Every year there seems to be one particular photograph or video that captures world-wide attention. Last winter, for example, video footage posted online showed a starving polar bear struggling in its Arctic hunting grounds because of the thin ice and
food scarcity caused by global warming. The plaintive images generated a wellspring of sympathy and invigorated calls for stronger efforts to combat climate change.
This summer a killer whale carried her dead newborn calf over 1,000 miles
in Haro Strait off of Canada's Vancouver Island. "Her tour of grief is now over,” said an official of the Center for Whale Research, after seventeen long days, “and her behavior is remarkably frisky.” The world exhaled in relief.
The majority of these images are of larger mammals - panda bears threatened by declining bamboo forests in China; orangutans put at risk by deforestation in Asia, the black rhino and elephants threatened by poaching in Africa …
and sometimes groups of insects get attention, such as the focus on CCD in 2006 which changed beekeeping from an unheralded, unappreciated calling for a few to a rapidly growing hobby for many, with consequent exposure and publicity.
Each has its strong group of advocates, raising public awareness as well as funds for its particular cause.
There are two issues that arise. The first is one of ethics : is it morally wrong to treat non-human beings in inhumane
ways? As sentient beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain (and yes, this includes many eusocial insects) animals have a plausible interest in being spared unnecessary pain and suffering. There might be reasons to give preference to a human life over
an animal life, but there can be no moral justification for regarding the pain that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain felt by humans.
If we feel morally obliged to provide aid to human beings living in poverty
or to the victims of natural and man-made disasters, regardless of their geographical distance from us, why can we not apply the same altruistic principle to alleviate the suffering of animals who are dying from lack of food, shelter and a sustainable environment,
regardless of geographical proximity?
The challenge is emotional overload, yet we can no longer deny that nature is taking its current course primarily because it has been altered, perhaps irrevocably, by irresponsible human activity,
to the detriment of the members of other species. An example close to our hearts is the honey bee and varroa mites. The rapid transfer and spread westwards of Varroa destructor from Asia, where it had developed a symbiotic relationship
with Apis dorsata, is the result of modern human transport systems. Can we then step aside and wait for our honey bees to somehow develop a resistance - the James Bond “Live and Let Die” approach - or do we have a moral responsibility
to do everything possible mitigate the pain and suffering this invasion has caused the bees?
After all, we typically come to the aid of waterfowl harmed by oil spills, sea mammals incapacitated by plastic floating in the oceans,
and animals injured by vehicles. We do not stand by idle on the grounds that none of us is personally responsible; we do not defended a lack of action by some alleged concern for the course of nature (‘We must not interfere!’) or the gene
pool of the species (‘Let the weak die!’). We do not use those arguments to justify not intervening to help relieve human suffering during a famine or after a tsunami, or denying antibiotics to a child with pneumonia, or withholding treatment from
someone with an early diagnosis of cancer.
And this leads to the second issue. Our moral obligation in the minds of many is to giant pandas, ospreys, tigers and blue whales - large, charismatic, furry or feathery creatures glimpsed
primarily in television documentaries. Yet the vast majority of life on earth, both in terms of species and numbers, is made up of insects - some 10 quintillion to be more precise, or 10 million trillion - and that excludes spiders because they are arachnids.
That works out to 1.4 billion insects for each human being world wide, and the global weight of the insect population is estimated to be 70 times greater than that of the human equivalent. To paraphrase the British geneticist and evolutionary
biologist, J.B.S.Haldane, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and insects.” He actually said ‘beetles’ in that there are
more types of beetles than any other form of insect, and more insects than any other kind of animal.
Sad as the extinction of the giant panda would be, the environmental impacts would be minimal. In contrast, the myriad of little creatures
all around us are absolutely vital to our survival and well-being. They have spent some 420 million years preparing this earth for our prosperity, and they are now desperately threatened. “If all mankind were to disappear,” E.O.Wilson
famously wrote, “the world would regenerate back to the right state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Or as Grace Pundyk pointed out in
The Honey Trail, beekeeping in the twenty first century has come a long way from the career described in 1774 by apiarist Rev. John Thorley as a “means of discovering the hand of God in nature.” Today it seems more about lamenting
the hand of man in nature.