Anthropocentrism and Theoretical Fatalism

A Comment on the Terms of Reference of the
‘Eminent Panel on Seal Management’

by David Orton

“The strength of the deep ecology movement depends upon the willingness and ability of its supporters to force fact-dependent experts who underpin environmental   decisions into discussions in terms of values and priorities.”
                    - Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle, p.72
Dear ‘Eminent Panel’ on Seal Management (Ian McLaren, Solange Brault, John Harwood, and David Vardy):

     I would like to make some general comments on issues concerning seals and some specific critical comments on the main assumptions of your Panel, as explained in your Terms of Reference and reflected in the Questionnaire on Seal Management in Atlantic Canada, which you have made available. I am responding to the call for input from “stakeholders and interested parties” (deadline November 24, 2000). As pointed out in the terms of reference, the mandate of your Panel is to provide to the Minister of Fisheries, “advice on a long-term strategy for the management of seal populations in Atlantic Canada.”

     I am writing from the perspective of someone who has felt compelled to speak, as best I may, as a voice for the various seal species in the Atlantic Region since the early 80s. (See for example Green Web Bulletin #31, “The Philosophy And Environmental Politics Of Seal Programs” based on two university talks in March 1992, and other writings on seals listed on our web site: These seal species, whether harbour, grey, harp or hooded, have been under continual assault by humankind, in particular by those who commercially exploit the oceans in our region of Canada. My concerns for the well-being of seals has also been part of a more general concern for the overall ecological health of the oceans and the current destructive industrial-capitalist fisheries model which undermines this ecosystem, and within which the attacks on seals need to be situated. (See the 1995 Green Web Bulletin #45 “Fisheries and Aboriginals: The Enclosing Paradigm” and also the critique of the proposed Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) model for Marine Protected Areas “Marine Protected Areas: A Human-Centric Concept,” both listed on our web site.)

    I have come to certain conclusions from my involvement in seal-related issues, which may be partially summarized as follows:

 - Seals have beauty and intrinsic value irrespective of how we humans view them. These values are independent of the so-called usefulness of seals for human purposes. This is a deep seated ethical or philosophical belief. Those who subscribe to such beliefs, although seemingly a minority in public discourse in the Atlantic Region, are helping to change human consciousness away from a taken-for-granted human-centeredness, i.e. which looks at seals as a “resource” to exploit. Conflicts over seal issues are fundamental conflicts over basic value systems in how we are going to relate to the natural world. This fundamental ethical conflict is not reflected in the Terms of Reference of the Seal Management Panel. Instead, the overall unquestioned value orientation is anthropocentric.

 - I believe that seals play an ecologically complex role in marine ecosystems that is beyond the current reach of human understanding. To attest to such a position does not display ignorance but humility. Aldo Leopold’s comments, such as “Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another,” and about Homo sapiens not being a conqueror of the land community but a “plain member and citizen,” are pertinent here.

 - For most commentators on seals, they are seen as “competitors” to humans, because seals eat fish. The basic question becomes, how many to kill (and how to do it so as to not arouse an outcry - which should be avoided solely because there may be some economic fallout).

 - Anything can be done to seals in the name of “research.” Here the biology department at Dalhousie University in Halifax has played a ‘leading’ role, e.g. anti-codworm and contraceptive experiments on seals at the university and on Sable Island. The alleged research on Sable Island has also included shooting seal ‘specimens’, branding and tagging, and has caused the desertion of nursing pups by their mothers. There are various self-serving justifications for such research by the university and the DFO scientists involved. This research is of course done against the interests of the seals themselves.

 - The state of humankind, that is our ecological footprint, is taken as a given in seal discussions. Thus there are “too many seals,” but never “too many people,” or “too many fishers,” or “too much consumption of seafood.” To raise that fishing gear be made “seal friendly” would be considered bizarre in the Atlantic Region, although, in some circles the discussion of bottom-destroying gear or non-selective fishing technologies is considered legitimate.

 - Greenwash language packages the messages of those who want seals killed. Thus the alleged Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, in the name of “conservation” and because Nature is considered a “resource”, wants to reduce seal herds by up to 50 percent of their current levels, and chillingly calls for a number of “seal exclusion” zones, which seem to include the Northumberland Strait, the marine waters off  New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and other areas. This Council, with its 14 members, we are told, represents “science” and “industry.” It seems you are only eligible to be a stakeholder if you want to exploit the oceans. Non-human life forms have no one speaking for their interests, and the health of the overall marine ecosystem is not represented on this Council. The Council has been a prominent and persistent voice for killing seals.

 - All the resources of the State become placed at the disposal of those who want to kill seals - DFO enforcement personnel, the Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, etc. Also, regulations are proclaimed/enforced (the misnamed “Seal Protection Regulations”), to minimize critical public scrutiny.

 - Seal issues show a crucial test of environmental consciousness, that is, whether an individual or fisheries organization is prepared to oppose their own economic or personal interests for wildlife or environmental concerns. Those who advocate the general killing of seals fail this basic environmental test. Seals do eat fish and other sea life, and this has to be accepted, if someone is going to rise above narrow economic self-interest. The terms of reference of a Panel on Seal Management therefore become important. Are such terms going to continue anthropocentric assumptions, the scapegoating of seals and denial of the responsibility of human-kind, or provide some new ethical vision, so that we can start to move forward in our understanding?

Anthropocentrism and Theoretical Fatalism

“To evaluate the current state of scientific knowledge and to provide advice on long-term strategies for management of seal populations in Atlantic Canada;
To develop a strategic harvesting plan for seal populations over a 5-year period.”
                                                Objectives, in the Terms of Reference

    The two theoretical concepts of “anthropocentrism” and “theoretical fatalism,” I believe, characterize overall the terms of reference of the Panel and the content of the questionnaire.  There is no attempt to look at seals in a nonhuman-centered manner. They are seen as a problem, and the discussion is how to deal with this problem. This is also the theoretical fatalism. The discussion proceeds towards one end, the killing of seals. Of course for the seals that will be killed, this is another kind of fatalism.

    If one starts, as one should, with the viewpoint that humans and our industrial capitalist society are the problem for seal species, then a totally different kind of discussion would take place. Instead of soliciting comments on whether we should kill old or young seals, or perhaps sterilize female seals (as does the questionnaire), we would be discussing ecological carrying capacity and the human ecological footprint. We would be asking painful but necessary questions, like: How many of us should there be, and how do we reduce human populations so that wildlife can flourish and that we do not degrade the Earth? How do we go about calculating for sufficient habitat and food for species other than humans? Who would draw up such “quotas”? How do we bring a change in ethics from the existing orientation of greed to one of respect in our relations with animal and plant life? What fishing gear and attitudinal changes need to be made in the commercial fishery, so seal populations can peacefully co-exist? What constitutes a sustainable quality of life for humans and non-humans alike? There can be in the long term no space for seals, if the commercial fishery, oriented to global markets, continually expands.

    Personally, I do not oppose the subsistence hunting of seals by aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, if it can be objectively demonstrated that the seal species being hunted are not at risk. I do strongly oppose all commercial killing of seals, or any so-called “cull” of seals to supposedly benefit the commercial fishery. Seals are not the problem in the decline of the commercial fishery. We and our non-sustainable, ever-expanding industrial lifestyles are.

    That the Panel publicly repudiate its terms of reference because of the human-centered bias. The Panel then present an alternative, deeper and non-anthropocentric, ecological frame of reference for a discussion on seal issues. Such a discussion would include advocating the necessity for an Earth-centered spiritual transformation, so that human interests become placed in a context of respect for all other species, including seals. From my perspective, if the four panel members did this, then they can justly be called “eminent.”

    I pledge to work with any organization inside or outside of Canada to implement the ecocentric seal ethics which I have sketched out in this comment.

                                                                                                 David Orton
                                                                                                 November 23, 2000

The above position has also been generally endorsed by the Red Tail Nature Awareness Camp, in Scotsburn, Nova Scotia, and by Earth Action, an environmental group in Prince Edward Island. For further information contact Billy MacDonald of the Camp, or for Earth Action, Sharon Labchuk.

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