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Back before Christmas, Bakka-Phoenix hosted a launch for Sentient Tumor. In  the course of that event—during the traditional Reading Of The Excerpts— I revisited a 2015 scenario in which gut flora reprogram the brain’s anger and image-recognition macros via the Vagus Nerve. People thus weaponized could be driven into a violent rage at the site of specific corporate logos; anyone working at a Bell Canada kiosk (in the original scenario) or wearing a Google t-shirt (in the story that ultimately resulted from it) would find themselves getting shit-kicked by complete strangers. Fearing for their lives, they would quit in droves; the CEOs standing on their backs would lose their balance; evil corporate empires would collapse for want of cheap labor. As Peter Watts fantasies go, it was one of my more heartwarming.


During the Q&A that followed, a friend in the audience reminded me that the violence I was so gleefully imagining would be directed against a bunch of overworked and underpaid grunts who were barely making a living under terrible working conditions. After all, how many of Amazon’s warehouse employees would be working there if they could find anything better? Was I a Utilitarian? Did I think it would be fair to inflict even more hardship on those already hard-done-by, in the name of the Greater Good?

Taking the question literally, the answer’s obvious: it wouldn’t be called “the greater good” if The Good was not, by definition, greater. That may not sit right in the gut, but then again the gut is an idiot: always opting for morality over ethics, for what feels good over what can be defended rationally. The gut doesn’t like Truth, as Stephen Colbert so eloquently put it; it prefers “Truthiness”.

Still. The question got me thinking out loud, right there on the spot; someone remarked on Twitter how entertaining it was to watch Peter Watts trying to work out, in real time, whether he wanted to see the world burn. Ultimately I reaffirmed that I only wanted to burn part of it, and that would only be to save the rest. But it had been an obvious question, easy to anticipate, not something I should have had to work out in real time. The answer should have been preloaded and ready to fire.

Now it is, and that answer begins with another question: what’s the current exchange rate between genocide and extinction? How many species, to pick an obvious example, would you be willing to wipe out in order to prevent the Nazi Holocaust?

Back in the forties, six million was about 0.24% of the global Human population. The Rwandan Genocide of the nineties took out a measly 0.01%. So the real question is, How many other entire species would you sacrifice to save a quarter of one percent— a hundredth of one percent— of this one?

You might immediately reject the very question, along with the calculation it demands.Which species? you might ask with equal parts derision and defensiveness. Are you asking if we’d let six million Jews die to save the coelacanths? The Florida panther? Smallpox? And even if I answered (Let’s make it simple— let’s say the species we’d be sacrificing all belong to the charismatic megafauna, species we would value— or at least not be actively hostile to— under normal circumstances) a lot of people would still reject the question because it’s just so stupid. It’s contrived, it’s artificial, nobody would ever have to make such a decision in Real Life and how do you hang a value on a “species” anyway?

Well, obviously the scenario is contrived and artificial. Realism is not a prerequisite for thought experiments. Platonic Caves and Trolley Scenarios exist not as NSERC research proposals, but to throw light on the nooks and crannies of the Human condition. The cranny illuminated by my Genocide/Extinction exchange rate is, paradoxically, clear in that last rhetorical question, delivered with eyes rolled, meant to highlight the absurdity of trying to hang a “value” on a species. It’s paradoxical because those asking it have, in all likelihood, already ascribed such a value.

That value is zero.

The very idea of weighing “animal” against “human” life is meaningless— nay, downright offensive— if your default position is that nonhuman life is valueless unless it serves our interests in some way. How dare you even imagine some, some conversion factor between Humans and muskrats; the very idea invites one down the road to a ridiculous scenario in which some arbitrary number of muskrats, obscenely, becomes more important than a Single Human Life. The very idea!

This, I would submit, is the position of many— even most— of our species. So let’s return to that poor bastard working for some bastion of ecocidal capitalism because they really need the job, and send them back in time to a more acceptable iteration of the same question:

Suppose the only job available was janitor at Auschwitz?

At least now we’re comparing the competing interests of Humans. No one’s going to deny that there are values worth considering on both sides of the equation. So: do you forgive the janitor because jobs are hard to come by? Do you give them a pass because they’re just a tiny cog, with no hand in the decisions of the monstrous machine in which they’re embedded? If some resistance fighter devises a plan to cripple that machine by damaging the cogs, do you object because the cogs have already suffered enough, and would much rather be working in a bakery?

I’m guessing a lot of people would say no— Just Following Orders never really cut it as a defense, after all. At the very least the lines would be a lot blurrier. And yet it still doesn’t sit right, does it? You remember my original question, and the analogy feels cheap, exploitive. Disrespectful to all those millions of (Human) victims across the generations. Amazon may be evil, but it’s not Nazi-level evil. Exxon-Mobil may have set back efforts to combat climate change by decades, but they didn’t set out to eradicate whole populations (not Human ones, anyway). Nike, Apple, Nestle— well, their business practices may cause deaths in sweatshops and totalitarian regimes and places where there’s not enough water to go around any more, but they’re not doing that out of ideological hatred; they’re just doing it for the money. That’s not as bad, somehow.

No one knows exactly how many species we’re wiping out. The estimates I’ve seen1 range from 70,000 to over 120,000 per year. At those scales you can be as flexy as you like with the details. Fossil-fuel capitalism has gotta be the prime driver behind a big chunk of that, but there’s lots left over for the commercial fishing industry (which, even a decade ago, had already wiped out an estimated 80-90% of the world’s commercial fisheries biomass). You might expect Amazon to be small spuds on the ecocidal front— it’s not like they directly strip-mine the oceans or finance tar-sands extraction— but their carbon footprint is the size of a small country’s, so it’s not unreasonable to lay at least some of those extinctions on Bezos’ doorstep (Amazon is, after all, the 4th-largest company on the planet in terms of market capitalization). A measly one percent, say: seven hundred to twelve hundred extinctions per year. Seven thousand to a hundred-twenty thousand per decade, more or less. Change your assumptions all you want, within reason. Make Corporation X twice as destructive, or half. Tweak the numbers; the orders of magnitude remain.

It’s Human Nature to prioritize our own interests over others’, a bias that comes standard in virtually every organism on the planet (consciously or otherwise). But if you’d allow the greater-good sacrifice of the Auschwitz janitor who played an infinitesimal role in the murder of 0.25% of one species— while also defending the Amazon employee who plays a commensurately small role in the wholesale extinction of thousands of them— well, you’re not just saying that Humans have more value. You’re saying, to all intents and purposes, that no other species has any. And that, fellow mammal, sails right out of mere bias and into the realm of outright pathology. The fact that it’s so ubiquitous throughout our society does not make it any less pathological.

Most people regard “dehumanizing” terminology as a bad thing.

These days, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a compliment.

1Excluding denialist numbers from the likes of Fox News and the Koch Brothers.

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