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14 March 2009


Dave Dawson

On Barnaby's first premise, I feel he hasn't understood the common reasoning behind those who believe it's a good thing that an animal gets to live at all. His answer is in terms of whether it's a good thing to have extra animals (or humans). But surely those who argue that it's good for an animal to live is similar to the catholic argument against contraception - that it's wrong to deny a life. The fault with both arguments (extra animals and anti-contraception) is that it ignores natural processes. Nature denies very many potential lives. This is what used to be called the "balance of nature". There is an overproduction of life and much wastage (most human eggs go to waste, fertilised or not, similarly all animals produce many offspring, most of which must die as only two are needed to replace the ultimate expiry of their parents).

Then the arguments on the number of animal companions, ecosystem services, numbers equal enjoyment and extinction are all based upon similarly naive models which do not reflect the natural world. Animal welfare is a difficult field, but the studies I'm aware of are silent on herd size and indeed most animals do not live in social groups. Generally ecosystem services do not correlate with extra numbers or density of any given species, but rather stem from the continuation of natural processes, which may require a reduction of numbers rather than an increase. Generally stresses are greater where there is a pressure on resources from large numbers, so that extra animal may cause everyone to enjoy the place a bit less. Whilst we cannot sum that enjoyment, as it cannot be quantified, it's naive to belive that numbers don't affect per capita enjoyment. And, as I have argued already low numbers are a symptom, not the cause, of the extinction process. In short, B's arguments are reminiscent of abstract philosophical reasoning and tend to oversimplify the natural process. And that brave new world where the national parks have no predators couldn't be managed - what one may ask of the diseases and food shortages, not to mention the unstable short food chains. Even in a zoo we cannot fully control what goes on - that national park would be a disaster.

On the second point B seems to believe two things that are questionable. First, is that crops can be grown economically on most land now grazed. This is simply untrue in most of the extensive grazing land in the world. Crops can often be grown today in places where it is unsustainable because of a massive subsidy from cheap engergy, but with peak oil that scenario is over. Even if it was ever desirable - it's one of the main causes of global warming. Much grazing land is naturally forest and of low productivity whatever you produce from it.

The whold idea that we are omniscient and should "provide" a good live for animals and people comes from the Bible story. I don't believe that animals were placed there for our dominion, nor that we have the means to exercise the dominion even if we believe the biblical myth.

I suggest that the argument should stem from what naturally makes animals and humans happy. Certainly not factory farming. But certainly not an impossible dream of distorted ecosystems that would lead to a very miserable world indeed.

Barnaby Dawson

Response to my father:

On point (1) I'm not attempting to respond to the contention that "it's wrong to deny a life.". I may return to that particular point of view in another post.

I think this second paragraph is largely disagreeing with things that I didn't actually say (although I may have implied things unintentionally) so I won't respond to all the points only the ones where I disagree. Some animals (including chickens and cows) are known to prefer living in social groups and are known to sometimes become agitated when separated. That this isn't the case for all animals actually strengthens the argument of this blog post! On biotech solutions to population control I am aware that we cannot currently hope to use such methods. My statement is pure speculation on what the current biotechnology revolution may enable us to do in the future. We must remember that basic biotech procedures are following a variant on moore's law currently.

On the third paragraph: I only hold that (on most land) growing crops is for calorie and protein production more efficient that making meat from the same land. This is going to be true because of loss of energy at each trophic level. We might indeed be better off allowing certain land to revert to forest than using it to feed animals but that doesn't effect my argument.

On Omniscience: We already are subjecting many animals to our dominion. I'm advocating that we (to the greatest extent possible) stop doing this. We may not have the power to make everything right in the whole animal kingdom but in those bits we control or manage we should not ignore our moral responsibilities.

I'm afraid you seem to have misinterpreted my post. I am only advocating ceasing to use land to feed animals that we then eat. If a piece of land does not produce enough calories from crop plants to justify cultivating it then its fairly unlikely to produce enough if used to feed animals. So if a piece of land once used to feed animals is not worth cultivating then it might be prefered that it be managed for maximum ecological benefit instead (which could mean doing nothing with it). I don't see how this would amount to distorting ecosystems? It seems more likely to be beneficial than harmful to me.

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