Humans as animals: Explaining humanity’s role in environmental degradation to children

A blogpost by Martin de Jong
Man standing in an open field

Recently, at one point in a discussion at the dinner table my 7-year-old son suddenly raised his voice: “Are we humans bad? Are we really killing all the other animals and destroying the whole planet?”

In a shock, my wife and I realized that the debate we were having on climate change, environmental degradation, reduction in biodiversity and the unfortunate role humanity was playing in bringing all that about was not only heard by ourselves, but also by our children who at first sight seemed to be playing games on the tablet or reading a book. They may not be familiar with the term Anthropocene, but for some reason they have an infallible sense for overhearing conversations whenever something is wrong. I am honestly always skeptical when people encourage me to end discussions or conference sessions on the (in my view undeserved) note that we should remain positive, that there is still hope or that we are on track to putting things right. On the other hand, it has never been my intention to discourage young people from feeling joy in life. How to be a responsible parent and yet tell the truth to one’s children?

The funny, the useful and the truthful

In such moments, only a temporary diversion can help us out. Take a bird’s eye view of events and analyze them with irony, look at them with the eyes of an evolutionary biologist and emphasize that (some form of) life will go on, propose to go out litter picking in the local park on Sunday morning as a good deed and point at our responsibilities vis-à-vis fellow creatures by eating less meat, reduce or ban the use of planes and cars, and think logically and independently, more in ecological than in economic terms. Would it help? It can certainly bring back the smile on kids’ faces and convey a sense of positive contribution on their part. But the best entry point may be approaching humans as animals and seeing what they do and how they fare as a species. My son has become adamant in his opinion that indeed humans are members of the animal kingdom, albeit somewhat peculiar ones. Why not take that as a starting point and take things further from there? We have given our children the youth version of Yuval Noah Harari’s book on Sapiens called ‘Unstoppable us: How humans took over the world’ as a Saint Nicholas present and hope to finish its contents as bedtime stories around Christmas. Cartoons on TV often show the funny, old, sometimes useful but rarely truthful fable-like phenomenon of making animals behave like humans: rabbits cook, talk and walk on two legs, Mickey Mouses have Pluto Dogs on a leash as they discuss their love affairs with the audience. Evolutionary biologists, primatologists and certain philosophers like Harari do the opposite: they make humans appear like animals. That is also funny, much older still, increasingly useful and more truthful than many care to admit. If we follow that line of thought, what do we see?

Humans as conquerors of natural habitat

What stands out first is how immensely impactful and powerful the human species has become. It has dramatically increased in population numbers; it has subjugated vast tracts at land and sea to its own needs and wishes. It has transformed them from natural habitats for many living creatures in balanced ecosystems into artificial areas where human action and interaction prevail. Other species are only tolerated to the extent that they do not hamper the ‘logistical operations' on the stone, asphalt, and concrete it has created all around itself. Whoever had thought beavers were the best examples to demonstrate the effects of Richard Dawkins’ ‘Extended Phenotype’ in that they reshape (and damage) their environment by building dams must look again. Humanity has also elaborated on and perfectioned its remarkable ability to create tools and generated a linear economy of producing useful mostly short-term physical items from natural materials and returning them to the planet as landfilled, incinerated, or effused waste materials. It has learned to speak the language of the circular economy while invariably sticking with linear production and consumption practices for nearly all its creative activity without blinking an eye. Whoever had thought only ostriches could look away from reality stands corrected here. Humans cannot (yet?) fly with wings of their own like birds but have managed to conquer the skies with magnificent self-invented artifacts modelled after the creatures that really can fly. Are there any limits to the human imagination? Will this powerful, incredibly useful (to humans) and painfully harmful (to most other living beings) behavior ever stop? And if at some point it is stopped, who or what will cause it? It is no wonder that most humans have come to believe that they are the chosen ones, that they are superior animals or even no animals at all. It is understandable that they claim to be at the apex of the animal kingdom while tokenistically referring to lions or tigers as kings. They may teach their children that large felines and canines, many sharks, most snakes, and giant spiders are dangerous to us, but seem to forget that many of these are on their way to extinction because of us. Humanity plus its livestock represents an incredible 96% of all the planet’s mammal biomass just on its own. It may be reprehensible that they act as if they are better than the Maker or insufficiently honor the earth as their true Mother, but who will blame them for believing in their entitlement to take on the role of the caretaking sorcerer? They are actually truly a sorcerer’s apprentice at work.

Humans as slavedrivers for other species

Legally, human slavery has long been abolished and outlawed (one may certainly debate to what extent daily realities live up to legal imperatives), but animal slavery is still widespread and embraced as animal husbandry. Natural wildlife is tolerated if it is not getting in the way. Amazonian jungles and boreal tundras may exist until gold or gas is discovered underneath the soil; nature is good, profit is better. Giant pandas are cute and cuddly, but would we forego the proceeds of agricultural production to preserve the bamboo forests in which they live? Polar bears are fostered because they are beautiful and rare, but does this fact hold us back from using fossil fuel that may preserve the floes they require for their survival? More significantly, when human meets polar bear in the Arctic, whose life is more precious:human of which there are now a whopping 8 billion or polar bear of which there are still 25 thousand left? We all know the answer. Wildlife is deemed cute and worthy of survival unless it poses a threat to a single human life. Luckily, our tamed domestic animals are subjected to a better fate. Well, at least some of them. Small felines, small canines, and rodents docile enough to have been domesticated and given up their freedom are cuddled and fed at the boss’s expenses for being such valuable company. So nice for the kids or deeply cherished if there are no other living beings at home to offer company. Horses are considered precious and will be treated fondly if they offer gracious galloping and racing services: beautiful symbiosis between humans and their pets. But what about pigs, which in some cultures are kept in mini cages until their meat is ready for consumption, while being considered filthy and impure in others without them ever having harmed anyone? The name of the postmodern livestock game is mass bio industry, for obvious reasons. What about cows whose value equals the price of their hide, meat and milk combined and whose subsequent generations are bred in some cultures, while in others they are considered holy and worthy of keeping honking cars waiting until they choose to leave the motorway free again? Do the fowl, sheep or goats still need mentioning: nice for children to stroke in animal farms, but even nicer as fried edition with a delicate sauce on our plates in restaurants? The same can be said mutatis mutandis for the world of plants: the more useful they are to humankind, the more popular and populous they have become on planet earth in the last few decades. Monoculture rules. For the rest of them, the worst must be feared. The steward’s performance in creating ‘utility’ for himself knows no boundaries. If doctor Jekyll is the shepherd, then mister Hyde is undoubtedly the slavedriver. The life of the economy is the death of the ecology in this techno age. Do not listen to those who claim the opposite: they will feed you pain killers, not any real medication.

Humans as soothers of inter-tribal warfare

Sapiens has come a long way in its evolution from small mammals, monkeys, apes, Australopithecus and Neanderthals. It is weaker than most of these, but it has outwitted and outbred them all. It finds the behavior of its ancestors and close relatives intriguing, endearing, or amusing, but apparently fails to see itself as one of them with equally fascinating, adorable, or laughable characteristics. The vulnerable, pale, and hairless nephew has become master of them all. Should we laugh or should we cry? Sapiens is still struggling with issues of solidarity among its own divergent population groups, but it is undeniable that keeping the peace when one is living surrounded by billions of fellows amidst limited remaining natural resources to fulfil a rather exquisite demand for exclusive fun and luxury is in fact no small feat. More: it is a remarkable achievement in intra-species peacekeeping! If Richard Dawkins emphasizes ‘The Selfish Gene’ on which human DNA is based, Frans de Waal has enough empirical evidence at his disposal to demonstrate how ‘Good-Natured’ much of its daily demeanor is. Various physical characteristics such as race and ethnicity were once potential markers of tribe and identity, but enormous attempts have been made to appease the various population groups with each other and encourage them to live in harmony with each other. Modern urbanized environments may not nearly be as thoroughly inclusive as we would like them to be. An inherent desire for exclusivity can still not be denied to the modern Mc Yorker’s conspicuous consumption patterns or the rushed and elegantly dressed 21st century Shanghai’s career networker, but at the end of the day the damage that difference does remains under control. Cultural patterns and religious belief systems have taught different rules and regulations for secular and spiritual life to different social groups and these differences have admittedly led to a great many wars and butcheries among various human populations in human history, but truth be told: although the multicultural society still feels inconvenient to many of us, in practice most have come to terms with these differences and no longer feel anxious to encounter people from different backgrounds on the train or in shops. Some even intermarry and raise mixed offspring. Life is far from perfect, but on this count, humans have made huge strides forward in tolerating or even accepting those who differ markedly from themselves. That is, if available resources for survival are abundant…

4.50 AM: Go fishing, my boy

Son of mine, go out fishing early with your grandfather (your father doesn’t know how to do that; he is a professor, remember). While sitting there quietly with harmless bait waiting for what may or may not come, think first of who you are, what you are good at and what you do not do so well. And think of what potential you can and want to hone and develop. Eat less meat and enjoy it more. Buy fewer toys and play more often with them. Know yourself! Then secondly, observe how much power other creatures and things have over you and what effect you have on them. You may run after pigeons, but do not hurt them. You can examine leaves, but do not snatch them off the trees. Know the natural around you! And finally, witness and worship the beauty of it all. How vast the space is in which you live, how splendid life on earth is as it has evolved. You say you believe in God (unlike your father actually)? Well then foster all He/She/It has created and treat other creatures and objects the way you would like to be treated. And do not forget that the more you give, the more you will take. Know the Master of it All!

Your father is ready for a walk. Shall we collect some litter from the park instead? Then at least he can join you.

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