The Myth that Reducing Wild Animal Suffering Is Intractable
Lots of people accept that wild animal suffering is a big problem, but they believe it’s completely intractable. I even see some people claim that it’s one of the biggest problems in the world, but we still shouldn’t try to do anything about it. Wild animal suffering is in fact much more tractable than most people believe.
If we think wild animal suffering is a pressing problem and we want to do something about it, what can we do?
We don’t have a good idea of how to reduce wild animal suffering, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. We have the power to lay groundwork that makes it easier to help wild animals in the future.
If a problem matters a lot but we don’t know what to do about it, the obvious thing to do is research. There are some big research questions we can ask, and it seems likely that we could make progress on all of these:
- Which types of animals are conscious, and what types of experiences do they have?
- What are different wild animals’ lives like? How good/bad are they? Are they worth living?
- Where in nature are the biggest sources of suffering?
- What environmental effects might different interventions have?
Some work has been done on these already, but we still need to know a lot more, which means there’s a lot more research for us to do. And the fact that some research has been done already demonstrates that it’s possible to make progress on these questions.
Before we devote serious resources to helping wild animals, the cause needs to actually have those resources available, which means more people have to be willing to devote those resources. Even if we don’t know what to do to help wild animals right now, we can convince others that this is an important problem. (That’s a lot of what Animal Ethics does.) This is probably the most tractable way to work toward reducing wild animal suffering (although not necessarily the best), because convincing people of things is a fairly generalizable exercise no matter what you’re convincing them of. Wild animal suffering is a pretty strange cause so it might be difficult to persuade people that it matters, but it’s not uniquely difficult. People have been convinced of stranger things.
Direct Suffering Reduction
Some proposals, like eliminating predation, are obviously not feasible with current technology. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.
I’m not particularly optimistic about trying to directly reduce wild animal suffering right now, but it’s still worth entertaining the possibility.
We don’t have the resources to micromanage ecosystems (such as by eliminating predators and sterilizing most remaining animals to prevent overpopulation), but we do have the resources to alter them. Since some ecosystems contain more suffering than others and we have at least a rough idea of which those are, we could convert ecosystems from one type to another (e.g. replacing rainforests with grassland).
Whenever this idea comes up, some people object to it by saying that altering ecosystems could have unexpected harmful consequences. But I don’t buy that this is a sufficiently large concern–we already alter ecosystems all the time. If some farmers decide they want more farmland so they tear down a forest, we generally let them get away with this. Lots of people have a vague feeling that destroying forests is bad, but few people strongly object.
Personal gain is not a good justification for altering ecosystems, but people are generally allowed to do it. Helping wild animals is a fantastic justification. I don’t believe it’s reasonable to say we should ignore the biggest source of suffering that currently exists because trying to do so might have some unknown side effects.
Okay, maybe removing forests to expand farmland is in fact bad, in which case this comparison doesn’t help. But there are other problems with a non-interventionist stance. When we donate to GiveDirectly, we make people richer, and richer people have a bigger environmental impact. Almost no one would say we shouldn’t work to alleviate global poverty because doing so might have harmful environmental side effects1. In fact the case for intervening in nature is even stronger than that, because we definitely know that making people richer will accelerate climate change (which is an official Bad Thing For The Environment), and there are possible wild animal interventions where we don’t have reason to believe that they would have negative side effects at all.
When it comes down to it, wild animal suffering is really really terrible. I don’t accept that we should allow an unparalleledly bad atrocity to continue because we’re worried about still-entirely-theoretical side effects2.
Nonetheless, I believe this is the weakest argument in favor of the tractability of reducing wild animal suffering. If we’re going to do something, we should start with research, advocacy, or low-impact interventions.
There are a few things we could do that would have minimal effect on ecosystems, but that would probably avert some wild animal suffering. Brian Tomasik has proposed humane insecticides and replacing grass lawns with gravel.
I would love to see an attempt at implementing a low-impact intervention, and there’s a good chance I would be willing to fund it. So far, all the work on wild animal suffering has been talk, theoretical research, and a little advocacy. It would be great if we had a proof of concept that we could point to to show that we do have tractable interventions for reducing suffering right now; this might be much more valuable than advocacy for convincing people that the cause is something worth focusing on. We would obviously want to carefully choose such an intervention to make sure it doesn’t have negative side effects, and it’s non-obvious that this would actually have the beneficial effects I’m claiming it would, but I’m still optimistic about this idea.
The Absurdity of Doing Nothing
Not only are there tractable interventions for reducing wild animal suffering (in the future if not now), but if wild animal suffering is indeed such a pressing problem, we should definitely be putting more resources into working on it.
A lot of people say that we don’t know what to do, so we should leave the problem to future generations. It’s pretty hard to dispute that we can’t make effective large-scale ecosystem changes, and our only hope there is to wait until we have greater civilizational capacity. But if only future generations can tackle wild animal suffering, we are still faced with two big goals to accomplish now: making sure future generations care, and doing research so that we’ll know sooner what to do to directly reduce suffering.
A few years ago, small donors without much free time could legitimately say that there was nothing they could do about wild animal suffering, because they had no one to give their money to. Large donors can start up new projects, but that’s not feasible if you only have a few thousands of dollars or less. But today, there’s one organization spending some time on research related to wild animal suffering, and one organization focusing on advocacy. I don’t know enough about them to say whether they’re doing a good job, but what I can say is that it’s no longer true that individuals can’t do anything to reduce the suffering of wild animals.
Although not no one; I have heard people make this argument before. If you agree with this argument and also oppose intervening in nature then I’ll grant that you’re at least consistent. ↩
Some interventions we could implement would have known non-theoretical side effects, e.g. reducing rainforests would contribute to climate change. But this doesn’t apply to the generalized objection that anything we do to change ecosystems could have unintended consequences. ↩