A mature oak can produce twenty-nine thousand acorns a year. Each has the chance to sustain our people, heal the world some, and spread where it can.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On Killing and Balance: An Ecological and Reciprocity Based Ethical Foundation

I am a killer. I don't deny this, and I have no problem with it. I'm a complex animal, and therefore I'm a killer. All complex animals are, as are most simple animals. Basically all creatures besides a few types of lichens feed off of the dead matter of other creatures, though plants don't kill firsthand too often. So I kill things or have things killed for me. This is not to say I'm a murderer, though some dogmatic vegans certainly classify me as such.

So what differentiates a killer and a murderer? We're all killers, all of us that read this, but are we all murderers? Killing for living clearly isn't murder, considering that we humans all need to take part in it in some way. If you're uncomfortable with that, I can only tell you that you need to grow up and come to terms with it. I was once verbally assault by the sort of dogmatic vegan I mentioned above while we walked through the quad at Rhode Island College, after I'd tried to explain animism to her. She said if I considered animals to be sentient (and plants too, but she kept overlooking that) but still killed them (or led to their deaths), then would I also kill a person (she meant human person, but her own particular brand of anthropocentrism shone through)?

The answer of course was yes. I have no problem saying I'd kill a human for my survival or to protect a loved one, and I hope my loved ones feel the same. I don't consider human lives more valuable than other creatures, which is a common accusation flung at meat eaters by dogmatic vegans. The thing is, I don't really have a reason to kill humans to live, I do have a reason to kill plants and animals. I've thankfully never been confronted with the need to kill a fellow human, never been subjected to threats on my life, at least not in person. But obviously, I have continued eating for most of my twenty five years, and therefore I've killed. Death has occured so I can live. And I've personally killed hundreds and perhaps even thousands of beings for food and medicine. I've processed countless seeds into food, seeds that had a small chance of becoming a plant had I not eaten them. Each acorn I've turned into meal was potentially another oak tree.

Ethical issues involving life and death need to take into account the wider biological sytem, the biological communities, before anything else. Obviously the individual personhood of creatures need to be taken into account as well, but that has more to do with humanely killing and proper treatment/circumstance in life. Creatures and their interactions make up entire systems, and subsystems, and so on and so forth. Every creature's wellbeing is in some way dependent on the larger system, so it is therefore vitally important to keep such biological systems functional in their role of supporting the lives of those within. The reason we need to keep our ecosystems intact, aside from the necessity that one's own community needs other biological communities in the ecosystem to survive, is that killing another creature for sustenance creates a responsibility on your part. When you consume the flesh of another being, be they plant, animal, or fungus, that being's death has gone to sustain your community, be it a family, tribe, or just you. Therefore, the responsibility of those who kill and consume other creatures is to make sure that the communities of those who are killed are taken care of, that they're allowed to live in a healthy manner and be allowed to exist as they are meant to. This will include considerations to the individual personhood of creatures, and since every creature I can think of is in the best circumstances free and not enslaved (domesticated) one major implicit value in this is opposition to slavery of any sort, and promotion of emancipation. To properly take care of the communities of the creatures we consume, we need to do so in ways that are reinforcing and helpful to the larger biological system we live in, as well. This should be simple and just an obvious part of intelligent survival for any species, but we civilized humans have been told contrary messages so long that it's sometimes hard to remember basic and simple truths such as this one.

The fulfillment of our responsibility can take numerous forms and be handled in a lot of different ways. Sometimes fulfilling this relationship is quite easy, like when voles eat the fungus at the bases of redwoods, and the fungus mycellium propagates from their feces, creating more fungus which allows the redwoods to continue growing. They don't need to do anything aside from eat and defecate. At other times it's more convoluted, such as our eating of deer meat, then our feces fertilizing plants that feed the deer and other animals in the area (maybe even us). Sometimes it's more cerebral, like knowing which of the deer would be best to kill from a population. Knowledgeable killing can curb disease in their community, ignorant killing might make disease worse, or cause other population problems. Many state hunting regulations had previously allowed for only killing male deer during the hunting season, reasoning that the few males that weren't shot could still mate with all the females. As it turns out, though, this horribly stressed the male deer, and adversely effected the rest of the population as well.

Killing in self defense is obviously rather different. The predator prey relationship doesn't quite apply, does it? After all, while the death of an enemy threatening to kill you or your family might technically mean that your community is sustained for longer than it otherwise would have been (i.e. they're not dead), it's not actually being taken in to your community physically. Well, if it is, such as if hunters have killed a bear that was attacking a child and you then ate said bear, you still have some sort of responsibility to keep the rest of the bears alive and relatively healthy. But say a human person or a group of human persons attacks you; say you're a band of Lakota being hunted by the U.S. Military after the Civil War (or shit, in 1973). You don't owe anything to these aggressors who are mercilessly killing your people. You have no responsibility to make sure that the U.S. and it's war machine survive, and in fact have every right to end them. They clearly don't intend to keep your community alive and free. Crazy Horse was perfectly justified in slaughtering soldiers. Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who raised an army to wage war against the encroaching United States, was acting exactly as he should have when he allied with the British to gain guns and steel blades to kill the Americans who were attacking and stealing Shawnee and other indigenous peoples' lands. He owed people who indiscriminately killed his friends and family with death right back at them. Geronimo, on the other hand, went beyond killing in self defense. In his case, he started out killing many members of the Mexican force that came and basically wiped out his village, which was justifiable, but in the end became a murderer by killing civilians who had little or nothing to do with the soldiers attacking his newly adopted band. There is a fine line here between self-defense and fighting back on the one side, and lashing out undirected on the other.

A big part of rewilding for me, as well of a lot of other people, has included learning to take responsibility for my killing, my death-dealing. Too many of us don't take responsibility for the death involved in their living; too many don't even understand their role in the wider world in regards to death. We're so disconnected from life that we fear death in any form, not understanding that one implies the others. Too many civilized humans are destructive to the communities of other creatures they depend on, too many torture the animals and plants we consume. And in that process, too many destroy the land (or let it be destroyed on their behalf) that we all come from, disallowing other beings the ability to live there as they probably should (to the dogmatic vegetarians: your fucking GMO soy is grown over the clear cut rainforests. Fuck you). To have any sort of sustainable, sane, and healthy culture, the people need to at least understand and acknowledge the death that is required for them to live.

Personally, I have taken the easy killer's route so far, killing only plant people personally (though that's in part just because I suck as an angler), but I've killed personally. The narrow focus of my killing is likely to change in the near future, as I've been prepping for years to learn to hunt and this year have actually aquired a hunting permit. Killing animals, I'm told, is a terrible and fantastic experience. Animals are harder to kill emotionally, in addition to physically, because we related to them easier. They have eyes and faces, and their form of sentience is much more similar to ours than that of plants (as an aside, some idiots try to argue that saying plants and other animals besides us have emotions and sentience in anthropomorphising them: is it anthropomorphising to say a cow has lungs? They have organs, though they're not exactly like ours. Cows have stomachs, but not like human stomachs. Just like that, they have sentience and emotion, just not exactly like ours because human modes of thinking wouldn't serve them as well as ours serve us. This is doubly true for plants, who have little need for emotions just like ours).

This essay didn't start off in my head as primarily about killing for food, though. I had conceived orignally of this essay as a tangent off of a thought I had concerning womens' rights to choose, which is why at the beginning I specifically used the real example of eating acorns. "Pro-life" advocates (I'll be honest here; as much as I respect my friends who identify as "pro-life", the term "pro-life" is at best imprecise and at worse complete propaganda and misdirection. It's either "pro-fetus life" or "anti-choice") often bring up the biblical passage "Thou shalt not kill" as one reason why abortions should be illegal (some also extend it to many forms of birth control). As a rabbi once told me, the proper translation isn't "kill", but "murder". The Bible doesn't particularly disparage killing, but rather murder. The right to kill in defense is established in many passages, such as Exodus 22:2, though that one is a bit too supportive of property rights over human rights for my liking.

Not that I particularly use the fact that something is in the Bible as a legitimizing argument, nor do I think anyone should, even devout Christians. It's just not a good way to win arguments, especially about killing because a lot of the killing supposedly ordered by G-d in the Old Testament is clearly genocidal and ecocidal. Good ethical arguments and their actions are defensible logically because they end up working to maintain positive circumstances like freedom, personal sovereignty and self-determination, and the continuation of life. I simply draw upon biblical passages to draw attention to the fact that the Judeo-Christian tradition has also involved a discourse concerning the subject of what is acceptable killing, even if most tellings and translations fail to recognize the individual personhood of plants and "lesser" animals (I'm sure there is at least one version does at least some of this, but I'm not familiar with it). In the specific case of the right to choose for women there is the issue of establishing personhood of a baby, which can be argued basically forever because nobody will ever decide what draws the line between a lump of cells and a new human (though as I hear it, the Bible actually has an answer to that). The above text concerning cases of ethical killing for survival, while being important in their own right concerning the subject of how we relate to the world and the creatures in it, also serve the purpose of establishing the argument that it is okay to kill, and under what circumstances that killing is okay.

So I won't argue what I believe concerning when that lump of cells becomes a person, because it's irrelevent to my argument. What is relevent in this case is how the overall human community in a particular location fairs in direct consequence of how we live our lives, and how we choose to go about having families. And the human communties in an area are directly dependent on the wellbeing of other communities around them: the deer and bison, the oaks and birch and maple, the blueberry bushes and the cranberry bogs, the salmon and the trout. A community of humans that grows too populous, that goes beyond the means of the other creatures and the land to maintain them, will necessarily do damage to the communities of other creatures that they rely on if they are going to feed all of their people. Continually doing this will lead to the inability to eat later on, and naturally lead to disease, starvation, and suffering in all of the communities involved. That is until it leads to warfare, expansionism, and genocide, as always does. It therefore becomes necessary, not just for the sake of our human communities, but also the plant and animal communities that we are consuming and are therefore partially responsible for, and the reciprocal relationships that are essential for ethical and sustainable living, that we take into account the role our numbers play in that, and therefore require honest, intelligent discussion about the utilization of natural family planning methods.

And let's be clear: this doesn't mean it needs to involve abortions or abortifactants. There are plenty of methods and medicines that can, in a myriad of ways, allow heterosexual couples to plan out their child birthing(or lack thereof). In the North American land mass alone there are over two hundred species of plants that have been traditionally used by indigenous women to plan when they have children. Some are abortifactants, some prevent implantation from occurring at all. There are also timing methods, though limited as they are in effectiveness when used alone. There's the obvious practice of abstinence, though frankly I don't consider it very realistic as a widespread practice, nor would I feel that widespread abstinence would be all that humane because sex is a part of healthy human romantic relationships (even if civilization has the nasty habit corrupting and co-opting it into something warped and hierarchal, turning it into having more to do with power politics and gender roles than about sharing intimacy and love). The point is that there are a lot of ways in which people can and need to consider planning births, and we can't rule any of them out based simply on whether it involves "death". We can (or at least I do recommend) rule out things like the pill, as the concentrations are high enough to cause infertility in species subjected to human waste, which down the line damages ecosystems (not to mention how much they fuck up womens' bodies). Most importantly, we need to consider the health of the landbase first, both when considering methods and timing of family planning (for instance, spreading wild carrot seeds where they don't grow and would become invasive would hurt the landbase).

The issues and implications involved in understanding killing and balance extend quite readily to the sort of technology we use. Technology is a primary focus of our materialistic society, especially since it's the primary attribute that we tend to consider ourselves to be accomplished at as a society. The thing is, our technology doesn't do a whole lot to make us happy and healthy, and despite the greenwashing we get from corporations it continues to grow more and more destructive every day. Anyone who points this out is always met with idiotic remarks from techno-utopianists: "What technology SHOULD we use, then? You want to send us back to the dark ages/iron age/stone age? Wouldn't you rather have robots do work for you instead of sitting around banging rocks together?" These are sadly not that far from real remarks I've gotten; I'll just skip over decrying the obvious racism and ethnocentrism of some of these and get to the point.

Traditional indigenous people, by and large, aren't "into" technology. Life for most indigenous people is more about relationships, and their technology reflects this. Their technology is sustainable because of this, because they use the tools and technologies based on what the land freely gives. They have, and continue to in many places, used what parts of their plant, animal, and stone relations they can use without damaging the landbase. And let's be clear here: this does not mean it's restricted to fictional designations like "Stone Age", "Iron Age", or any other non-useful/Progressivist label. It does not reject complex technologies. It simply rejects ethically those technologies that take more than is sustainable, more than what is "freely given", and would thereby require exploitation to sustain. Anything more than that crosses over into the area of killing that damages the landbase and throws off the balance, and many unnecessary deaths by extension; killing that is murder.

What will this look like? I can't say anything other than that your individual landbase needs to be the ultimate decider on that. Complex machines made from unsustainable materials will be around for at least the next generation, and plenty of interesting and useful things can be made simply from scrap. We'll have steel tools for awhile, even if the industrial economy collapses tomorrow. If I were to make a guess, I'd say we're likely to see as many steampunk style devices being made from scrap as we do buckskins and wood bows, at least for the next couple of generations. In the long run, seven generations from now or more, we'll be seeing that the only sustainable way to live will be dictated by each landbase, and naturally a big part of what the landbase will be able to provide in the future depends on how we treat it now. So take care of it, spread wild native seeds, learn permaculture, and encourage biodiversity.

Whether we're using tools made from what the earth gives freely, or those made from the scrap of civilization, the consideration of how we use tools and technologies in relation to the landbase is as important as how we create or get the tool, if not more important. Put another way, whether the killing we do with our tools is good for the landbase is at least as important as whether the killing we did to get the tool is good for the landbase. Put yet another way: the only sustainable (and therefore have the possibility of being ethical) technologies are those that employ only that which the landbase gives freely. Put one final way: the only way of life that has any shot at being a truly ethical one is one that sustains or improves the health of the landbase, i.e. is truly sustainable.

Sometimes people react to any mention that we're overpopulated, that there are just too many humans, with accusations of promoting genocide, and since I've just stated that killing in ways to benefit a landbase is acceptable, I need to point out here that these accusations don't naturally follow. One major point that is routinely missing from discussions about overpopulation is overconsumption. Some people consume too much. It's probably people like you and I, living in the industrialized nations. But it is most especially the people pulling the strings of industrialism, and the industry itself. The fact that our way of life has both degraded the landbase(s) and led to the birth of too many humans doesn't mean the solution is to kill a bunch of us off. The voluntary human extinction movement is likewise not the solution, and their racist exclusion and ignorance of indigenous people isn't the only reason. Like I've articulated above and in another essay, humans are capable of making intelligent, community-based decisions about child rearing. We don't need war or genocide to reduce the numbers. We need to be realistic, and encourage the learning and teaching of traditional medicines (also for health and longevity).

Another problem with this argument is that it overlooks the "resources" we have (I hate referring to other beings as resources, but it's sometimes necessary in discourse), and better ways to get them. Plenty of activists have read that there is more than enough food in the world, but it's locked up and not distributed evenly because, well, that's what the civilized do. We need to take to heart that these statistics, if they can even be trusted (I'm always skeptical of statistics), do not take into account wild foods, though those are clearly taking a beating. The BIG thing to pay attention to here is that the bulk of the foods being grown and counted are the results of agriculture, which in addition to being terrible for the soil, for biodiversity, and allow for the centralization of power, also is terribly inefficient. One can't grow as much per acre with a destructive monocrop as one can with a natural, beneficial polycrop like those grown using permaculture methods. By encouraging the reestablishment of natural ecosystems through permaculture methods (whether they be forests, prairies, or wetlands), or even using complex horticulture involving complimentary planting, we not only more thoroughly fulfill our obligations to our cousins in the natural worlds, we're likely facilitating the growth of more food (and more nutritious food, too).

Therefore, the fears of the jaded pseudo-anarchists and others who wryly insist that anyone falling somewhere close to the "anarcho-primitivist" philosophy is a genocidal maniac is ill-placed. We're not going to "go around clubbing anyone wearing glasses" (as one condescending motherfucker told me when I praised Endgame on an anarchist list). At best these accusations are just simple misunderstandings, at worst they're racist, ironic apologetics for a genocidal culture. I'll let you decide on a case-by-case basis.

Since starting this essay I've covered a lot of issues concerning killing, balance, and their intersection. And early on I asked the question of whether or not we're murderers, before examining what makes some killing not murder and makes other killing murder. So now that I've established a case, are we murderers? So many of us are complicit in the murder of trees and deer and fish, of the poor here and abroad, of faceless brown people in far away countries that the U.S. military kills for resources. So many of us don't question the car culture that kills 30,000 humans a year in this country alone, not to mention countless non-humans, and facilitates the moving of resources bought on/made from the corpses of so many of civilization's victims. Maybe some of us aren't murderers, maybe those of us who work against this monstrous machine have at least done enough to not be accessories to murder. Maybe our meager flailing at this death culture is enough to be considered adequate enough protest to the murder that we can't be considered in any way responsible. If you're reading this you're more likely to at least question these things.

We only have so much control over the circumstances of our lives, and while there are plenty of ways we can not take part in the omnicidal culture around us, we can't just jump out of it and pretend it's not there. And it's not us that are making the decisions that are killing the world. We're not murderers just because we're forced into a system; we're not guilty for something we have no control over. We ARE guilty if we don't fulfill our bargains. I eat meat, so I owe it to animals to ensure the health and freedom of their communities, and therefore I need to work to end factory farms, monocropping, and rampant deforestation. I eat maize, beans, and squash, and I owe it to their communities my efforts to end monocropping and have the three of them (and their oft-forgotten fourth sister, sunflower) put together more often. I wear clothes made from cotton and wool, so I owe it to both sheep/alpaca and cotton plant communities to stop pesticide filled farming of cotton and encourage sustainable pastoralism of the wool-bearers, or even better the growth of feral flocks. Needless to say, my example shows that we industrialized humans have a lot of responsibilities we're not keeping up our ends of, and I'm not even much of a consumer. I for one intend to fulfill at least some of those bargains. Whether my sustainable killing will help, we'll see.

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At March 9, 2010 at 2:02 AM , Anonymous Gail Faith Edwards said...

wonderful essay! It reminds me very much of what I have been considering of late...this word, soliphia, meaning the love and responsibility we have for a place, bioregion or the planet as a whole, and the unity of all the interrelated interests within it...I like this word, and although you didn't use it, your essay is really all about it. Thanks!

At March 9, 2010 at 9:08 AM , Blogger 29,000 Acorns said...

Thanks for reading and I'm happy you enjoyed. And very much thanks for teaching me a valuable new term!

At March 15, 2010 at 10:59 AM , Anonymous James said...

Nice essay. I've recently discovered your blog and I quite enjoy reading what you've written.

I went through a lot of this killing stuff about a year ago. I went from being a raw food vegan to trapping wild creatures in a month and a half more or less. It was quite callous:"I've got to eat me, so I have to kill, so I'm killing these creatures." I don't think of it as this simple anymore. I really want to learn about the creatures before I start taking their lives again.

One thing I never really agreed with fully is what Derek Jensen says about the predator prey relationship. There are many examples of Hunter gatherer peoples who completely wiped out entire species (like mega fauna on Turtle Island). There seem to be an underlying theme of permanence in this idea. It definitely sounds nice though. And I don't mean to suggest that anything done my hunter gatherer peoples should be considered "correct".


At March 15, 2010 at 11:03 AM , Blogger 29,000 Acorns said...


Pleistocene Overkill Theory has been thoroughly debunked by now. Overchill is much more likely.

In fact, there are very few examples of indigenous people causing extinctions. There are some, generally when humans first migrate into an area, as often happens when top-level predators enter a new area and throw off the balance temporarily.

It's a good idea not to assume that what indigenous people do is automatically correct. We look to the examples of extant and recent hunter-gatherers because their model of living works, so it's much more important to unerstand WHY it works, and how we can apply those principles in our circumstances. That's a big part of what this essay is about. :)

Good luck with your journeys in proper killing.

At January 4, 2011 at 4:09 PM , Anonymous Kevin Schot-Elliott said...

Really well written mate...I work with Earthships, permaculture, sustainable woodland use AND support traditional indigenous communities survival through these worst of times .... that was one of the most all-inclusive and seriously relevant pieces I have read on the subject of the relationship of all things...Thank you, for taking the time and I hope a lot more people read this...
For All our relations
Kevin Schot-Elliott


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Twenty-Nine Thousand Acorns by Daniel Q is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Photoshop Tree Brushes created by Obsidian Dawn. Photoshop custom dandelion shape created by MyMimi. "Broken Acorns" photograph in banner taken by modcam. Layout by Kris.