6.2 War on Nature

Yet another absurdity that forms the basis of modern industrial culture is our assumption that we humans can dominate and bend Nature to our will. In an eponymous book, "Domination of Nature[9]," author William Leiss traces the destructive impact of modern civilization on Nature to pervasive attitudes originating with Sir Francis Bacon in the 17th century. Countering the defeatism in 17th century society towards natural disasters in the form of the bubonic plague, childhood diseases, etc., Bacon proposed that the mechanical inventions of the industrial revolution be employed to "conquer and subdue Nature, to shake her to her foundations." Thus Bacon fired the first salvo in humanity's "War on Nature," the longest running, continuous war to date, far surpassing the "War on Poverty," the "War on Drugs" or the "War on Terror" in terms of ferocity, sheer breadth of social complicity and utter absurdity. The modern Caterpillar culture is a realization of Sir Francis Bacon's metaphoric view of Nature in shackles being enslaved in service of humans. In his book, Novum Organum[10], he wrote, "I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave." But if Nature is the "slave" of humans, then extinction and climate change would constitute the "slave rebellion."

It was perhaps understandable for 17th century Europeans to embark on such a "War on Nature" as this was the age of superstitions, leach doctors and witch trials in Western society. That this war has continued on for more than four centuries to become part of the dominant culture today speaks to the thorough brainwashing that society undertakes on children as it propagates its traditions. The Baconian "War on Nature" is not a war on Earthquakes, Volcanic Eruptions, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Floods, Droughts and other natural phenomena, but a war on the weaponless fellow beings who inhabit our planet. Indeed, the modern fishing industry employs all the tools of modern warfare: satellite imagery, GPS signals, remote monitors, to corral the prized fishes of the ocean. The captains of modern fishing fleets are more Captain Kirks than Captain Ahabs, to use Jonathan Safran-Foer's analogy from his book, "Eating Animals[11]." At a more gut-wrenching level, it is traditional in Canada to club hundreds of thousands of baby seals to death on the beaches of Newfoundland each year[12] and it is traditional in the Faroe Islands of Denmark for teenagers to engage in the wanton slaughter of Calderon dolphins as a rite of passage into adulthood[13].

While the Canadians and the Danes get the brunt of bad publicity for their overt display of cruelty in the name of tradition, theirs is but a very tiny part of the holocaust that humans routinely commit upon other species. Almost 60 billion land animals are raised and killed each year to satisfy human appetites, with 10 billion of them in the US alone. In addition, some 90 billion sea creatures are killed each year for food[14]. Most of the land animals we consume are raised in factory farms amid squalor, in cramped quarters and they are given a steady diet of antibiotics to overcome the illnesses that result from such conditions. Humans use animals for pets, food, clothing, entertainment and research and in each of these realms, millions and billions of animals suffer. Even the pet industry is full of suffering. Millions of unwanted pets are housed in cages in dank animal shelters before being euthanized and "rendered," that is, ground up, cooked and processed, along with all the other "recycled" animal body parts, into livestock feed. In the US, twice as many animals are euthanized than adopted from shelters. Even the venerated cows in India are forced to walk to their demise in leather tanneries through the judicious sprinkling of spicy chili powder in their eyes whenever they stall. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has documented the horrific conditions that circus and zoo animals endure in the entertainment industry[15]. In the pharmaceutical industry, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insists on animal testing before approving drugs and treatment procedures even though such testing is cruel and has become increasingly archaic as there are far better computer-aided techniques available. The documentary, Earthlings[16], that is freely viewable over the internet goes through in excruciating detail the misery and suffering that animals undergo to support the human enterprise that is modern industrial civilization.

Unfortunately for the tiger (rhino), its penis (horn) is said to have tremendous invigorating potential in Traditional Chinese Medicine[17]. As a result, poachers hunt down male tigers (rhinos) in order to grind their penises (horns) into powder for the benefit of the affluent, but impotent humans. The bile from the gall bladder of live bears is also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and there are bear bile factories in China where the bears are kept alive in iron contraptions called crush cages while the bile is drained from them. These crush cages are so small that the bears are unable to move their paws and injure themselves while trying to overcome the pain of the process. Recently, there was a report that a mother bear freed herself from her crush cage upon hearing her cub cry out in fear when the workers were about to insert the tube into the cub's gall bladder[18]. The mother bear then chased away the workers, suffocated her cub to death before banging her head against the wall and committing suicide. She rid herself and her loved one of a life of torture.

War is hell. Humans are winning the war and to the victors go the spoils, don't they? Around half of the photosynthetic output of the planet now goes to support humans with the other millions of species having to make do with the remainder[19]. The proportion of the Earth's photosynthetic output going to support humans is increasing every year as more and more humans are demanding the luxuries that the affluent take for granted today. Some people even justify this on the grounds that every species is always trying to outcompete others and grab as many resources from Nature as it can and that humans are no exception. That Nature works on the principle of the survival of the fittest and humans are clearly the fittest of all the species.
The trouble with this argument is that "survival of the fittest" is a gross distortion of the principle of evolution by natural selection that governs ecosystems behavior[20]. If the fittest species in the forest, say the tiger, decides to kill everything in sight because it could, then that forest would die and with it, the tiger. The tiger doesn't do that which is why you can see a herd of deer grazing within sight of a tiger that has eaten its fill for the day. In contrast, when one species outgrows and overwhelms all other species in an ecosystem, that is actually a sign of an impending collapse of that system. It is symbiosis, the give and take of Life, that governs the behavior of species in a healthy ecosystem, not "survival of the fittest."

Often times, we convince ourselves that we are substituting one species for another and are therefore, a benign influence on ecosystems. During the "Taming of the Wild West[21]" in 19th century America, countless natural treasures of the continent were destroyed in the name of civilization. The buffalo hunt of the West was intended not just to subjugate the indigenous cultures that depended on the buffalo but also to free the land of predators and make it amenable for the cattle herds of the European settlers. Passengers used to shoot buffaloes from passing trains just for fun, and together with the professional hunters such as Buffalo Bill Cody, they wiped out an estimated 25 million buffaloes in about two decades. Nowadays, more than half the land area of America is used for livestock production. Cattle herds were supposedly a ruminant substitute for what the buffalo herds used to do. However, while the buffalo herds supported entire ecosystems of predators and prey in the original Great Plains, the cattle herds only support humans. For any wild animal that has the temerity to consume cattle is mercilessly hunted down by humans and destroyed.

From the outset, Science had a major role to play in this War on Nature. Science developed the tools for conducting the war on vaster and vaster scales. The Amazon is such a tremendous store of biodiversity that it is almost impossible to deforest portions of it without it growing back. There's a saying among the native tribes of the Amazon that it has more eyes than leaves, which is amazing considering that there are 600 billion large trees in the Amazon. Yet, through the use of modern technology, we pour herbicides on the deforested Amazonian land to kill off everything that would grow and then plant genetically modified soy that has been engineered to be resistant to that herbicide. The GMO soy grown in the deforested Amazon is then used to feed livestock for the growing appetites of human beings.

In the ocean, GPS and other satellite technology are used to track and trap rare fish stocks even as the stocks decline and prices rise astronomically. On purely cultural considerations, in March of 2010, the nations of the world voted to condemn the Bluefin Tuna to extinction at the Doha round of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), so as not to offend the sensibilities of Japanese sushi consumers[22]. In January of 2011, a single bluefin tuna fetched a record price of $396,000 in a Tokyo auction[23]. The appetite for tuna and other top predatory fish hasn't declined among the rich, even as the concentration of mercury, carcinogens and radioactive waste inexorably increase, year by year, in the bodies of these creatures.

It is the "scientific management[24]" of forests that led to the decimation of native species throughout India during the British rule in the 19th century, with the wholesale substitution of Pine trees for Cedar trees in the North and Teak trees for JackFruit trees in the South. The objective of the "scientific management of forests" was to maximize the utility of the forests for human needs at the expense of native flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the substitution of pine trees for cedar trees in the Himalayas wiped out the incredible diversity of plants and herbs that the cedar forests supported since pine cones cover up the ground and prevent other plants from sprouting. Likewise, the teak plantations are useless for the elephants who eat jackfruits, spread the jackfruit seeds and keep the forests of the Western Ghats of South India flourishing with their presence. While indigenous cultures had subsisted in the forests for centuries using the concept of sacred groves in the North and "DevaKadu" or "God's forest" in the South to preserve the biodiversity of the forest, their sustainable means of livelihood were wiped out in this sweep of scientific management. Science is a wonderful tool when wielded with compassion, but it is a lethal tool in the hands of Caterpillars.

While the War on Nature was conducted through Science, it was justified through religion. Certain religious interpretations deified Homo Sapiens as the only species on the planet that was made in the image of God and that possessed souls while all other species were considered soulless automatons who were put on earth for human use and enjoyment. When I was talking about veganism to a friend of mine recently, he blurted out, "But animals have no souls!" meaning that animals are simply like vegetables without thoughts or feelings or capacity for suffering. For someone who has lived with dogs and cats all my life, it was astounding to hear such a viewpoint from an educated person. In this world view, it isn't just animals that are accorded this denigrated status, but all the trees, plants, birds, fishes, insects and even entire forests as well. This is why it is considered acceptable in our civilized society to blow off the tops of mountains in order to scoop out the mineral ores underneath and then cover up the resulting hole with sod to supposedly restore the destroyed greenery.

But as we have become very effective at killing off our fellow species, we are only now beginning to realize that we are essentially killing ourselves. For Sir Francis Bacon's War on Nature is really a War on humans. Shaking Nature to her foundations results in the rattling of teeth in our own skulls.

It is absurd.

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[9] William Leiss, "The Domination of Nature," McGill Queens University Press, 1994. http://www.amazon.com/Domination-Nature-William-Leiss/dp/0773511989

[10] Francis Bacon, "Novum Organum," 1620. http://www.constitution.org/bacon/nov_org.htm

[11] Jonathan Safron Foer, "Eating Animals," Little, Brown and Company, 2009. http://www.eatinganimals.com/

[12] The Humane Society of the United States has compiled a video on the Canadian Seal Hunt at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeYPM8ncsR8

[13] A video on the Calderon Dolphin slaughter in the Faroe Islands of Denmark can be found in http://www.protecttheocean.com/denmark-continues-dolphin-slaughter-warning-graphic-images/

[14] Statistics taken from Aaron Scheibner, "A Delicate Balance," Phoenix Films, 2010. http://adelicatebalance.com.au . Interested readers can compile their own statistics from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) web site: http://faostat.fao.org/site/569/default.aspx#ancor . Please select "World + (Total)" under Geographic groupings as country, select 2009 as the year, "Chicken Meat" as the item and "Producing Animals Slaughtered" as the element and you will find over 52 billion slaughtered in that year. The counting of sea creatures is trickier, but the estimate of 90 billion is likely to be very low. One estimate is that 59 billion land and sea animals are killed in the US alone. Please see, e.g., http://freefromharm.org/farm-animal-welfare/59-billion-land-and-sea-animals-killed-for-food-in-the-us-in-2009/

[15] Please see the PETA page on the mistreatment of circus animals at http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses.aspx

[16] Joaquin Phoenix, Narrator, "Earthlings," 2005. http://www.earthlings.com/

[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_Chinese_medicine

[18] Asia One News, "Mother Bear Kills Cub and then Itself," Aug 5, 2011. http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Asia/Story/A1Story20110805-292947.html

[19] The estimate of Net Primary Production captured for human use is from Milesi et al., "Climate Variability, Vegetation Productivity and People at Risk," Global and Planetary Change, 2005. http://secure.ntsg.umt.edu/publications/2005/MHRN05/milesi_et_al_GPC_2005.pdf

[20] Please see, e.g., answer to Question 8 on WGBH Boston's FAQ page at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat01.html .

[21] Richard White, ""It is your Misfortune and None of my Own": A New History of the American West," University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. http://www.amazon.com/Its-Your-Misfortune-None-Own/dp/0806125675

[22] Here's a contemporary newspaper article on the CITES decision: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/18/bluefin-tuna-un-cites

[23] Here's a video on the Bluefin Tuna auction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHYm4zFZ8vc

[24] Please see, e.g., Jan Oosthoek's article on the Colonial Origins of Scientific Forestry in http://www.eh-resources.org/colonial_forestry.html