If a Tree Were to Fall

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If a Tree Were to Fall

If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings would there be any sound? The question is probably so familiar to some that it has become trite. To cut to the chase, the answer was meant to lie in the definition of “sound”. Sound is defined as a perception*. The tree falling creates vibrations in the air, but no ‘sound’ because no one is there to perceive those vibrations as sound.

You may have immediately latched on to the part about “human beings”. The question has been posed in many different ways, sometimes using “animals”* but more often ‘humans’ or ‘someone’ meant to imply someone human. That the question is so often phrased to indicate that it is human’s perception that matters is very revealing as to how we perceive animals – as just not counting.

Taken as a matter of philosophy, the question can lead to all kinds of theories on the nature of perception and reality. George Berkeley* was a proponent of a metaphysical theory called subjective idealism (or immaterialism)* which roughly means that if no one perceives something, it doesn’t exist. In other words, everything is in your mind. Where your mind is supposed to exist, I don’t know. In addition, Berkeley sort of started the whole “tree falls in a forest” thing, saying that trees don’t even exist if no one is observing them.

I am fairly confident that trees exist independently of human perception. In fact, I have no reason to doubt it and quite a lot of evidence to suggest that trees don’t need me around in any capacity to exist*. But subjective idealism does raise a similar thought–does anything that is not and never will be observed by a conscious being matter at all?

Say that all animal life disappeared from this planet . There are no intelligent beings from other worlds visiting, no one to know that the planet exists. What would it matter then if the air were pumped full of carbon and sulfur dioxide, the ozone layer destroyed, the oceans boiled away? What matter if all the trees burned, all the rivers and lakes dried, all the meadows buried under sludge, all the things we hold beautiful in nature torn down and broken? Do these things matter if no one does or ever will exist to appreciate them?

I pose the questions to myself and my instinct is to say yes, it does matter in some way. But matter to whom? Well, no one since I’ve excluded anyone to appreciate or even acknowledge that the world exists. I have to conclude it really doesn’t matter. Our world is an amazing place, but without someone to be amazed, it just is and no more. If all the trees fall over without anyone ever knowing this planet was here, what would it matter? It would not, because in order to matter, some conscious mind must exist for it to matter to. Any attributes we attach to the planet–beautiful, intriguing, amazing–all fall away when we remove the people interacting with it. And that is not to discount non-human animals. They experience the world in different ways from us, but they are still experiencing it, and as they have interests, it does in some way matter to them.

I acknowledge that it seems to be an odd line of thinking. I do have a point with it though and it does tie in with animal rights, specifically animal rights in regard to environmentalism. My contention is that “The World” or “The Environment” matters nothing without the interests of the animals within it. When considering our impact, or the impact of other animals on the environment, we must think in terms of the impact on those and other animals living there or the discussion becomes meaningless.

For example, humans may use up all the water in a watering hole and make it into a muddy mess. Normally, it’s not a matter that needs distinction, but should we be concerned for the watering hole itself? No. If anything we should be concerned for any animals relying on the watering hole as home or for sustenance. If that were not true, we could say that those animals could live or die as long as the watering hole were still pristine. To what end would we be keeping it pristine then? The watering hole does not matter on its own, separated from any animal that would ever use it. It only matters in relationship to the animals that use it.

This comes into application when people put their ideas of “The Environment” before animals. There is much talk about keeping the world green and the oceans clean, but sometimes little thought or consideration given to the creatures that inhabit the world. A prime example is in the locavore movement, where a subset considers the exploitation of animals a smaller harm than using fossil fuels. The idea is something like this: It is better to raise and consume animals locally than to import food using fossil fuels.

In this case, for whom are we preserving the environment? Presumably for the animals who haven’t been outright killed to support this scheme. These locavores have answered the false dichotomy between harming the environment and local killing with a system of perpetual animal slavery and exploitation. I doubt the animals would appreciate that.

If the goal however is to merely preserve the environment for human use, then local animal use makes sense over potential harm to human enjoyment. I have yet to read anything advancing this notion, but as I’ve shown, it only makes sense to try to preserve the environment for humans, non-human animals, or both. If non-human animals are so disregarded as to make food out of them in order to preserve the environment, I conclude that the purpose must be to provide human enjoyment. If that is the case, there’s no need to couch things in green terms. The lakes and forests are simply there for our enjoyment and we should not defile them for the same reason that we should not defile our living rooms or deface a work of art.

Perhaps though we should consider a utilitarian view where the environment is preserved for both ourselves and for the animals who don’t happen to meet their ends at our hands–those animals must suffer so that others can enjoy a clean environment. Again, I’ve read nothing directly advocating this view, but it seems consistent with the unclear goal of “saving the environment” by way of consuming animals. This view suffers from the same problems as general utilitarianism. Most prominent here is the sticky fact that we would not consider ourselves civilized and yet entertain the idea of killing humans so that others could enjoy a cleaner environment. That people kill non-humans to achieve that goal is simple speciesism and shows the fact that this rationalization again is pro-human, not pro-environment.

There’s plenty of empirical evidence* to rebut claims that local eating is better for the environment than veganism (doing both would seem to be the best course of action), and a whole lot more that can be discussed on these topics as a whole. However, I think it is clear from pure reason that environmental and animal rights concerns are inseparable, and that those who trumpet “The Environment” over animal rights miss the forest for the trees. It is the animals that matter, not our vague notions of greenness and environmental purity.

This article was originally posted on The Rational Vegan, and is reposted here with the permission of the author.

The Rational Vegan is the pseudo-anonymous amateur philosopher and would-be humorist responsible for The Rational Vegan Facebook page – a look at veganism and the vegan community from a rationalist perspective.

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