that worked for humans as hunter/gathers would have objective differences to the ones that worked for grain-farming cultures, mountain-herding cultures, paddy field-cultures, etc. And then the industrial modern culture is its own story again - one where humankind is in fact re-making the ecology of the planet in its own image.

    So what is right or optimal for a hunter/gatherer, with the lightest ecological footprint, may be different for Homo technologicus with a footprint so heavy that it means to actually reshape the planetary ecoystem, turn it into a giant managed private estate.

    If we can clearly show that a certain thing creates the most well-being and well-being is the thing we optimize for, then we have established a moral truth.inquisitive

    Yep, that's the gist of what I've argued.

    The key is that this is a "four causes" view which accepts a telos or purpose as a legitimate part of our description of the world.

    Extreme relativism is usually based on the rejection of objective-strength telos. The world is taken as essentially meaningless, a blank canvas for our desires. But Natural Philosophy would see that position as reductionist and unreasonable.

    So yes. This becomes an evidence-backed approach. We can identify some definition of what it is to be optimal, or flourishing, or balanced and healthy and enduring. Then we can work out the moral positions which target that generic goal. It is a scientific approach, a pragmatist ethics.

    And it is quite a normal way to think in political theory these days. There are plenty of people promoting national happiness indexes as the right way to measure societies. Big corporations have started to believe in sustainability. The social enterprise model is terribly fashionable.

    And it was the basis of the Enlightenment approach. The only difference was that the problems of their day were more social and economic than ecological.

    To be honest with you, I think we've reached the point where I've exhausted my current knowledge of the underlying philosophical concepts as well as my own beliefs and thoughts.inquisitive

    Hey, the thing is to be actually interested. These are fascinating times with fascinating dilemmas.
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    Yes, I was aware that those were apokrisis's quotes, but I wanted to address my response to you, since this is your thread.Bitter Crank

    Sounds legit.
  • apokrisis
    5.4k
    It is estimated that in temperate latitudes an increase of 10% is achieved, freeing more land for wildlife.tom

    ...just look it up in the climate denier's book of alternative facts.
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