Posted by Michael Dickens on January 25, 2010
A week ago I participated in a discussion regarding coexistence, in the context of post-Martin Luther King Day. The conversation got me thinking about the meaning of true coexistence.
Current ideas on coexistence are certainly not it. The scope of the popular idea of coexistence is far too narrow: it only includes the human species. The world is moving in a direction to where all ideologies are tolerated. But when will we be tolerant of the needs of living species beyond humans? As it is, humankind is rather poor at respecting other animals. That is not difficult to see. We are cutting down rainforests which contain thousands of species and billions of animals. We are building offices, stores and residences and taking up more and more land for ourselves. There are those animals who have benefitted from the spread of humans, but they are in the minority.
To truly coexist with other animals, we as humans would have to stop consuming so many resources. Overall, that’s good not just for other animals but for us. We’re going to run out eventually. But to become truly sustainable would require major lifestyle changes, perhaps the most significant ever. This is not something as simple as the minute difference between capitalism and communism. This is big.
One question that I am interested in is, how effectively can we coexist with other animals and with the environment, and at the same time retain as much of modern life as possible? I for one am rather invested in modern life, and I happen to enjoy it greatly. A lot of the trick here will be stability. What parts of modern life can we retain and be able to continue them for hundreds or even thousands of years without disrupting our surroundings? A reduction of resource usage will obviously be necessary, but there are other issues as well. We would have to stop expanding our cities; we would have to stop building so much and stop producing and consuming so many goods that end up creating side effects.
But that’s enough of that. Now I will move on to another interesting question. This question is about the nature of society. In our communities, nearly all members are humans. We do have animals (i.e. pets), but they hardly count as they are generally regarded more as objects for our pleasure than fellow members of a community. Would it be possible to integrate animals into society, on the same level as humans? I find tihs prospect to the fascinating. For nearly all species, the practical difficulties of forming an interspecies society — whether it be the language barrier, vastly different morals, or some species’ simple inability to comprehend what society is — would be overwhelming. But there are a few cases in which it just might work. Look at chimpanzees, for example. I don’t know a whole lot about them, but I know that some have learned sign language. It makes me wonder just what kind of conversation one could have with a chimpanzee. For example, could you discuss philosophy? Are there chimpanzees that would be able to understand such a thing? If not, then what about something simpler such as small talk? Could you maybe have a less deep conversation with a chimpanzee, and have it be just as successful as if it were with a human?
Unfortunately, I don’t think that this kind of thing will be possible a lot of the time. Under such circumstances, the best we can do is not to integrate, but merely to coexist.
Now, by my own moral philosophy, the most moral thing to do is to maximize the happiness of as many beings as possible. But I know that we humans are selfish, not just for ourselves but for our species, so we want to maximize the happiness of our species. Will this be possible? I think so. What usually makes people unhappy these days? Some people don’t like their jobs. Other people don’t like their spouses. Still others are in the midst of genocide, or have to walk three hours a day to get dirty, disease-ridden water and bring it back to their family, meaning they have to drop out of school at a young age which ruins their chances of ever getting out of poverty. (Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?) These problems will not worsen if we make the kinds of societal changes that I have hinted at.
And hinting at them is precisely what I have done. I haven’t been more specific because this is a complex idea which cannot be fully fleshed out in a hastily-written essay. Maybe this is all just pointless speculation about concepts that will never come to fruition. Maybe it is all hopeless idealism. But maybe not. And maybe it will make you think a little. What if we did achieve true coexistence? What if we incorporated other species into the core of our society? Things could get interesting. Very interesting.