Saturday, July 28, 2007

The pet economy & biophilia

I could barely believe parts of this story. According to this week's Business Week Americans spend $41 billion on their pets which is more than the GDP of all but 64 countries. This is mainly spent on 88 million cats and 75 million dogs. Pets increasingly substitute for human companionship – 42% of dogs now sleep on the same bed as their owners.

The issue of whether things are getting out of hand is firmly resolved by the existence of Neuticles, ‘ a patented testicular implant that sells for up to $919 a pair. The idea, says inventor Gregg A. Miller, is to "let people restore their pets to anatomical preciseness" after neutering, thereby allowing them to retain their natural look and self-esteem. ... "Neutering is creepy. But with Neuticles, it's like nothing has changed." Nothing, except there's a fake body part where a real one used to be.

I don’t have data on the Australian expenditures (I'd be interested if anyone has any!) but notice that nearly a whole isle of most modern supermarkets is taken up with animal feeds and a high proportion of Australian households have that 'wet doggie' odor in their living rooms.

My personal preference is to scrap the high opportunity cost of maintaining enormous cat, dog and caged bird populations and invest the lot in restoring and conserving native biodiversity.

We need non-human life and nature for our survival as a species and to make our lives more pleasant, attractive and interesting. Some have even conjectured that being surrounded by nature improves human genetic fitness.

Edward Wilson advanced the biophilia hypothesis that humans have an ‘innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”. There is seen to be a human dependence or need for nature that extends far beyond needs for material sustenance to encompass, as well, human cravings for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual meaning and sustenance. Biophilia is seen to be:

  • Biologically-based and inherent. Evolution has produced genetically based responses to biological and other environmental phenomena.
  • Associated with long-term human competitive advantage, genetic fitness.
  • Associated with current possibilities for enhancing personal achievement.
  • A self-interested basis for conservation of biodiversity.
These ideas are difficult-to-test and suggest biophilia might be an attempt to ‘promote a romantic idealization of nature’ (Kellert & Wilson (1997)). In this sense biophilia might be a reaction to anxieties generated by technological and political change. As a rationale for conservation and respect for nature, biophilia is essentially utilitarian.

This general demand for nature might in part explain the specific demand for pets - its biophilia accompanied by the need to live in large cities where nature is almost eliminated.

Kellert & Wilson examine theoretical and empirical evidence to support biophilia. They portray biophilia as a set of learning rules that fall along various instinctive spectra from attraction to aversion (biophobia), from awe to indifference but that are driven by millions of years of evolutionary logic. For example, the constant exposure through evolutionary time to the malign influence of snakes results in an aversion to but fascination with snakes. Wilson suggests we do not need to rely on Freudian theory to account for this fascination. Large numbers of such influences combine to help establish human identity and personal fulfillment.

There is some experimental, and other, evidence supporting this view. Some of this evidence relates to the way we learn to be averse or to favor certain natural experiences (animal or landscape). Further evidence includes the large demands for ‘pets’ in industrial societies as discussed.

Habitat selection can be understood as a biophilic response. It answers the question what is a ‘good place’? This can be reflected in landscape aesthetics and experimentally through the effects of natural settings (or paintings of such or aquaria) in reducing stress and even improving health and creativity.

There is even evidence that positive attitudes to nature indicate lack of conduct disorders in children. Certainly children seem to learn much about the world through species recognition. Thus the principal nouns of interest to small children are body parts and animals.

Adults see animals as important symbols: the honeybee (‘wisdom and sensitivity’), the pig (‘lustful and lazy’) and the bat (‘denizens of the underworld’). This is important because information is processed by means of symbols.

Evidence on the behaviour of hunters is also relevant since, as anthropologists point out, for most of human history humans have been hunter gathers. This evidence suggests both intense knowledge and respect for nature as a whole coupled with a (sometimes) savage utilitarianism.

All of these types of values might need to be accounted for in valuing the potential destruction of nature. There seems however to be no evidence that responding positively to nature has a partly genetic basis.

I get positive benefits from enjoying living in natural surroundings and observing nature. The benefits are amplified if occasionally I can do this alone - I find my own company wonderful at times - where I can, without inhibition, allow my curiosity to roam. I don’t want or need dogs, cats or caged birds to be my 'friends' or to get a sense of nature and/or a biophilia blast.

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