Sunday, November 27, 2022

Martha C. Nussbaum: Our Human Responsibility to All Animals

 Animal Ethics

I  just completed reading a thoughtful, compassionate and well-reasoned essay (“A Peopled Wilderness;” December 8, 2022), by Martha C. Nussbaum, in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. A good essay pushes one into unknown territory to think and reflect on new possibilities, on new ways of seeing the world and on being involved in it, with the intent of operating within an ethical framework. This one does that and so much more. 

The well-known ethicist argues that we humans do have a ethical responsibility toward our fellow sentient beings, even going as far as to limit their predation behaviours, by in some cases using substitution behaviours. Do cats need to hunt birds? Can they learn different behaviours without harming their being? That in some cases, we ought to provide protected enclosures or habitats to avoid the cruelty and barbarity that we humans have long accepted as normal and even necessary.

First, Prof. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, says that a good many of our current ideas about nature and its unblemished wildness comes from the Romantic writers and their fiction. Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth and Goethe easily come to mind. Their literary works raise wild nature to something that ought to be admired, even worshipped for its supposed purity. 

While I do enjoy walks in nature and enjoy what it has to offer humanity, I would not want to live out in the bush or atop a mountain. As an urban person and a modern man, I do enjoy modern conveniences. The untouched natural world has its beauty, no doubt, but it is often a dangerous place for humans. And animals, as well. Avalanches, snowstorms, wildfires, rainstorms, flooding, mudslides all happen on a regular basis.

The natural world has always been dangerous; humanity's abilities in the last few hundred years to engineer cities has made life better and more safer for us. Fossil fuel use has been part of that formula of success since the industrial age, but now climate change tells us that we need to now harness other sources of nature (i.e., solar, wind, tides) in what are referred to as renewable sources of energy. 

The climate change challenge is as good a time as any to ask such questions. Such a problem as climate change is a multidimensional one that requires similar kinds of thinking, notably what humans ought to do to protect the Earth's biodiversity. This includes looking at what responsibility humans have toward animals and their welfare? How far ought we humans go to intervene? The short answer might be, well, more than most of us realize.

That is the point that Nussbaum drives home again and again. So, should humans get involved in lessening the risk or danger to animals out in the wilderness. She lays out two arguments why intervention is risky:

There are certainly some good reasons not to intervene in the lives of “wild” animals. Two such reasons are (1) that we are ignorant and will make many mistakes, and (2) that intervention is often objectionably paternalistic, when what we ought to do is respect animals’ choice of a way of life. These are prima facie reasons only, however. Ignorance can be replaced by knowledge, as our ignorance of what is good for the children and the companion animals who live with us has, for the most part, been replaced by knowledge. Where we remain ignorant, society believes that ignorance in such matters is not excusable: thus, a parent who refuses vaccinations for her children (or indeed for companion animals) is (in most circumstances) blameworthy for the ignorance that underlies that choice.

Thus, ignorance is neither an excuse nor a reason to avoid intervening.  As for respecting animal's choice to live in the wild, we are making an assumption that the animal chose such a way of life. Rather, animals are not given any choice. Moreover, who says that a life out in wild nature would always be their preferred choice? The truth is we can't enter into animal thought life, but we do know that all animals prefer a safe environment over a dangerous one. All animals. All species. It is why they avoid danger and seek shelter.

So, how far should human intervention go? Should we provide food and shelter of some sort? After all, we know predators kill other animals for the same reason we buy food at the supermarket. To eat. To satiate our desires for animal flesh. Would apex predators be harmed if their basic needs were met? I can hear the opposing arguments already. This is playing with Nature. This is going against the animal's natural instincts to hunt?  Yet, what if the only reason animals have hunted for food is because they have to? 

Nussbaum advocates some intervention in the name of human care and compassion. Now, I agree, because I do love animals and want them to live a full and good life. Not in zoos, but in large protected habitats. Here is one example:

In Kyrgyzstan, a national park called Ala-Archa is divided into three zones: one where humans may hike and picnic, one where animals live without human interference, and one where the same animals breed and nurture young, again without interference—so to speak. The rationale is that rare species such as the snow leopard need protection if they are to sustain themselves and reproduce, and that all species function best in a multispecies world if the reproductive activities are segregated to some extent from other life activities.

For now, this is considered an exception, an exceptional example of human responsibility to animals. New ideas are, more often than not, initially viewed with suspicion before more people can find them acceptable. There are some obstacles on the road to acceptability. For one, humans can do much harm if we intervene too much, putting the natural world out of balance. As for predation, Nussbaum says: “[W]e need serious ongoing discussion of the predation problem and what to do about it, and we need to keep searching for imaginable future solutions, such as substitute animal behaviors, where this seems possible without harmful frustration.” 

Yes, it is a tricky balance between doing nothing and interference, and going too far. Even so, doing nothing for animals, abdicating all responsibility for their welfare, seems plain wrong. There must be some solid middle ground, one to help animals, but not completely replace their way of life (i.e., zoos, aquariums, etc.). I am not an ethicist, but I am glad that people like Martha C. Nussbaum are around to raise these issues and make me think. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

COP27 a Failure. It Achieves Nothing Important.

 Climate Change

The COP27 climate summit, a gathering of diplomats from nearly 200 nations at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, a resort town, resulted in an agreement that poorer nations ought to be compensated by richer nations for losses due to climate damage. Much of the details are yet to be ironed out, including who will pay for this fund and whom will be its beneficiaries. This has been hailed as a victory. 

Is it? An article (“U.N. Climate Talks End With a Deal to Pay Poor Nations for Damage;” November 20, 2022), by Brad Plumer, Max Bearak, Lisa Friedman and Jenny Gross in The New York Times gives a good sense of what opportunity was missed:

While the new climate agreement dealt with the damages from global warming, it did far less to address the greenhouse gas emissions that are the root cause of the crisis. Experts say it is crucial for all nations to slash their emissions much more rapidly in order to keep warming at relatively safe levels. But the deal did not go much beyond what countries agreed to last year at U.N. climate talks in Glasgow.

The loss and damage deal agreed is a positive step, but it risks becoming a ‘fund for the end of the world’ if countries don’t move faster to slash emissions,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who presided over the United Nations summit in 2014 and is now the climate lead for the World Wide Fund for Nature. “We cannot afford to have another climate summit like this one.”

In other words, COP27 is a massive failure, notably if we want to see a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and thus global CO₂ emissions. (There is also a need to reduce emissions of two other greenhouse gases (GHGs): methane, CH₄, and nitrous oxide, N₂O. 

Yet, as important as this goal is, say climate scientists, nothing of substance or importance was accomplished, except a feel-good measure that will in no way reduce global CO₂ emissions or keep the global temperature rise at 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels [1850 to 1900 baseline]. Currently, we are at 1.15°C above baseline. 

Global temperatures, under current trends, are increasing 0.2°C per decade. Carbon dioxide readings are at around 420 ppm, an increase of 50 percent from pre-industrial levels, which were at 280 ppm. Emissions are increasing at a rate of 2.40 ppm per year. All of this together makes what was agreed to at COP27 hard to fathom. 

It is like giving third-class passengers on the Titanic promised access to the first-class dining cars after it hit the iceberg. This would not prevent the ship from sinking or prevent the third-class passengers from drowning. Not a perfect analogy, but you get the point.

Needless to say, I am disappointed in what COP27 achieved over a period of two weeks. If there were an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels, I would know that we are moving in the right direction. I still have hope that we will come together to do what is necessary, but it is  currently a hope that is losing strength.

Monday, November 21, 2022

How Do Squirrels Find Their Nuts? (2019)


How Do Squirrels Find Their Nuts? was originally broadcast on Animal Planet on March 04, 2019. Squirrels are able to find where they buried their nuts in an area of seven acres. Squirrels do so by using landmarks, similar to the way humans use buildings in the city as points of reference. I do enjoy seeing the squirrels sniffing the ground and finding the nuts I throw on my front yard. They find every single one, and when they do, they go through the routine of examining each peanut for soundness. This is quality control.
Via: Youtube; Animal Planet

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Leaving the Leaves on Your Lawn is Good Ecology

 The Fall Clean-Up

An article  (“Why not leave those leaves alone;” October 19, 2021), by David Suzuki, on the site of the David Suzuki Foundation, says there is no need to undergo the intense labour ritual of raking up all the leaves that fall from deciduous trees during autumn (or fall). 

We have been doing it wrong all these years. Dr. Suzuki, the noted Canadian environmental scientist and host of The Nature of Things (CBC-TV), says it is best, from an ecological viewpoint, to just let your mower go over them to break them up into smaller pieces and let them remain where they are, helping build more nutrients back to the soil.  

Suzuki writes:

When leaves hit the ground, they almost immediately begin to break down into the soil at the base of the tree. They provide a warm blanket to shield roots from the biting cold of winter and eventually send nutrients back into the soil. This is the tree’s cycle of life: nutrients from fallen leaves are absorbed into the roots and help produce buds and leaves again next spring. Drop, decompose, absorb, repeat.

As for pollinators, while the migratory flight of monarch butterflies generates much buzz, most butterflies and moths spend their winters closer to home, overwintering as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises or adults. Swallowtail butterflies camouflage their chrysalises as dried leaves, which get mixed into tree leaves as they fall. Woolly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into leaf layers. Critters like bumblebee queens that have burrowed into the ground to hibernate also appreciate a layer of leafy insulation. And insects in the leaf layer provide a natural fall buffet for birds, chipmunks and squirrels, including birds called thrashers that “thrash” the fallen leaves to find insects.

What can you do to help these critters? The easiest option is to “leave the leaves” — the name of a growing international campaign led by the U.S.-based Xerces Society. Instead of mowing, blowing, raking and bagging, consider leaving leaves where they fall.

It is what I did this year, including placing a layer of leaves around the trees and bushes, providing a blanket for the roots. I am happier as a result. I also noticed more birds and squirrels in my front yard. Maybe my neighbours will also forego another old and unnecessary ritual: the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, a nuisance to humans and animals.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Learning Collaboration From Ants. It is Not About Morality; It is About Cooperation.

 Climate Change

An opinion piece (Who Runs the World? Ants.; November 18, 2022), by Farhad Manjoo, in The New York Times, raises the question of whether humans can learn anything of value from ants. Not morality, says the late E.O. Wilson [1929–2021], who was a biologist and a world leading authority on ants. Even so, quite a bit in other ways, Manjoo posits in a marvelously thoughtful article:

What has always beguiled me about ants is how their similarities to humanity — they live in societies, they’ve all got jobs, they endure arduous daily commutes to work — are offset by incomprehensible alienness. So much of ant life makes no sense to us: There’s the abject selflessness, the subsuming of the individual to the collective. There’s the absence of any leadership or coordination, their lives dictated by instinct and algorithm, out of which emerges collective intelligence. There’s the way they navigate and communicate through chemical signals, creating road signs from pheromones and never getting stuck in traffic jams.

Quite impressive for such small creatures, which are everywhere and in large numbers. Scientists estimate that there are 20 quadrillion ants on Earth. That is 20 followed by 15 zeroes. The ants will survive climate change, chiefly because in a 140 million years of their evolution, they learned to collaborate. Humans not so much. 

In fact, modern humans (homo sapiens) are an outlier to all other species in our relatively short 300,000-year existence living here with other species. The ants and every other species on Earth, except for humans, lack the brutal economic system that discourages cooperation. Humans are exceptional, but not in an enviable way. Perhaps, individualistic culture, long the dominant ethos of the modern era, has had its run. 

It is true that we should not look to ants for a moral code, Wilson argues, because they have not developed one. Fair enough. Humans have developed a moral code, a good part of it emanating from the ancient bible and ancient cultures. Yet, it too has limitations in its hierarchical structure. We ought to be careful and mindful that biblical moral codes are, as well, too fixated with the ancient past, and have not evolved sufficiently to meet our modern times. 

Such has resulted in exclusion and cruelty to humans, to other animals and to all species that inhabit our planet. It is true that hubris is at the core of our being, as is selfishness, but this does not have to dominate our emotions, or our thinking, which becomes more evident after taking the time to make careful observation and appreciation of our world. Pursuing such thoughtful behaviours betters our understanding and our relationship to all living things. 

It also has the edifying effect of making us less interested in domination and more interested in cooperation. A good dose of humility, coinciding with a deep sense of our place in the universe (one of many), also helps in the continuing process of self-recognition.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Boris Shavchuk: Play Me A Song In Yiddish (2008)

 Yiddish Music

Boris Shavchuk: “Play Me A Song In Yiddish” from The Soul of the Jewish Violin, Vol. 3, released in 2008.
Via: Youtube

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir (1957).

 Classical Protest

A Child of our Time (1957):  The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir with John Pritchard conducting.
Via: Youtube

This is by far Michael Tippett’s most famous work, composed when nearly 40, a pacifist hoping for peace during non-peaceful and violent times in Europe. Oliver Soden writes in an article for The British Library, of Herschel Grynszpan, 

whose assassination of a Nazi official in November 1938 led to, or was at least the pretext for, the Nazis’ vengeful pogrom against the Jews called Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). Tippett, an ardent pacifist, saw in Grynszpan a ‘child of his time’, a young man driven to desperation as the century darkened, a figure through whom the oratorio could call for peace from the depths of the war.

Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, is the hero of the piece. The work premiered at London’s Adelphi Theatre on March 19, 1944.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Last Days (1998)

 The Holocaust

The Last Days (1998). This  documentary film tells the story of five Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. This was originally released on October 23, 1998. it was produced by the Shoah Foundation and is directed by James Moll. This documentary film was remastered and released 23 years later on Netflix on May 19, 2021.
Via: Youtube; Shoah Foundation

Even when facing imminent defeat, Nazi Germany spent innumerable resources on “the Final Solution,” the systematic murder of Jews and the destruction of everything Jewish, both religious and secular. Such describes the intense level of hatred that dominated the German leadership at the time, and, equally, of the people who carried out these orders without question or qualms. 

Such hatred, directed primarily at the Jewish People, is emblematic of hatred against the Other and, also important, against liberal democratic values. Historically, in the modern era, Jews heartily embraced liberalism, including after the Second World War. 

With good reason. Fascism is intolerant of individual thought, creativity and freedom. Fascism is intolerant of differences in ideas, in other ways of thinking, and in multiculturalism and diversity. In short, fascism favours only the majority ethnic group or religious group within a nation's borders.

Liberalism is not based on such old-fashioned distinctions, but instead tolerates and embraces diversity, multiculturalism and all religions. It places great value on the human spirit of questioning, of openness and of progress. It tries to find ways and means, through government policies and programs, of bettering and improving society, one that has place for all citizens. 

The best of these values are always found in liberal democracies.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Surviving the Holocaust (2016)

The Holocaust

Surviving the Holocaust (2016) is a good educational documentary on the Holocaust and the events leading up to it. Education is one of the prime ways to ensure that the stages of genocide do not ever happen. Education is part of a comprehensive prevention program. 
ViaYoutube; Fairfax Network: Fairfax County Public Schools

One of the problems of antisemitism--and there are many--is to flatten the complexity of Jewishness (i.e., Yiddishkeit). By flattening it, and thus diminishing Yiddishkeit to some narrow arbitrary model, it narrows the choices that Jews have on how to be and how to live as a Jew, limited as it were to the antisemite’s puerile imaginings. The Jewish People then become a homogeneous people, one that never existed. And likely never will. 

Jews, like every other ethnic grouping or peoples, are too complex and too diverse to live up to one stereotype. Even with stated good intentions (Jews are smart, Jews are good in business, etc.), such stereotypes end up limiting people who do not fit in to such a narrow confines.

What applies to Jews can equally be applied to any ethnic grouping or peoples who share a common history, culture or bond.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Shtetl (1996)


Shtetl (1996). The film, produced and directed by Marian Marzynski, originally aired on the Frontline series on PBS-TV on April 17, 1996. Its focus is the village of Brańsk in eastern Poland. Marzyndki, a Polish Jew, was born in Warsaw in 1937; he was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, in 1942, by people of goodwill. He moved to the U.S. in 1972.
Via: Youtube

A heroic search to piece together the lives of the Jews who lived in a shtetl (village) in prewar Poland, where Jews had been living for 1,000 years, mostly in peace and some level of tolerance. Before the Second World War, Poland was home to 3.5 million Jews, including my father and his family. They resided in a thriving Yiddish-speaking community. 

All that was lost after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. After the war ended, on May 7, 1945, only 300,000 Jews remained alive, including my father, the only one of his large family to survive. The majority were murdered by the Nazis. Fascism, ultra-nationalism and white Christian supremacist ideology combined to form an explosive mix of hatred, intolerance and brutality. 

And, of course, genocide. The tenth stage of genocide is Denial. It is an extremely pernicious form of denial, one where the perpetrators not only fail to admit the facts but instead attack the victims and their descendants. They fear the truth  This is where their energies are directed.

Such a denial is, once again, another form of hatred.