Well-Manicured Wastelands

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers doesn’t just want cut your grass—he wants to tear it out by the roots and leave it to rot in the sun. He quotes J. Crumpler on The Roaming Ecologist, who calls lawns “sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments […] that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.” To make matters worse, lawnmower use adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while beautiful bermuda grass requires a lot of H2O in a world that is increasingly insecure about water. During the depths of California’s drought—which has seen some relief from El Niño this year—many residents took a hard look at their lawns. On Significant Figures, Mathew Heberger writes, “many Californians could reduce their outdoor water use by 70% or more by landscaping with low water-use plants.” It’s not as if the alternative is a dirt patch in front of your house; there are a wide variety of plants you can grow with nutritional, ecological, and aesthetic value, that will be less of a middle finger to the planet.

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Zootopia: Unscientific, Racist Family Fun

Would it surprise you to learn that the top movie at the North American box office, a computer-animated family film made for children, is a nakedly racist allegory, a celebration of the urban police state, and an insult to the entire animal kingdom and the natural world at large?

The premise of Zootopia is simple: a country bunny named Judy (yes, she’s a rabbit) leaves her parents and her hundreds of siblings behind for a life in the big city. The difference between rural and urban living is the first ugly dichotomy the film establishes: farming carrots with your family is framed as a dead-end for losers, while going to the Big Apple to “follow your dreams” is a heroic aspiration. And what does our sweet, fluffy, young dreamer aspire to be? A cop, of course.

Rabbits aren’t the only critters anthropomorphized in the film; most mammals make an appearance playing various social roles. The different species serve as a proxy for old American clichés about race. When Judy is still a schoolchild, there is that one fox kid in town who always harasses her. Worried about the bigger population of foxes in the city, Judy’s parents offer her some pepper spray to ward off potential attackers. They acknowledge that they shouldn’t be afraid of foxes anymore; in this world, predator species no longer eat prey species; they have been properly assimilated (or whatever) so that all species can coexist in harmony. But it’s obvious that despite their lip service, the rabbits are still very afraid of foxes, and Judy takes the spray.

If you pay attention to this scene, it’s clear that the script is joking about rural white people fearing urban black people under the guise of rabbits fearing foxes. Although there are almost no foxes (or other predators) living in the country, we’re told that there are more in the city—but they’re still minorities, making up only 10% of Zootopia’s population. The fact that Judy ends up partnered with a fox (and overcoming her prejudice against foxes by working with him) only proves that the narrative foundation of Zootopia is a black-and-white buddy cop movie, regurgitating outdated stereotypes with a wink to the grown-ups, coating everything in sugar and candy colors for the kids. While the fox (a street hustler) is voiced by the whitest dude in Hollywood, and the film plays on racial jokes outside of a strict rabbit/fox dichotomy (you should never touch a sheep’s wool without asking!), Zootopia still depends on a basic, deeply problematic association: herbivores are like white people, and predators are like racial minorities.

Even worse: once Judy gets to the city, she discovers that some predators have mysteriously reverted to their “savage” ways (a word the film uses repeatedly), becoming mindless, snarling killing machines who are a menace to public safety. So, um, what the fuck is going on here, Disney? You can’t tell me this is really a story about socioeconomic differences or psychological types when the characters know who has the potential for violence (and who doesn’t) based solely on physical attributes. You can’t tell me this film isn’t really about race just because it also portrays bankers as lemmings, or DMV workers as sloths, or the Corleones from The Godfather as shrews.

Aside from the fact that Zootopia is racist, it’s also a massive disservice to the truth about biodiversity, evolution, and the natural world at large. Species that humans are driving to extinction for sport, meat, and money are depicted in the movie as happy, multicultural city dwellers. Not surprisingly, we never see an animal in this movie eat lunch, presumably because even the lions are vegan and dependent on the carrot crop from the rubes upstate. In the real world, if a lion doesn’t eat meat, it starves to death (unless a dentist shoots it first). In the real world, sloths are one of the coolest mammals around, and they move so slowly because their metabolism runs on tree leaves. In the real world, most humans eat cows, chickens, and/or pigs, which is probably why there aren’t any farm animals shown in this movie. Only zoo animals can live together in harmony, and we’ll pretend they’re like human beings in a city. But would you want to live in a zoo?

Yes it’s a kids’ movie, and it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, but no child will learn anything from Zootopia except that urban living is morally superior, the police state is the highest ideal, and even if your neighbors look different from you and they used to be savages, it’s OK because they’ve changed their ways—unless they’re on drugs (spoiler alert!), in which case they go violently insane. Devin Faraci, writing a more in-depth review of the movie’s racial messaging, describes what happens when the predators are drugged: “they no longer walk on two legs, they lose their intelligence and they start trying to kill tiny fluffy little prey animals. Believe it or not this is all an allegory for the crack epidemic.” Super predators, anyone?

But as usual, our hero can fix everything. Judy, despite being so situated in the mainstream, also defies stereotypes in the role of a minority, as the first little bunny on the police force. Her barrier-breaking is really coded feminism, which is fine, but it only detracts from the dilemma of predators living amongst herbivores, and the mixed metaphors lose their meaning. But make no mistake: Judy is the hero of the film, she’s a female hero, and she’s a white hero.

Ultimately, this movie is either saying: different animal species are like different groups of humans, they just need to get along. Or it’s saying different groups of humans are like different animal species, they have intrinsically different biology. Neither of these analogies is true (or acceptable for children). I hope this isn’t news to anyone, but unlike different species with different biochemical needs, people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds are actually all the same.

Yet according to Rotten Tomatoes, “the brilliantly well-rounded Zootopia offers a thoughtful, inclusive message that’s as rich and timely as its sumptuously state-of-the-art animation.”

[Update 11/21/2016: they should have named this film Dystopizoo.]

…And the Eagle Flies with the Dove

You can almost hear the sound of PZ Myers’ palm hitting his face as “a couple of vegetarian philosophers with no knowledge of biology” urge humanity to end predation worldwide—so that no more zebras have to suffer at the fangs of a lion, and no more mice at the talons of an owl. Their plea on behalf of prey species, inspired by the model culling of Cecil the lion, calls carnivory simply ‘unnecessary;’ PZ writes, “it’s as if they are completely unaware of the fact that predation maintains and increases biodiversity, or that there’s more to wildlife than mammals and birds, or that life is a complex web of interactions — that bears killing salmon is a critical source of phosphorus for trees.” PZ follows up on the debate by responding to a related essay that cites “Isaiah’s gifts as a prophet” in the Bible; i.e. visions of the leopard and the goat laying together, the wolf and the lamb becoming BFF, etc. As PZ writes, “humans have been busily pauperizing biodiversity in various habitats for a long time” and to continue that trend by targeting predators is the opposite of an moral stand. On the contrary, it would be another misguided step in our long, bloody crusade to anthropomorphize the natural world.

See also: The Value of Biodiversity on Aardvarchaeology

Don’t Teach Your Young to Attack the Planet

Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist.

Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for primates, for humanity.  The tyrannosaurus-less world we awoke to find ourselves on had regained an incredible array of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial diversity, exploiting and even seeming to celebrate every ecological niche on the planet.  Our ancestors, a small population of soft, slow-moving meatbags, lifted their hands from the ground and set about smashing, shaping, shooting, burning, cutting and eating their way to the top.  Although human tribes spread to inhabit every continent except Antarctica, the limits of the world remained unknown, no less to tribal cultures than to pre-Columbian Europe.  There was always the promise of more land, more meat, and more resources for the taking—perhaps not within easy reach, but somewhere near the horizon.

Even after Europe discovered the “new” world, attitudes of conquest and dominion were rarely given second thought.  Manifest destiny drove United States citizens from sea to shining sea, eradicating all kinds of biodiversity along the way.  We not only disregarded the finity of plants and animals, but of a remarkably diverse race of peoples who lived in equilibrium with a world they recognized as precious. But after the West was won, the global balance of power shifted very quickly.  Industry, technology, and medicine led to unprecedented health and fecundity.  Global population exploded exponentially.  There was nowhere left to go.

Now it is humanity that strives toward limitlessness while the world seems to dwindle, inexorably, under our feet.  Like a dark cloud of volcanic ash circling the globe, we stifle and kill species on a massive scale in not much less sudden a fashion.  Even when we keep our hands clean, we contribute to global warming, pollution, and deforestation just by maintaining a modern lifestyle.  We are a mass extinction event, and we are still unfolding.

But as we know, mass extinctions are not the end of the world, and on the contrary, they offer new beginnings for life on Earth.  Whether humanity remains a part of that life remains to be seen.  Complex, intelligent life has evolved from rudimentary beginnings before and can do so again.  And as one of the largest biomasses on the planet, humanity could speciate in the wake of ecological collapse and fragmentation.  How we evolve could surpass our wildest dreams.

But I like being human, and I consider our world a beautiful place, one worth savoring and not throwing away.  Unlike any natural disaster we have the gift of agency and choice, of intelligence, foresight, and decision.  We are coming to terms with a small world that is getting smaller, and we will surely react and adapt to this knowledge as best we can.  But no outcome is inevitable.  All action and inaction will have an impact.  If we want to remain who we believe ourselves to be, we must choose to respect life, to value and foster diversity, to just take it easy once in a while, to control our primal appetites, and to change our very nature.  Only by choosing to change, rather than having to change, can we truly stay human.