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A little less conservation…?

Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World
by Emma Marris
£20 (hardback)

Stepping slightly sideways from where she left off in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Emma Marris now turns her attention to a series of ‘exercises in practical philosophy’ on the ethics of humans versus(?) wild animals.

From the conservation of songbirds in Hawai’i to the extermination of rats in one part of New Zealand (and protected status in another), she asks what, in our overwhelmingly-human-dominated 21st century, the very concept of ‘wild’ might still even mean. 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% 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? Are species even inherently valuable? The argument is made that helping animals might constitute a lack of respect. Besides, some chimpanzees are jerks.

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 cites renowned philosophers who say it is catastrophic human arrogance to play God (yet further) 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 faunal ‘physical autonomy, not genetic or ecological purity’, and advocates humility and limits on our interference in troublingly vague states of ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’. ‘Make room for other species and fight for climate justice,’ she says: take the path of least harm, and try to live with the ‘moral residue’.

‘Note: there may not be a correct answer.’

For Geographical

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