Why humans disappearing from the planet could be a very bad thing for animals

Many people who care about animals1 (be they farmed/domesticated or wild) or the environment seem to think that these animals or the planet would be better off without humans2. I want to argue here why humans disappearing from the face of the planet (whatever that would mean or imply for the humans themselves) may not be a good thing for non-human life, at least not in the long run.

Yes, we’re responsible for incredible suffering
That the presence of humans on this planet could be a good thing for animals probably sounds like a counterintuitive idea to many readers. Obviously, Homo sapiens are responsible for incredible suffering of both farmed and wild animals. Regarding farmed animals, we raise and slaughter about seventy five billion of them every year3, with most of them living and dying in appalling conditions. Regarding wild animals, there are the billions of fish we catch in the sea, and there is the devastating impact of our human activity on the climate, wildlife habitats, and so on. There is no way to deny any of this.

If our species would suddenly disappear entirely, certainly those seventy five billion chickens, cows, pigs and so on would not be raised anymore.3 They would simply not exist and therefore not suffer, which is a good thing. The fish would no longer be plucked out of the sea. As the traces of our existence would fade away, anthropogenic climate change would, after quite some years, become a thing of the past. The wild animals would claim all the areas that we took from them, and would live their lives free of any human impact. It would be as if we Homo sapiens had never been here.

I know that to quite some people, a scenario like this sounds great. And indeed, going by just this reasoning, one can understand why people who love animals, as well as the natural world at large, would see many benefits in humans no longer being around.

Without humans on this planet, the horrors of factory farming would not exist.

But life in the wild is no picnic
I think the belief that the absence of humans from the planet would be a good thing for animals is often based on the idea that life for animals in the wild (which, without the presence of humans, would be the state for all animals) is generally okay, and that even if it isn’t, it could or should not be improved on by humans.

This view, I think, is misguided. It is important to emphasize that we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty here, but it is quite possible that life in the wild entails on average more suffering than joy for many species of animals. This would be so because in the wild, almost all creatures have to constantly deal with tremendous challenges, like shortages of resources (suffering from hunger and thirst); averse climatological circumstances like drought, heat, cold; disease; parasites, predators, and so on. It’s hard to have a truthful idea at this moment, for instance, of how often and how intensely the fear of a predator impacts an individual’s quality of life, just to name one thing, but some research demonstrates that the fear predators inspire can have PTSD-like effects in prey animals.4

Life in the wild is no picnic either

Objections to alleviating wild animal suffering
It’s quite possible that you do believe that the lives of wild animals are full of suffering, are maybe even hellish, but that you also think that 1) we should not try to make things better and/or we can not reliably make things better – and with “reliably” I mean: without making things worse.

First the should not. You might think that even if the best available evidence suggests that we can make things significantly better for at least some animals in some areas, we should not do so when we are not the cause of their suffering. This seems erroneous to me. We will, at least in theory, alleviate the suffering of humans even if we don’t have anything to do with that suffering. Why would we only protect wild animals from human harm, but not from the harm nature may inflict on them? For the animal in question, it obviously does not matter what the source of their suffering is. The idea that we shouldn’t try to prevent natural harm coming to animals is probably based on the mistaken idea that there is a fundamental divide between the natural and the human world, and that what happens in nature, stays in nature, so to speak.

Second, the could not. You may believe that yes, there is a lot of suffering in nature and that yes, it would be a good thing if we’d make things better for wild animals, but that we can not reliably do so. This, I think, is a mistake as well. There is no reason to think that at the very least in certain limited situations (but probably on a much grander scale as well) we could not reliably make things better. Indeed, we are already doing so here and there. One example is the eradication of rabies in fox populations in Europe. And on a small scale, many of us would save animals from natural disasters like forest fires.

Improving on the natural state
I could point you to many horrible videos of what happens in the wild (with no human being responsible for it). If you’re not convinced that it can be really bad, please go have a look (here is one, for instance of two baboons eating a gazelle alive, while we can hear her cry out). I say this because your view of how good or how bad things are in the wild probably influences your answer to the question whether humans should improve upon the lives of wild animals if they can reliably do so.

Parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside their victims, with the offspring eventually devouring their way out (source)

For now, I am going to assume that you agree with me that the natural world can be a very harsh place and that life in the wild can be quite bad for many individuals, at least for certain periods of time.

Clearly, humans did not consider the natural state – where one is so vulnerable to disease, predation, parasites or the climate – a desirable state. And so, after thousands of years, we have to quite some degree managed to escape the dangers and limitations of this natural state – including some of the limitations of our own biology – by developing culture, science and technology. We consider it generally a very good thing that we are now less vulnerable to disease, starvation, and predation than we once were.5 So why would we not wish this for every sentient being on earth, be they wild or not wild, human or not-human?

Humans are also capable of a lot of good
What you think about all this will depend, among other things, on your view of humans, and on where you think we might be headed in the coming decades and ages.
Those who believe humans better disappear may compare us to being a cancer for this planet. There is, as stated, certainly a lot of horrible stuff that we do. Even as we are already capable of incredible technological feats, and even as we are already doing beautiful things, both for our fellow humans and for other species, there is still a long way to go.

Technologically, we are already capable today of improving the lives of animals in the wild to some extent, but we will probably be able to do much more in the future. Morally, our civilization in general is not yet at a level where it would put a lot of effort into helping non-human beings, and therefore indeed the technology that we do have is often used to the detriment of wild animals. You may believe it will never get any better, and that we’ll just keep destroying the planet and all who live on it. But there is no reason that this would be a given. There are many reasons to think that our civilization is advancing: that we are creating affluence for more and more people, turning our backs on more and more forms of discrimination, inventing ever more powerful technology that could at least in theory make the world better.6

The long term view
No doubt will we continue to inflict harm on animals, both wild and domesticated, for quite some time. And yes, if humans disappeared now, the suffering that we presently inflict would be avoided, However, let’s take a long term view. Suppose that after, say, three hundred years we achieve a moral and technological level that allows us to structurally improve the wellbeing of all sentient creatures. This would mean that still a potentially infinite number of generations of wild animals would be able to benefit from our advancements for potentially many, many millennia. Whereas, if we had disappeared, those wild animals would have lived on in their wild situation, with little hope of improvement, for potentially aeons to come.

The vast majority of this planet’s sentient beings are non-human wild animals. If the human species would disappear, the chance of creating a world that is a good place to live for most earthlings is lost. Maybe not lost forever, but it could take millions of years before another species could be able to rise above the limitations which the natural world has imposed on it, and pull off such structural and significant improvements.

We are the result of billions of years of evolution.

Many people will point out how our interventions in nature usually have really terrible effects. But those interventions weren’t done with the intention to make things better for wild animals in the first place. They are thus no point of reference and can’t tell us much about the value and consequences of well-intentioned and more skillful interventions in the future. Many people will also describe the idea that we can and should improve the lives of wild animals as hubris, or arrogance. Our species has certainly been guilty of hubris, but there is, again, no reason why we could or would only act out of hubris, and recklessly. We may, in the future, do very careful trials and experiments, inspired by compassion for our fellow earthlings, and with humility. Hubris need not remain a part of it.

In conclusion
I need to again emphasize that there is a lot of uncertainty in all of this. We won’t know for some time how good or bad different individuals within different species have it in the wild. We don’t know to what extent humans will continue to have the opportunity to smarten up and wisen up.

Still, we have good reason to believe that wild animals are experiencing a lot of suffering in the natural world, and that humans, even as we are still inflicting a lot of harm on both wild and domesticated animals, might some day be in an excellent position to help them. Similarly to how we use technology to improve the lives of human beings (just consider how humans suffered before we discovered anesthesia), a strong case can be made for using science and technology to improve the lives of non-humans who are in desperate need of help. We can learn to do this carefully, gradually, with humility, and with compassion. And so, if we consider all sentient life, it seems reasonable to suggest that the continued existence of humans is a good thing, or at the very least – has the potential to be a good thing for the non-human world.

Thanks to Jack Hancock Fairs for his comments on a draft of this article. Check out his great youtube channel.

A bibliography on the topic of wild animal welfare, with articles by people who have thought about these things much more than I have, can be found here. I applaud all researchers, philosophers, biologists… who are not shying away from studying this very important topic.

Footnotes

1 I use the word animals, as usual, as short hand for non-human animals

2 On my blog I have a post titled: Would you press the button to make humanity go extinct? Many of the comments on the post suggest that yes, indeed, it would be good if humans went extinct somehow. Some comments were actually so full of expletives about the human race that I didn’t publish them.

3 This exclude the amount of fish raised in aquaculture, which are measured by weight.

4 https://phys.org/news/2019-08-predators-ptsd-like-brains-wild-animals.html

5 Even as we have obviously created other, new problems for ourselves, which we’ll hopefully solve down the road.

6 Interestingly, it seems hard to be unbiased in our views of human progress, and it seems to me that the perception is that those who believe in progress are often more conservative than those who think things have never been worse. It seems more politically correct, as it were, to not believe in progress.

4 thoughts on “Why humans disappearing from the planet could be a very bad thing for animals

  1. How beautiful it could all become – but it isn’t.
    You mention how poorly we treat animals – both in our captivity and in the wild, and then argue that it is all fine “because we have the potential for something better”.
    Well when is that? When do we see a shift in the general public to suddenly treat animals like they have their own worth? Not anytime soon – and they will suffer in the billions until your fine “garden of eden” arrives.

    Your focus on technology also seems a bit on the naive side. We are at the point in human history where we have the MOST technology – and we are also at the point where we treat MOST animals badly – either directly in our captivity, or indirectly as a result of habitat destruction. Why would MORE technology suddenly reverse this one-way trend?

  2. Hey Tobias! Thanks for the insights. I’ve been pondering for two weeks on whether to comment on this, so here goes… 🙂

    Like many concerned with the plight of animals, I don’t hold a rosy view of humanity (you reference your post of 2016 on the though-experiment of pressing the button to rid the world of humans – this was literally the premise of my thesis a couple of years prior, and its conclusion, well…), and I absolutely reject the optimistic conclusions of e.g. Pinker and Boudry. There’s two points in your post I wanted to touch upon: the premise that humanity’s capability for good would alleviate suffering in the wild, and that it would be up to humanity to actually do so.

    First, let’s consider what “good” constitutes in “humanity can do good”. Is this the sum of all individual actions that you would consider “good”? Or would you consider a more comparative approach, in which we weigh the good we do (let’s say the suffering we alleviate) to the bad (the suffering we cause). If you choose the former, we need to realise that the interpretation of what’s good changes continuously, and not always in the direction we’d like (unlike what Pinker would have us believe). Especially the techno-optimism can be a dangerous trap here, as it has been proven many times that technology promised to be the panacea turns out to be the sword of Damocles (nuclear energy, for example), with positive effects often being marginal and more than anything only positive for humanity itself. This is why “humanity can do good” (and variants such as “humanity has produced incredible things”, etc.) needs to be dissected: good for whom? As we’re strictly speaking about humanity’s relationship with other animals (domesticated, urbanised or wild), let’s focus on “good for animals”. Sure, our scientific and technological advances have yielded some good results for animals (my dog just got rid of Rickettsia thanks to medication), but for that same medication dozens, hundreds or even thousands of mice, rats and dogs might have suffered incredibly. Of course I’m grateful the medication exists, but this is not a zero-sum game where on animal’s suffering falls to the way-side because we cure another; you’d only end up with a looming utilitarian monster. That’s not to say there are no individual actions that are not to be considered as “good” for the other animals – I admire the work you do, and consider it one of the most “good” one can do; I know people who have started animal sanctuaries, others are making vegan food alternatives… So yes, we are capable of doing good and bring value for something or someone other than ourselves. However, we/us as a whole (and this brings me to the second interpretation of “humanity can do good”) do not focus our lives to improve the lives of other animals. Quite on the contrary: ecological destruction is still rampant (we might be cutting less of the Amazon, but the daily deforestation is still immense; it being less bad does not make it good) and we have no idea how many animals will fare in the decades to come. One blatant example is Australia: in 2019/2020 they suffered the most severe wildfires in years and are now dealing with floodings they haven’t seen in a long time, with predictions of this only becoming worse. Yet about half of the Australian population indicate they are not willing to make any changes in their lifestyle to mitigate climate change (if you want I’ll look up the reference); in fact, they very much pride themselves on driving big trucks and have lots of barbecues. I just spent a good year down under and met many incredible, good-hearted people (not all of them vegans) wanting to do “good” in the world, yet that does not undo the effects of that other half. About three billion wild animals died or got severely harmed in those wildfires (in only a couple of weeks), and that’s only a fraction of all wildlife impacted by us directly or indirectly. Marine life, for example, suffers from extreme pollution and is slowly suffocating due to rising water temperatures; this will soon affect not billions, but trillions upon trillions of animals. This is why the comparison is important: how much good we do versus how much bad we do. And at this point, the scale very much tips towards the bad. Maybe pushing that button might avert more future suffering than we’re currently even able to imagine – maybe even more than we could alleviate intervening in nature.

    My second point is the idea that it is up to humanity to adopt a role in ending wild animal suffering. Let’s assume you get the whole world to become vegan and actually care for animal suffering (which is just as big a hypothesis as having a button that rids the world of humanity, so I won’t discuss the probability of your premise; and yes, the world would have to be a vegan one –or at least one where animal suffering is taken seriously, which is currently not the case– prior to undertaking a project as big as proposed, especially because a considerable amount of suffering will soon be caused by none other than humanity itself), you’re still left with many questions. The only one I will ask here (the bio-technological practicalities are fodder for fantasies the likes of Asimov seem better equipped to answer – we’ve intervened in nature plenty in order to “do good” and most of the times its results were devastating on an ecological level, as we’re just unable to foresee all that can go wrong), to me seems the main one: why? Are we motivated purely by ending all suffering, even if exists solely in the animal-animal relationships (from which we choose to abstain)? Then what if I gave you a button that rids the world of all organic (and thus sentient) life? Would this not be a more practical solution, but with a more enduring result? No more suffering, no more dilemma. Or is there inherent value in nature, in that it needs to exists lest we deprave the universe of something, maybe the only thing, that matters? Without wanting to sound esoteric or spiritual (plenty of eco-philosophy drifts towards that anyhow), it does require us to take a closer look at where that value comes from. Is “the valuing” done by ourselves, humanity (we’re considering bringing back extinct animals not for the sake of eco-diversity, let’s be honest)? Does it come from an external source (plenty of debate whether the bible compels us to take care of animals, or whether Aquino was right and they’re simply “here for us”), and if so, which? This might not seem an important matter, yet it is, as the implication of deciding humanity could or should intervene is based in the value we bestow upon nature and those in it, cements our role in nature, and with it, justifies our behaviour towards those animals and their habitats (and its effects).

    The topic of wild animal suffering has become more prominent the past decade (Horta, Bruers, Dorado, etc. have written incredibly compelling stuff on this) and I find it an interesting debate – but for now I believe that’s all it is: theory. Hypothesis. What if. Albeit a fascinating and morally relevant thought experiment, it is rather fringe if we cannot put the suffering humanity causes, and will cause, front and centre. Of course I believe we should help a suffering animal when we encounter one in the wild (many of use have helped a stuck animal, or helped cure an injured one) – yet again, this is in the margin and says nothing of the proposed structural intervention based upon a new paradigm of “humanity as the shepherd of the natural world”. Do you currently trust humanity sufficiently to take on that responsibility? Maybe within the beautiful hypothesis in which we collectively become morally considerate of other animals, yes. Yet at this point, the “good” humanity brings to the world seems too small to consider it sufficient to justify the “hold on because it will get better” attitude, especially because it’s ground in hypothesis that we’ll see the light at one point or another. Realising this doesn’t need to paralyse us, or bring us to nihilism regarding possible improvements in humanity’s attitudes towards other animals. It just means that for many of us, that button (and ridding the world of humanity) would mean at least the suffering caused by humanity would end, whilst the possibility that humanity would become sufficiently compassionate to do so out of its own motivation in any time soon, seems minimal.

    If only there were a button to make humanity compassionate. It’s the only one we would all happily press (although even then you’d have some screaming that it’s paternalism and morally unacceptable…). 🙂

    1. thanks for your thoughtful comment. It seems that I should have made more effort to make my text even more tentative and hypothetical though 🙂
      Re your button to make all sentient life disappear, yes, i would have less of a problem with that than with a button that makes only humanity disappear. It should, however, be a button that affects not just our planet but the entire universe.

  3. the article is well written but fails to consider reproductive strategies and carrying capacity. Most (r-selected) animals produce way more offspring that can survive, so the wast majority of them die young, in very suffering intense ways.
    As a general rule, only (slightly under) 2 offspring per mother can survive to reproduce to keep the population stable.

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