The Single Worst Reason to Avoid Stewarding Nature


Fast-forward to the future. Imagine a time when our understanding of complex ecosystems has flourished. The human race has overcome hurdles in consciousness science, giving us accurate metrics on the wellbeing of animals. We have realized that the lives of many wild animals are short-lived, emotionally distressing, and physically agonizing, with an often torturous ending. Thankfully we have strong evidence that some proposed interventions significantly improve their welfare, in a cost-effective way, affecting other members of the wider ecosystem only positively. If implemented, we could steward nature towards a blissful utopia for all sentient beings! But here we stop. We don’t implement the project because human interference in nature is unnatural.

Deeming something bad/unacceptable simply because it is unnatural, or something good/acceptable simply because it is natural, is known as an appeal to nature. It is the justification of some negative responses to the notion of wild animal welfare stewardship.

When we appeal to nature, we conflate how things are with how things should be. We present facts as values. Animals suffer in nature (fact); therefore it is okay that animals suffer in nature (value). Put in these terms, the fallacy is clear. It becomes even more clear when its inconsistency is demonstrated. Let’s explore a few examples.

Natural. We see it on food, on cosmetic products, on clothing. Countless items use natural as a selling point these days. It conjures up romantic ideas of something straight from the Earth, untouched by humanity. Regarding material goods, it is clear to see that appealing to nature is illogical. Take arsenic, for example. Mined directly from the Earth’s crust, it is about as natural as a substance can be, yet, you certainly wouldn’t feed it to your child. Then take paracetamol, a synthetic drug that provides pain relief to millions of people. It is not natural by any stretch of the word because, without human engineering, it wouldn’t exist. But a world with paracetamol is surely better than a world without.

Similarly, inconsistencies can be found in the perceived sanctity of letting nature take its course without human intervention simply because it is natural. We can point to atrocities in nature, and brilliant ways humans can participate in alleviating them. One example is elderly elephants. Just like humans, elephants’ teeth do not last forever. However, unlike humans, elephants are born with six sets of molars, and when they reach their sixties, the final set is worn away. Malnourished and unable to chew food, they collapse and succumb to predation or hunger. Of course, this is a completely natural consequence of elephants aging. It is not necessary for us to explain why starvation and being eaten alive are particularly unpleasant ways to meet one’s end. Nature has cruelly convicted some of the smartest and most sentient animals on the planet to an unnecessarily painful death. It is natural. But it is surely not good.

The question is then: can we do anything about it? Eminent philosopher David Pearce answers with an emphatic yes. He proposes a “welfare state” for elephants to reduce unnecessary suffering across their whole lives, particularly focusing on palliative care for the elderly. If further research demonstrates that this (or another intervention) is an effective strategy with a low risk of negative impacts to the wider ecosystem, should we do nothing and watch elephants suffer, or should we show compassion to elephants in their final days?

So to dismiss human participation with nature because is it perceived to be unnatural is illogical. But this doesn’t mean we should accept any possible wildlife intervention. We can certainly point to many times when humanity’s overconfidence has lead to irreparable destruction and suffering in the natural world. But the claim we make here isn’t that humanity’s influence is always positive. Rather, that it is possible for humanity’s influence to be positive, and it is illogical to dismiss this fact for the sake of it being unnatural. In the future, it may be possible to create a world with much less suffering, to reduce the number of lives living in extreme agony, and to foster a more peaceful and happy life for wild animals. It is this possibility that makes active influence in nature worth considering.

Next time you read about a potential project to steward nature, observe your initial reaction. If your reaction is negative, ask yourself: why? Is it because you are equating human intervention with unnatural, and unnatural with bad? Question your instincts; don’t let unnatural muddy your thoughts. My hope is that when future research points to an effective intervention that will reduce pervasive suffering in nature, with a low risk of negative repercussions, we are able to overcome the appeal to nature fallacy and be open to the possibility of implementing stewardship projects on a large scale.

Matthew Allcock