Compassion for Non-humans, and Whole Species

So in my post about Schopenhaur, I talked mostly about compassion between human beings, but equally important is the concept of having compassion for other forms of life, too. According to this article on Huffington Post, the world’s biodiversity is plummeting, largely due to human interference in the world’s ecosystems. Definitely a sad picture, but yet another problem that widespread compassion can still solve.

Barbara Kingsolver explores ecology in her excellent novel Prodigal Summer, showing how a lack of compassion for predators (such as coyotes), and the resulting eradication of them, can destroy larger networks of biodiversity, and how reintroduction of predators has potential for repairing broken ecologies. For a nonfiction look at some similar territory, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There provides an extraordinarily detailed and beautiful account of what a functioning (but struggling) ecosystem looks like.

The main difference between having compassion on a fellow human and having compassion on an ecosystem level requires thinking not just about individual lifeforms, but about entire species. How does one feel the pain of a whole race of plant or animal? It’s a much more complex action than having compassion on a life that look like one’s own and which experiences pain one may have felt for oneself. Having compassion on a species requires translating the idea of extinction into a feeling.

One way to achieve this is to imagine, perhaps with some aid of science fiction technology if you prefer, that you’re about to be wiped out of existence completely. Not killed, not sent to heaven, not transmuted into the memories of you loved ones, just gone. You never existed, and no one will remember you. Pretty scary. And in effect, that’s what’s happening all over the world right now – species that have never been discovered, or that have never been seen by more than a handful of people, are dying out. This isn’t just a few species. It’s tens of thousands, if not more. Feels pretty incomprehensible, doesn’t it?

To make it less incomprehensible: find a wooded area. Try to count the number of unique plant, animal, and insect species you can find. See how many you get. And look at how everything around you is alive, and not only alive, but together. No species outside of maybe single-cell organisms can exist by itself, without other species around. We need each other. And we need each other everywhere. As Kingsolver says at the beginning of her novel, “Solitude is a human presumption.

If enough of us can question that presumption and realize how much we need to have other living things around, and how much we need to have as many different kinds of living things around as possible, then we can begin to see compassion for non-humans as being just as necessary and vital as compassion for those of our own species. And more crucial, we can start to practice that compassion, taking actions to alleviate the pain of the weblike system of life to which we belong.

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3 Responses to Compassion for Non-humans, and Whole Species

  1. Pingback: Loving as a Habit | Accelerate Compassion

  2. John Dunham says:

    I’m rather convinced that if we didn’t treat nonhumans (and each other) with a complete absence of compassion, we wouldn’t be able to exterminate them so freely and with so little remorse. I’m also convinced that it hurts more to kill things you are right next to than to kill things a world away by proxy, which means the globalization of production is actually accelerating the deterioration of compassion as a way of life.

    • cmdrquack says:

      I agree. In recent days, I’ve come to feel that compassion and love are starting to accelerate in response to the issues you mention, and that I need to do everything I can to aid in that acceleration.

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