“I think it (hunting) always was abnormal behavior. It was the fullest expression of the commodification of nature.” — John Livingston (1923-2006)
This column is a resource for people interested in rescuing wildlife as our brothers and sisters — and in the living earth surviving intact for its own sake. It is a challenge to conservationists. Today it focuses on the wisdom of John A. Livingston.
Livingston, who died in 2006, served as executive director of Canadian Audubon in the 1950s, left to produce “The Nature of Things” for CBC television in 1962-1968, then taught ecology at York University. This column consists primarily of excerpts from Farley Mowat’s 1990 interview with Livingston, which is included in “The John A. Livingston Reader,” published in 2007. The reader also includes “The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation,” originally published in 1981, and “One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance,” first published in 1973.
Mowat died in 2014 at the age of 92. He is described in an obituary as a Canadian environmentalist who wrote 45 books, selling 17 million copies. Most famous was his 1963 book “Never Cry Wolf” about flying into the Arctic as a biologist on a solo mission to study wolves. “He portrayed wolves as patient and gentle with their own, sometimes even fond of practical jokes. They adopted orphan puppies and babysat for other wolves’ pups. They never killed more than they could eat.” He named one wolf father George. “George,” he added, “was the kind of father every son longs to acknowledge as his own.”
In the 1990 interview, first published in Mowat’s book “Rescue the Earth: Conversations with Green Crusaders,” Livingston describes why he is decidedly not a conservationist: “In practice, conservation is now resource development … only defined in terms of human utility — in effect saying that everything was created by an almighty beneficence for human use.”
Mowat: “In other words, the original meaning of conservation has been perverted to mean exploitation of nature for human gain?”
Livingston: “Maximum economic return is what the word has come to mean. … It is the antithesis of preservation. … Preservationists are not to be taken seriously because they don’t share in the ethos of the necessary primacy of human enterprise.”
Livingston describes how the core self-centered human insistence on separation from, and being superior to, nature and other beings pertains even to human-caused destruction of life on earth: “Our birds, our endangered species, our woodlands, our swamplands are disappearing. Our natural heritage — I despise that attitude. Nobody in the respectable conservation movement is talking about nature for her own sake. Only individuals like you and me are weeping solitarily for nature for her sake.”
“Why don’t naturalist groups, especially, have the guts to stand up and take a position against sport hunting and fashion fur? That would be too emotional. Can’t do that because we have to play ball with the bureaucrats. That’s the part that hurts more than anything else, that organizations begun by people with a deep abiding love of nature are becoming indistinguishable from the conservation bureaucracy itself. The only movement left that is speaking from the heart is the animal welfare movement.”
When Mowat asks him about sport hunting, Livingston replies, “I can’t get around the idea of people getting their jollies by maiming and wounding and killing. Hunters deny they do this, of course. … People have written whole books about hunters communing with nature. They say a mystical experience is derived from this blood-letting, which I simply cannot understand. … They say we evolved as predators. I deny this. We evolved as gatherers with a little bit of hunting on the side. The hunting instinct is no more ingrained in us than any other aberrant behavior.”
Those of us standing for respect for all life endure the constant violence to other living beings as a persistent deadening of our quality of existence. We suffer with our wildlife, suffer with the farm animals on the path to violent slaughterhouses, suffer with the lab animals tortured because of outdated useless experiments that do not predict or promote human health. We do not want this suffering to continue to be “normal.”
Livingston and Mowat discuss this profound sorrow:
Livingston: “It’s aberrant behavior for people to be wearing the furs of living beings for ostentation, for status symbols, as prestige goods.”
Mowat: “Like having lampshades made out of tattooed human skin?”
Livingston: “I don’t think it’s essentially any different. Can you imagine this sort of thing happening in nature? It is anomalous behavior from the top down. I see it as anti-social in a fundamental way because I firmly believe in inter-species social organization. I am absolutely convinced that inter-species relationships are the ultimate relationships. We start with individual selfishness, then our relationships sphere begins to expand. There’s mother; there’s family; there’s the tribal self, and that eventually transcends to the inter-species self. At that stage, the essence of feeling one has for nature is selflessness. The individual self dissolves in the overall relationship.”
Consider this: “Inter-species relationships are the ultimate relationships.” Merging with nature and empathy with animals, wildlife and all that is becomes bliss. In spiritual tradition, this is the essence of enlightenment.
A 1988 Livingston talk, “Cultural and historical perspectives on nature,” can be found on YouTube.
Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, and others have introduced bills to go around the Endangered Species Act and strip federal protection from Great Lakes and Wyoming wolves. Wisconsin Congressmen Sean Duffy, Glenn Grothman, Ron Kind, Paul Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner have signed onto Ribble’s bill. Please contact all Wisconsin members of Congress and ask them to say no to this legislation neutering the Endangered Species Act. Also please sign and network this petition to save wolves.