The mass extermination of animals is the greatest atrocity in human history
Numbers don't lie. Neither do the stories of suffering.
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not all of these posts will be sent out by email, and some I may write from jail/prison, as I go to trial on November 29. So if you want to follow this journey, visit the blog every day. I’ll try to post by 10 am each day, but occasionally, I’m sure a post will be late.
The most numerous animal on the planet earth is virtually unknown. The tiny bristlemouth fish — smaller than a human finger and with tiny bristles in their mouth that make them look like a swimming toothbrush — are so abundant in the planet’s oceans that they are too numerous to count. But there’s widespread agreement that their population is probably at least in the trillions, and possibly up to 1000 times greater!
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the massive decline in the population of the bristlemouth fish, and other mid and deep sea fish, has also been ignored. But, in terms of the scale of suffering, it is probably the most urgent moral crisis facing the planet in this moment. You see, warm water doesn’t sink to the bottom of the ocean. And as climate change has increased ocean temperatures, the layers of the ocean have stopped mixing. But this is deadly for the deep sea fish. Oxygen, after all, comes from water’s exposure to the air, and from the upper layers of the ocean where phytoplankton convert carbon dioxide using the rays of the sun. Without this precious life-giving element, the deeper layers of the ocean are facing a die-off that may be unprecedented in the history of the planet earth, with an estimated 63% decline in populations in low oxygen time periods.
If there are, conservatively, 1 trillion bristlemouth fish on this planet, that means a shocking 630 billion of these poor creatures have died off, perhaps in horrendously painful ways, due to human damage to the climate. I’ve compared this situation to the horror movie trope of rising waters in a trapped room.
The desperate struggle to escape, as a victim slowly suffocates, is arguably the average experience of an animal currently living on earth.
This is just one minor example of the horror inflicted on sentient beings due to speciesism, which the philosopher Peter Singer defined as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species.” And like other forms of prejudice, speciesism has no grounding in logic or science. There is no meaningful moral distinction between a dog and a pig (or, for that matter, between a human toddler and a pig). And there is an overwhelming consensus that animals are conscious, just like us.
But speciesism has a legitimate claim, in terms of the sheer number of victims, to causing more violence and suffering than any other form of prejudice in human history — and by an overwhelming margin. Consider: there have only been 107 billion humans in the history of the planet earth. The recent losses to a single species, the bristlemouth fish, outnumbers this total number by at least 6 times (if the bristlemouth population is 1 trillion), and perhaps as many as 6000 times (if the population of bristlemouth fish is 1 quadrillion)!
To this damning argument, many will assert that many of these animals would suffer and die even if they did not die at human hands. We should not, of course, fall victim to the so-called naturalistic fallacy — the notion that what’s natural, is also inherently good. But there is some truth to this assertion. Nature is red in tooth and claw. And especially among so-called R-selected organisms1, like the bristlemouth fish, life is probably nasty, brutish, and short.
But there is also truth to the notion that human activity probably causes vastly more destruction to natural systems than anything that has occurred in our planet’s recent history. And the fact that there are other sources of suffering and death, in vulnerable populations, is no reason for us to cause more. We would not justify atrocities against the people of Bangladesh, simply because they are already impoverished and suffering.
The problem with numbers, of course, is that they don’t inspire change. The brutal dictator Joseph Stalin, who organized some of the largest mass killings in human history, is reported to have said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” This is why, at DxE, we focus so much of our energy on the stories of individual animals. It’s impossible to have empathy for a mass of bodies, even if they have gone through profound suffering. But imagine a single individual, who is desperate and in pain. It could be a human. A dog. Or even a little fish, struggling to breathe. (Seriously, stop now, and imagine the feeling of being a fish when all the oxygen starts to disappear. What would you do? How would you feel?) And suddenly, the suffering can become very real.
We should be motivated, logically, by the numbers. The death toll does matter, and so too does the extreme suffering so many animals are going through. But to inspire the world to change, and to sustain ourselves over the long term, we have to think of the individuals. This is how our brains are wired. And while meditation and other practices can expand our consciousness – Buddhists strive to achieve the state of anatta, where all consciousness blends into one – there is only so much we can do with the neurological apparatus we have been given. So we must always fuel ourselves with that individual perspective, even as we challenge the systems that are inflicting torment on billions.
In many ways, that is how I’ve sustained myself. I always think of an individual I love — Oliver, Lisa, or Flash — in motivating myself to keep fighting for animal rights. The heart is what drives me, and those loved ones, whom I’ve lost, are what provide the fuel for that heart. But the head is what directs the heart. And what the head should show us is that, it’s not just the dogs and cats of the world, but the bristlemouth fish, who should be on our minds as we fight for change.
R-selected organisms, such as the bristlemouth fish or mice, have large numbers of offspring, with the expectation that most will die. K-selected organisms, such as human beings or whales, have a small number of offspring but invest heavily in each individual. The former strategy, while often great from an evolutionary spread for the spread of a particular set of genes, is terrible for the individual offspring who often starve or are killed early in life.