Taking a slight side step from where she left off at the end of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Emma Marris returns, taking on a series of ‘exercises in practical philosophy’ regarding the ethics of human lives versus those of wild animals.
From the conservation of songbirds in Hawaii to the extermination of rats in one part of New Zealand (and their protected status in another), she asks what, in our overwhelmingly human-dominated 21st century, the concept of ‘wild’ even means. Outside of Yellowstone National Park, for instance, almost no wolves manage to die from natural causes. The great condor, meanwhile, had to be rendered 100 per cent captive in order to ‘save’ it.
And to what extent are our domestic pets and livestock distinguishable, ethically, from ‘wild’ animals? Should we feed struggling Arctic polar bear populations at the expense of many thousands of seals? The argument is made that helping animals could even constitute a lack of respect for them.
Since when were humans not a part of nature, anyway? All ecosystems are built on death and the ‘obligation’ not to hunt or kill is purely human. (Even vegans cannot ‘fully opt out of ecological existence’.) Marris is openly disconcerted by her conclusion that evolution and biodiversity are not objectively ‘good’ per se, but rather ‘completely amoral... just time and sex and death and mutation and chance.’
She goes on to cite renowned philosophers, some who say it is catastrophic human arrogance to play God (more than we already do) with animals, and others who recommend a scientific ‘extinction of all carnivorous species’. Amid the conflicting claims of natural processes, species and individuals, predicting the ripple effects of any intervention is extremely tricky. Time-frames could run to many generations. And it is hard to find enough terrain where animals can truly be left to their own devices.
These are deep ethical waters and I don’t think it’s unfair to say there are more questions in Wild Souls than answers. Ultimately, Marris makes a plea for ‘physical autonomy, not genetic or ecological purity’ when it comes to the world’s fauna. She advocates humility and limits on our interference within the troublingly vague states of ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’.
‘Make room for other species and fight for climate justice,’ she writes. Take the path of least harm, and try to live with the ‘moral residue’. ‘Note: there may not be a correct answer.’