Wednesday, June 15, 2011

390. On the Value of the Great Hamster of Alsace's Life

Great Hamster of Alsace
By Kamran Nayeri, June 15, 2011

On June 9, it was reported that the European Unions’ highest court has issued a ruling to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, also known as the European Hamster. There are an estimated 800 Great Hamsters in France, the only wild hamster species in Western Europe.  France may be fined up to $24.6 million if its urbanization and agricultural policies are not adjusted to protect the hamster. Outside of France, the Great Hamster’s habitat includes parts of Eastern Europe, Russian and Kazakhstan.

The Great Hamsters grows as long as 10 inches, with brown-and-white face, white paws and black belly.  The hamsters had been in sharp decline; in 2009 an estimated 200 were left.  At that time the European Commission filed a lawsuit against France upon urging of a French conservation group Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage (Safeguard Wildlife), in Wittenheim, in Alsace, France.

The Great Hamster likes grass and crops like alfalfa, but these have largely been replaced by corn, which is not ripe in the spring when the hamster awakens from six months of hibernation, eager to eat and mate. It must make longer and more hazardous journeys as its grazing area shrinks because of new highways and housing developments.
Farmers have generally considered the hamster to be a farmyard pest, and before it was protected they flooded its burrows and used poison and traps to kill it. Some trapped and killed the hamster for its fur.
Jean-Paul Burget, president of Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage told the New York Times in a telephone interview that “we are very happy,” and that “European rules must be followed.” France “now must work to raise the population of hamsters up to 1,500,” which would be enough to preserve the species, he said, and the prefecture of Alsace “must stop some urbanization projects and restore” older agreements to grow certain cereals that hamsters eat.
What is the value of a hamster’s life?
The European Union ruling on the Great Hamster is an acknowledgment of its value.  In monetary terms, if France destroys the hamster population and is fined the full $24.6 million, each hamster is valued at $30,750.  International standard for the average monetary value of human life was $50,000 in 2008.
Orthodox economic theory commonly values human life by taking into account a person's willingness to pay or willful market choices. Willingness to pay is estimated by asking how much an individual would be willing to pay for good health outcomes (or to reduce bad health outcomes).  Alternatively, such economists estimate value of life by looking at a person's purchasing choices.  Clearly, this measure of human life is closely and positively correlated with socioeconomic (class) and income status.  Strangely, this ideologically driven theory is common practice for measuring value of life.  (You can place a dollar value on your own life using this bourgeois methodology by using this calculator).
Putting monetary value on human and non-human life precede modern-day capitalism. It origins are in private property.  Like animals, the value of life of a slave was determined by his/her utility to the slaveholder.  Abolishment of slavery has now replaced socio-economic status as the measure of value of human life.  But non-human life continues to be valued as property and whether and how it has utility. Animals that have become human property (farm animals, pets, etc.) are valued as private property.  Wild animals’ lives are valued according to the pressure exerted by animal rights and conservationist movements that hope to reform bourgeois institutions to better “manage wilderness.” 
Species cleansing
Because the Great Hamster also lives outside of France, its decimation there would not make it extinct.  However, what the French, and before them other Western Europeans, have been doing is to gradually destroy the Great Hamsters population through destruction of its habitat “passively” (that is by urbanization and replacing grasslands and Alfalfa with corn production) or actively (that is, by flooding its burrows, poisoning, or tapping to kill it).  It is difficult not to see the parallel between these and acts of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing typically involved ethnic or religious prejudice, often related to economic interests. So is Species cleansing.  Ethnic cleansing is justified by prejudice (racism or religious bigotry), the view that one's own race or religion is superior to the victim's. So is species cleansing; it is justified by speciesism, the view that humans are superior to other species and their lives and interests matter more. Other species are presumed not to have a "soul" or are incapable to have an interest in their own lives or that if they do, it is of inferior status. 
Ethnic cleansing has come to be considered crime against humanity and sometimes the criminals are prosecuted. Consider the following cases.  

The Ex-Bosnian Serb army General Ratko Mladic was captured just recently to face charges of ethnic cleansing of Muslims through mass killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Critiques of Israel argue that Zionist policy to force Palestinians out of their land before and especially after the establishment of the state of Israel is a form of ethnic cleansing.
The world recalls with horror the Fascist Germany’s policy of extermination of Jews as the most reprehensible form of ethnic cleansing.

Species cleansing is not considered a crime and the public at large remain largely insensitive to it, except in some cultures and for particular animals (i.e., dogs and cats in the western world). 
While the European Union’s highest court put a monetary value on the collective lives of the Great Hamster of Alsace, it is not charging the French with species cleansing. Further, the court and conservationists who sued France subscribe to some form of management of the hamster population that would accommodate French capitalism.
In fact, barring a desire to avoid bad press the French government could literary get away with destroying the Great Hamster in its territory if they are willing to pay the fee.  In some parts of the world, this would be called “blood money,” a reference to how the rich can get away with murder if they are willing to pay the victim’s family monetary damage. Except, of course, the monetary fee in the case of the hamster would go to another group of humans. 
The terrible fact is that human tyrannical rule over nature and other species continues despite of the nod to the right of the Great Hamster to maintain a minimum presence in France.  Even a list of how the existing human society routinely kills, exploits, torment or undermine other animals would be too long to fall outside the scope of this brief essay.  Let’s just recall that we are in fact in the early stages of the sixth great mass extinction of species.  Its causal factors include habitat degradation or destruction, urbanization, agriculture, logging, mining, and fishing.  Climate change is fast becoming by far the more serious threat.  These are various activities engendered by capitalist accumulation on the world scale. The ideological basis that justify this assault is the anthropocentric worldview and speciesism ingrained in the subconscious of the humanity for thousands of years.
Animal Liberation
Fortunately, there are encouraging philosophical, scientific  and political developments that point to the possibility animal liberation--animal liberation is closely tied to human emancipation-one is impossible without the other, as humans are themselves animals.  In the short term, these development may mitigate some the worse crimes committed against animals.
Darwin’s profoundly revolutionary theory of evolution dismantled the foundation of the anthropocentric worldview by showing that humans are not qualitatively different from other animals.  More recently, biologists have demonstrated that many animals possess what we consider human qualities. Like us, they possess a variety of sensory, cognitive, conative, and volitional capacities.  They see and hear, believe and desire, remember and anticipate, plan and intend.  What happens to them matter to them.  Like us they can experience physical pleasure and pain.  They also are capable of fear and contentment, anger and loneliness, frustration and satisfaction, cunning and imprudence. These and a host of other psychological states and dispositions collectively help define the mental life and relative wellbeing of many animals.

For almost four decades, some philosophers concerned with moral theory have focused their attention on animal rights, most notably Peter Singer (1976), Tom Regan (1981) and Gary L. Francione (2008).  
While we can learn much from these advances of human knowledge about non-human animals, it is clear that some  biological research to demonstrate qualities of various species may be considered unethical by some philosophers of animal rights.  Do we really need to examine each and every scientifically to determine if they are to be granted the right to be free of harm by human society? 

At the same time, philosophical advance regarding animal rights depend in good measure on scientific knowledge gained by biological research.  While philosophical pursuits of better moral theories satisfy our own desire to intellectually ground our moral actions, is it really necessary to postpone a imagining and creating a world where humans can co-exist with non-human animals without inflicting harm to them? 
Ecological socialism offer the possibility of imagining and gradually building a better world on Earth where human fulfillment through a process of de-alienation will come about in tandem with animal liberation.  The wisdom of our ancestors who held views closer to an ecocentric worldview can offer some guidance.  Today, Bolivians recall their ancestral belief in Mother Nature and her rights in seeking solutions to the world’s ecological crisis. There are similar notions in Eastern philosophical heritage.  Consistent with these is the work of Deep Ecologist philosophers.  Their formulation of the Eight Point platform offers an inspiring framework for thought and action in the direction of an ecological socialist future.  
The first three points of the platform state:
1.              The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
2.             Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3.             Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

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