it be right to shoot deer, but not human beings?
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th February 2020
protest was against me, I sympathised. When demonstrators outside the theatre
where I was speaking last week asked the audience to call me out as a killer, I didn’t
dispute their claim. I am a killer.
making our film for Channel 4, Apocalypse Cow, I shot a
deer. If it helps (though it didn’t help the deer), I hated every minute of it,
from picking up the rifle and learning to use it, to finding and stalking the
innocent animal, then shooting it through the chest from 180 metres, watching
it rear into the air, stumble, spasm and die. It was a gruesome, horrible experience.
I was seeking to demonstrate the realities of ecological restoration. If, I
reasoned, we believe something is right, we should be prepared to do it
ourselves. But do we really have the right to take another life?
problem arises in this case because of humanity’s disastrous intervention in the
ecology of the Scottish Highlands. By exterminating wolves and lynx, we
released the deer from predation, and their numbers exploded. Because
tree seedlings are highly nutritious, the deer selectively browse them out. A rich
mosaic of habitats becomes a drab monotony of heather and rough grass. The deer
I shot was one of thousands killed on the Glenfeshie estate in the Cairngorms.
As a result of this cull, the trees are returning. The
regenerating forests are full of birds and other mammals.
the protesters insisted, there is an alternative? Some of us have campaigned for years for the
return of wolves and lynx, but it cannot happen without widespread public
consent, and this takes time. In the meantime, what should be done? Their
favoured alternatives are contraception or fencing.
To fire a
contraceptive dart into a deer, you have to approach to within 40 metres. But
because the deer have wiped out the trees, you can rarely get that close. Even
if you could find some other, ecologically-safe means of delivering the
chemicals (none yet exists), suppressing fertility across a population is
extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. A review of the science concluded
that “for wild deer populations, contraception is not a substitute for
landowners seek to fence out the deer. It’s extremely
expensive, and difficult on steep mountainsides. When it works, it creates two
dysfunctional and unbalanced ecosystems: one with too many herbivores, the
other with none. If fencing took place on a large enough scale to make an
ecological difference, huge numbers of deer, deprived of subsistence, would
starve. Their deaths would be slow and agonising.
corresponded with a member of the protest group, who raised a much deeper
issue: speciesism. “If it were valid to kill deer for their environmental
impact, why would it not be valid to kill humans for their far worse
environmental impact? … There is no coherent argument based on different levels
of cognition or even sentience, since the deer you killed was far higher in
both than numerous severely mentally disabled or comatose humans, as well as
newborn babies for that matter.” Though his views are clearly influenced by the
philosopher Peter Singer, he –
with other animal rights activists I’ve met – goes way beyond Singer’s utilitarianism.
“Animal rights, like human rights,” my correspondent argued, “are individual
rights. It is never acceptable to decide to sacrifice one individual in order
to arguably do others good.”
inaction in this situation is freighted with the same moral problems as action.
As a result of prior human intervention (exterminating their predators),
refraining from killing deer means killing other wildlife. To respect the life
of the deer is to disrespect the life of the capercaillie, the crossbill, the
goshawk, the wildcat, the red squirrel and the pine marten. By leaving deer
alone, we sacrifice other animals individually and en masse. This conflict is
sharpened by the fact that many landowners deliberately keep their deer numbers
high, partly because stalking estates are valued for sale by the
number of stags. For completely different reasons, like the animal activists
they value the lives of the deer above those of other species.
Were we to
apply a universal prohibition on killing other animals, even vegans would
starve. Though a plant-based diet requires much less land
(including less arable land) than a
meat-based diet, it still results in the inevitable death or exclusion of other
animals, from the mouse scooped up by the combine harvester to the owl that
would have lived in the woods the field replaced. No animal can sustain its
existence without privileging itself above other lifeforms. Even when our minds
reject it, our stomachs insist on speciesism.
other end of this spectrum of thought, the Norwegian philosopher Ole Martin
Moen contends that because
wild mammals and birds endure a great deal of distress, caused by predation,
disease and hunger, we should relieve it by “drastically reducing the size of
wildlife populations”, and confining the survivors to parks, where humans could
look after them. If he had evinced any understanding of ecology, or of the
scale and consequences of the intervention he suggests, or had recognised that
wild animals feel pleasure as well as pain, his argument might merit a
response. Nevertheless, we seem determined to implement this ridiculous idea,
if not for the reasons he proposes.
these poles – kill nothing and kill
almost everything – lies the pragmatic aim of maximising the diversity and
abundance of non-human life on Earth, while securing our own survival. But this
doesn’t answer the activist’s central and important point. If it’s acceptable
to kill wild animals to alleviate environmental damage, why is it not
acceptable to kill humans? In other words, why might we
see other animals’ right to life as negotiable, and the human right to life as
we did otherwise, society would fall apart. The powerful would decide that the
powerless must die for the greater good, as they have done many times before. Our
relations would be characterised by extreme distrust and perpetual violence. We
could not work together for any purpose, including environmental protection.
Yes, I am
a speciesist. Not because I believe human beings are innately superior to other
animals, but because I believe we cannot live together (or even alone) without
privileging our own existence. We don’t have to see ourselves as the divinely appointed
stewards of creation to recognise that we bear responsibility for restoring the
magnificent living systems we have harmed. And we don’t have to deny our bias
towards ourselves to defend the lives of other beings.