Climate change and the seal hunt

2010-04-26

in Canada, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment

Over the weekend, I found myself wondering about the relative impact of Canada’s extremely controversial seal hunt and climate change, when it comes to the prospects for Grey Seals and Harp Seals.

Given that it seems highly likely that climate change will eventually eliminate summer sea ice, and given that creatures including seals seem to be critically dependent on sea ice, it does seem possible that climate change will render these seal species extinct, eventually, or will sharply curtail their numbers.

Stage one of a comparative analysis would be developing an estimate of how many seals would have lived between the present and the non-human-induced extinction of the species. They could potentially endure until the end of the carbon cycle, or until the sun expands into a red giant. More plausibly, they might exist in large numbers until the next time natural climate change produces a world too hot to include Arctic sea ice.

If we had an estimate of how far off that probably is, and an estimate of the mean number of seals that would be alive across that span, then we can estimate how many seals would be lost if humanity eliminates summer sea ice and, by extension, wipes out or sharply curtails the number of these animals in the wild.

It is possible to imagine a chart showing seal population year by year, extending far into the future. There could be one shaded segment showing the projected seal population in the absence of human intervention, and others showing possible population crashes resulting from anthropogenic climate change. A third shaded area could show the number of seals taken annually by hunters. The relative area of the shaded regions would show the relative magnitude of hunting and climate change, as causes of seal mortality. If you think of all the seals that would have lived, if we hadn’t locked in the eventual disappearance of summer arctic sea ice, the number killed by hunters is probably quite small.

My suspicion is that hunting would be a tiny blip, compared with climate change. If so, the environmentalist campaign to end seal hunting seems misdirected. Even if protesters are more concerned about animal cruelty than about species sustainability, this argument seems to hold up. Surely it is cruel for the seals to suffer and slowly die off as their habitat loses the capacity to sustain them.

I think it would be well worth some serious organization producing an quantitative version of the argument above. Like ducks, it seems quite possible that seals are distracting us from the environmental issues we should really combating, or at least encouraging us to respond to those issues in a less effective way than we could.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 26, 2010 at 10:00 am

Also, the analysis of climate change I described above would still severely understate the relative severity of that phenomenon, compared to the seal hunt.

The seal hunt affects a couple of seal species directly, and their predator and prey species indirectly. Climate change, by contrast, affects everything. While, at the very worst, reckless seal hunting could eliminate a couple of species, runaway climate change cold conceivably eliminate all life on Earth.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:14 am

“Even if protesters are more concerned about animal cruelty than about species sustainability, this argument seems to hold up. Surely it is cruel for the seals to suffer and slowly die off as their habitat loses the capacity to sustain them.”

First off, it’s not clear that it is cruel for a population to die off due to loss of habitat. If the habitat declines slowly enough, the drop in population might (I don’t know the specific behavior of seals) mostly happen due to reduced birth rates.

Even if it happens due to starvation – for this to count as cruelty there would need to be an inter-species duty to sustain unsustainable non-human animal populations. If you want to say this duty only exists when it was humans who altered the habitat, this would have absurd consequences (because we radically alter habitats constantly – do we owe reparations to the bears?).

Secondly, there are a lot of reasons to care about animal cruelty other than the fact the animal doesn’t live a full life – animal cruelty damages the moral character of the person committing the act of cruelty, and those who defend the act. This is why it’s illegal to capture and torture squirrels and rabbits, or host cock-fighting or dog fighting events.

I think it’s hypocritical to be opposed to kids torturing animals in cities, but not to the torture that goes on in industrial meat production, and certain forms of hunting. Whether or not it’s permissible to kill animals is a question which obscures this issue – the right question is whether it’s morally destructive to a society to defend cruelty towards animals on economic or cultural grounds.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:18 am

The seal hunt seems much less cruel than industrial agriculture.

The seals live fairly natural lives, and then die fairly quick deaths.

Contrast that with de-beaked chickens living in extremely close proximity – or cows that need to be constantly dosed with antibiotics so that their overcrowding does not lead to epidemics.

In short, I don’t find the cruelty argument very convincing, at least when coming from non-vegans.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:21 am

“seals are distracting us from the environmental issues we should really combating”

Or, it might be that the cruelty of the seal hunt is an example where groups can come together and agree that we have to care about something other than our immediate profit motive. Demanding the system be re-shaped to take basic values like cruelty and universality into account is radical in exactly the sense environmentalism needs today. If environmental crises can be averted without a slip into dictatorship, it’s not optional for citizens to start taking what’s outside our own personal experience a lot more seriously – and this means struggling with principles like “can we be cruel in our economic or cultural self interest”.

The tar sands, in a purely quantitative measure, are likely the cruelest single activity ever undergone. In comparison, banning the seal hunt is small potatoes. But small potatoes supported by an EU political consensus shouldn’t have its potential ignored.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

“In short, I don’t find the cruelty argument very convincing, at least when coming from non-vegans.”

Arguments aren’t convincing or not convincing based on who makes them. Reason is public, it doesn’t remain attached to the speaker. That’s why you can read books by dead people.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:27 am

The EU ban is a very transparent form of dodgy politics.

Politicians don’t want to actually combat animal cruelty by doing something meaningful like restricting industrial agriculture, or even further restricting what you can do with laboratory animals. Instead, they take a symbolic stance that makes environmentalists feel more positive towards them.

Also, if northern communities are going to have some economic basis other than oil and gas production, things like hunting as a sustainable level will probably need to be part of that.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:28 am

Arguments aren’t convincing or not convincing based on who makes them. Reason is public, it doesn’t remain attached to the speaker.

How people behave is a good indication of how much importance they actually place upon their beliefs, as well as how fully they have thought them through.

As such, I think it is appropriate to discount what meat-eaters say about cruelty to seals.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:30 am

“Contrast that with de-beaked chickens living in extremely close proximity – or cows that need to be constantly dosed with antibiotics so that their overcrowding does not lead to epidemics.”

So, your argument is “this is worse than that, so this is acceptable”? That’s nor an argument – the moral question concerning any action or activity is: is it justifiable? Or, is the value that shows it up as unjustifiable a good value – one we should support?

People are fallible, they get moral decisions wrong all the time. People are especially bad for holding good values, but applying them not at all, or extremely selectively. I think we should encourage people when they start making the right decisions, even if they don’t instantly make a total shift to exactly the position we would like them to have. A shift away from “I love my cat, and I love chicken” to “I love my cat, I love chicken, but oh my god that’s disgusting!” is just step away from “I love my cat, wait, what’s this video? That’s a chicken? WHAT?”

Calling people hypocrites for being opposed to the seal hunt but not industrial chicken production is correct, but strategically disastrous. If one believes that cruelty towards animals is not justifiable, it makes sense to support every group, cause, etc… that speaks out against some cruelty – not to pick and choose, only associating with the pure and authentic groups.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:30 am

The pike we ate during the Smoky Lake canoe trip also died violently at the hands of humans, but I don’t think that was ethically or environmentally inappropriate.

What is objectionable about human interactions with animals are:

  • situations in which humans place animals in positions where they suffer for their entire lives and
  • situations where we wipe out species, or severely deplete the richness of ecosystems.

The seal hunt falls into neither category. To me, killing non-endangered animals that have lived decent lives and then putting their bodies to good use is not ethically problematic.

The sustainable hunting of seals doesn’t fall into any of my three categories justifying vegetarianism/veganism.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:35 am

“As such, I think it is appropriate to discount what meat-eaters say about cruelty to seals”

So, you think the validity or truth of an argument is relative to the moral content of the person speaking?

Ad-homonym is a fallacy which is pretty well understood. Contrast these two claims:

“He should not be a little league coach because he has a history of molesting children.”

“His claims in the discussion surrounding little league policy to prevent child molestation are invalid, because he has a history of molesting children.”

The first argument is a good one, and the second is bad. Even if someone can be construed as having a motivation to lie, to obfuscate, this doesn’t automatically render their claims false. You’d need to actually look at them.

This distinction between who a person is, and what they say, is absolutely central to the possibility of public, rational discussion.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:36 am

Also, even if you believe that the seal hunt is unacceptably cruel, it still follows that climate change is a much bigger problem and far more worthy of attention and action.

I also think the point about northern communities is an important one.

Tristan April 26, 2010 at 11:42 am

Re: “The pike we ate during the Smoky Lake canoe trip ”

This is an example of an argument which does not rely on consistency with your person actions. It’s the kind of thing anyone could read, and come up with reasons for agreement or disagreement. This kind of argument is infinitely more valuable, and human, than the “meat eaters have no rights to care about seals” argument. That argument will tend to turn-off meat eaters from animal rights issues altogether.

Milan April 26, 2010 at 11:44 am

On the ad-hominem side issue

Behaviour is an important guide to the seriousness with which people treat their moral beliefs. As such, I don’t think it is a fallacy to examine what people do in relation to an ethical issue and what they think about related issues, before deciding how seriously to take their arguments.

In the world of formal logic, it doesn’t matter who an argument comes from. In a complex ethical and political world in which ethical priorities must constantly be weighed against one another, those who take their beliefs seriously and think them through extensively deserve more attention than those that do not.

R.K. April 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Would it be wrong to kill whales and dolphins, even if they did not suffer during their lives and they are not endangered?

A case can be made, on the basis of their intelligence, that killing them is akin to killing people (or perhaps to killing people with severe mental handicaps).

Perhaps the same case can be made for seals.

Anne Onimos April 27, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I have formed a new action group, Humans Opposed to Awful Cheetahs (HOACs), and am seeking members.

Have you seen the terrible cruelty that Cheetahs inflict every day on innocent, big-brown-eyed Gazelle? Nasty, throat-slitting, limb-breaking, gut-slashing, unethical killings! What’s more, Cheetahs prey on the weakest Gazelle, those challenged by age and illness; or the youngest, most innocent, biggest-brownest-eyed. It is appalling and must stop!

HOACs advocates and works for the worldwide ban of Cheetahs. Please join us in ending the Cheetah scourge once and for all.

Milan April 27, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Animals – whether cheetahs or tigers – cannot be rightly thought of as being cruel or immoral. In most ethical theories, they are assumed to lack the kind of agency that gives rise to real guilt.

As such, their actions are simply amoral.

That is not a situation in which human seal hunters find themselves.

Tristan April 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I would like to invite people to join the international coalition of complaining about what other people do in order to ignore the importance of your own actions (CAWOPTIIOA).

We engage in many fun activities, such as condemning the taliban, murderers, as well as cruel animals like cheetahs and and lions. Also, historical figures like Ghengis Khan are standard fodder for our complaints.

. May 11, 2017 at 12:28 pm

‘It’s our way of life’: Inuit designers are reclaiming the tarnished sealskin trade

Seal hunting is widely misunderstood, says a new wave of fashion designers, who are challenging perceptions with a blend of modern and traditional work

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