Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Commodification of Endangered Species and the Pathologies of Capital

Portland, Oregon Zoo, 2014, Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

The following is a draft excerpt from my forthcoming book, Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse. It concerns the the commodification of nonhuman animals, particularly endangered species. 


The Commodification of Endangered Species 
and the Pathologies of Capital:
Lowland Gorillas,  
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, 
Purple Pig-Nosed Frogs,
Sumatran Elephants, 
and Male Baby Chicks

(From: Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse)

Wendy Lynne Lee
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

What a responsible human-centeredness makes crucial to moral action is that we take seriously that some nonhuman animals are capable of that experience we call broadly "aesthetic," and that erring on the side of caution is more likely to insure the future of experience worth having for all of us.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Consider, for example, zoos. In a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, Harambe, a Lowland Gorilla, was shot and killed after a toddler fell into his enclosure. In the public hand wringing that followed, many questions were raised about the responsibility of the mother, the enclosure barriers, the zoo’s handling of the case. 

But only a handful of writers, most notably Andrew Revkin and Marc Bekoff raise serious questions about whether Lowland Gorillas ought to inhabit zoos—or whether there ought to exist zoos at all. As Revkin observes,
An overarching factor behind the interspecies tragedy at Gorilla World is how we have uncritically accepted the raising and displaying of gorillas, among our closest kin, behind glass or moats or fences in the first place… Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but almost all die having never really experienced what it is to be a gorilla. Harambe was born in a zoo in Brownsville, Tex.

Few could rationally doubt that Harambe was an intelligent creature capable of a wide and diverse range of experience. What of that experience might qualify as aesthetic—I would not pretend to know. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014
 But that isn’t what matters. What erring on the side of caution for a responsible human-centeredness demands is that we take the ecological integrity of the habitats of Lowland Gorillas to be of value for them—for their sakes—as a value for us. And what that means is that the first and most egregious wrong done to Harambe didn’t happen when he was shot; it happened when he was born

As Bekoff makes the point:
Being a zoo-ed animal, Harmabe lost all of his freedoms – the freedoms to make choices about how he was to live, what he would eat, when he would sleep and go to the bathroom, where he would roam, and if he were to become a father. While some might say Harmabe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.  (Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place? Scientific American, Blog, 5.31.16).

Far more than any sum of its parts in not getting to choose where to live, what to eat, when to sleep, where to roam, what Harambe did not get to be was a gorilla. 

And while zoos and aquariums work tirelessly to justify the forced imprisonment, breeding, and menagerie status of their wards, it’s hard to imagine an institution more committed to the commodification of nonhuman animals. After all, zoos are profit-driven enterprises, a fact that makes it all the more tragic that a Lowland Gorilla graces the cover of the Cincinnati Zoo’s 2014/15 Annual Report, where the park reports $40,063,912 income ( 

PhotoWendy Lynne Lee, 2014
What makes this story even more tragic, however, is that Lowland Gorillas are critically endangered numbering just 100,000 in the wild. But instead of working to insure habitat sufficiently robust and protected from human predators such that their numbers could rebound, for example, in the Congo, zoos exploit their status as endangered to make, as Bekoff puts it, zoo-ed animals. 

As reported by Sarah Zhang in Wired:
The Cincinnati Zoo, which has a long track record of breeding gorillas, had planned to let Harambe father baby gorillas when he got a little older, again in accordance with the species survival plan. “It will be a loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas,” zoo director Thane Maynard said at a press conference this weekend. After Harambe died, the zoo saved and froze his semen, but it’s unclear if they’ll use it to breed gorillas in the future. (

It’s hard to exaggerate the hypocritical insolence of the gorilla survival program since if the zoo genuinely cared about gorillas as endangered—as gorillas—they could put their considerable resources towards stemming the three major factors that threaten gorilla survival in the wild: hunting and illegal trade, habitat loss and degradation, and disease. ( 

Such a program would not, of course, be a money-maker since it doesn’t offer entertainment to human spectators; it doesn’t offer us an opportunity to appear caring when an animal is shot.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Harambe’s being a member of an endangered species just makes us feel better about getting to gawk at him.  

And that too is hypocritical insofar as, third, climate change makes of us all potentially endangered species, human and nonhuman. Some are “more immediately endangered” and some “less,” but no desirable future, at least as I’ve argued here, can be reconciled with homo Colossus’ quantifying and commodifying valuation of species and ecosystems.  It’s not just that climate instability makes a mockery of the concept “endangered species.” It’s that the way we assess the value of a species in terms of whether there are enough of them such that we’re “safe” in treating them as disposable eviscerates the world itself as a locus of experience worth wanting.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

--> In the pathology of conquest capital, an endangered species is simply a special kind of pricey commodity, like diamonds or honest politicians. For the conquest capitalist, the meaning of “endangered” can only be calculated as price; the cost to salvage, the savings to let go to extinction. Endangered, moreover, signals “something important” only if it’s something in demand; hence the value of gorillas is a function of advertising, their beneficiaries the advertisers

Consider, for example, the Ocean Conservancy’s study of the impacts to mammal and aquatic life along the Louisiana gulf coast four years after the BP disaster. In it they document “unusual mortality events” among endangered and non-endangered species, and that “cetacean deaths are thought to be underestimated. One analysis suggested that carcasses are recovered, on an average, from only 2 percent of cetacean deaths.” 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Given the likelihood that what applies to the cetaceans also applies to other gulf coast species, it’s alarming that[o]f the total number of sea turtles collected 809 (481 dead) were endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.” What’s alarming here, however, isn’t “just” that this species of sea turtle may be closer to extinction; it’s that we’re tempted to take the example seriously only because it’s nearing extinction—because, in other words, there’s not enough to regard them as disposable. It’s an artifact of human chauvinism, in other words, that the value assigned to the sea turtles is primarily quantitative; our alarm is triggered by an immediate threat—and not by the far larger environmental conditions that consign us all to “endangered.” 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

This isn’t just short-sightedness or a product of our capacity for denial; that puts the cart before the horse. What triggers alarm over the destitute condition of the sea turtle is the sense that that, although their value is justly calculated as quantity, there are just too few of them.  

 It’s as if we comprehend it that something would be lost if the sea turtles are allowed to go to extinction, but we’re so acculturated to conceiving value in terms of exchange that the only way we can comprehend this loss is quantitatively. 

This too is pathological since in exempting ourselves from the possibility of extinction, we exempt ourselves from the very forces that impinge on the sea turtles, and in so doing we alienate ourselves from the experience that could move us beyond the determination that a thing is valuable just because there’s not enough of them, namely, aesthetic experience.

As Philosopher John Dewey makes clear, the aesthetic value of an experience is not about its object, per se; that could be witnessing the sea turtle or the gorilla, the Sumatran Elephant, or the Purple Pig-Nosed Frog—or the baby male chicken about to be ground to bits. The value of an experience is in its phenomenal qualities, its feel, its smell, its sound—qualities that cannot be quantified or commodified whether they elicit a sense of beauty or horror, humor or sublimity. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

To appreciate that value demands the restoration of a world in which that experience can be possible for any and every creature capable of it. 

The critic might argue that some species of creature matter less to biodiversity than others, and therefore that our experience of them is unlikely to be as rich because we know this. Perhaps male chicks matter less than sea turtles, and that’s why we’re comfortable grinding up millions of the former, but we at least feign outrage at the potential extinction of the latter. Perhaps “endangered” or “rare” is a natural quality of aesthetic appreciation. 

The trouble, however, is that we have no way of making that determination--so acculturated we are to accepting as valuable that which is simply advertised to us as such: diamonds are not rare, but we treat them as such and pay great sums accordingly. The Purple Pig-Nosed Frog is rare—critically endangered—and most folks don’t know this creature even exists.  A species of sea turtle may be rare, and that has meant precisely nothing with respect to BP’s return to the gulf coast. 
PhotoWendy Lynne Lee, 2014

For homo Colossus, in other words, fewer sea turtles doesn’t necessarily imply “more valuable”; it implies only “less disposable” if and when someone (or organization or zoo) decides to advertise the value of that creature. That value is thus more about demand for “sea turtles” or “gorillas” as products than about their plight. Given the commodifying pathology of our worldview, we have no more reason to believe that the demand to save them is driven by the desire to experience them in their natural habitat than, say, Big Greens like the World Wildlife Federation have in their selection of polar bears over naked mole rats, Sumatran Elephants over Purple Pig-Nosed Frogs the desire to save any creature from extinction for reasons beyond the continuing existence of WWF. 

After all, were we invested in an experience, we’d neither destroy the biodiversity that makes it possible, nor select to salvage only those species who look good on billboards, nor tolerate the multinationals like BP who return to the scene of the crime knowing the implications. The critically endangered Sumatran Elephant will not likely see the end of the 21st century (, and the reason is because illegally poached ivory is of greater value on the black market than the lives of these creatures. That is the meaning of endangered according to homo Colossus; the criteria for assessing value is the same calculus that determines the replacement of Heinz as compared to Del Monte catsup on the shelves of the Walmart Superstore. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

We decry the loss of endangered sea turtles, deploying armies of volunteers packing Dawn dish soap to clean the shells of survivors—but continue to buy blue fin tuna despite the fact that “oil caused deformed or damaged hearts in bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack.” 

We acknowledge that, especially since reporters were kept far from “the scene of the crime,” the numbers of dead or dying animals scooped up by the death gyres are abysmally low, but we breathe a collective sigh of relief when BP announces that tourism has returned to the gulf. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

We’ll bewail the loss of the Sumatran Elephant, but we’ll fail to see ourselves in the trajectory of that death spiral. 

At our absolute peril.

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