For a few weeks this summer, I was combatting a pest infection in my apartment. A particularly insidious species of beetle had invaded my flat during the summer and I came home to find its larvae happily rummaging through my woolen sweaters with their teeth. To save my wardrobe, I had to spend hours and hours vacuuming the little bastards out of my clothes, noise-cancelling headphones on to keep the noise, as I put it to my friends, from making me kill someone.
It was hot work, and almost certainly futile, constantly aware that any single beetle missed, any egg unsuctioned would mean having to do the whole thing over again.
You get to do a lot of thinking while doing work like that. One never thinks through, for instance, the fact that clothes have twice the surface area one first thinks they do: they have the same area on the inside that they do on the outside. Both need vacuuming.
But the thing I confess was most on my mind — besides the rather interesting Human Rights History course from Berkeley which I was listening to — was the morality of my actions. Note the phrase I used above: keeping the noise from making me kill someone. The fact is, that I was killing someone. That was the whole point of what I was doing. In the course of my work I killed several hundred rather complex creatures at various stages of their life cycles, from egg, to larva, pupa and imago. I didn’t enjoy it.
In fact, that’s putting it rather too lightly. I have always found killing or even bothering animals to be repugnant. I never smack flies, and only rarely mosquitoes. I find shooing birds away bothersome, i go to extraordinary lengths to get even wasps, ants and the most grotesquely large spiders safely out the window (glass as trap, paper slipped under the edge). Activities like fishing or hunting, so central to the entirety of human culture and the life of biologically modern man, is alien to me, and I have not done either for many years now. Staring into the lifeless eyes of a recently living fish or deer makes me anguished, haunts my dreams. I can still feel the sense of profound, suddenly irreversible moral wrong after the first time I snapped the neck of a fish, watched the last attempted breaths, the gasping motions of the mouth and felt like a murderer.
Is it squeamishness that keeps me from being able to kill? Maybe so, I certainly seem to be more sensitive to the suffering of other creatures than many people around me. But just as much, I think, my discomfort is about the instrumentalism of it. The fact that I am dealing out death, creating enormous suffering, pain and fear, for reasons entirely having to do with discomfort, inconvenience. I could easily coexist with the pests for a time at least, but I choose (obviously) to kill them, instead. These little things are synanthropes, creatures which thrive (“unnaturally”, so to speak) on living near human environments. They love to eat our hair and dead skin, and our clothes. And they are spreading from their original habitats now, apparently, because of (anthropogenic) climate change.
So I choose to kill, despite my moral qualms about it. I also choose to still eat meat, despite my profound moral discomfort and indeed anguish at the state of factory farming. I have come to think that perhaps this makes me even more wrong. I am aware that what I am doing is wrong, and I still do it — despite the knowledge. Surely that’s worse than just not being aware? Like the slave-owning founding father Thomas Jefferson, who managed to keep owning slaves despite knowing it was morally wrong (and, even more repulsively, while being the person writing “we hold these truths to be self-evident …” before heading home to his slavehold).
There is still something deeply unsettled and unsettling about my relationship to the suffering and death of animals which I will need to explore further. I suspect that more regular vegetarianism is a thing which is very much in my steadily nearer future. But killing pests and swatting the occasional mosquito seems to not be an option that seems viable in the long run. I suspect that some of the moral qualifications for this is that simply being alive means causing much death. This seems true for nearly all species. Our very bodies are veritable war zones of microfauna killing each other. We are battlegrounds, mobile slaughterhouses. There is no pure place to stand.
This perspective, and indeed all of the thoughts in this post, were driven home to me today reading this excellent and very readable essay on killing animals by the philosopher Steven Cave. He seems to find an interesting middle ground which seems close to the one I occupy, and he has given the matter thought.
Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it.
At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time – some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death.
The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, I must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write – sometimes about complex subjects – it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create.
Thus it seems to me quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe. To entertain such contradictions is always uncomfortable, but in this case the dissonance echoes far and wide, bouncing off countless other decisions about what to buy, what to eat – what to kill; highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.
Is reducing the amount of suffering we cause a major goal for living a good life? Increasingly, reducing suffering and having empathy with it seem key to me to being a good person, to being who I want to be. But finding a mediation between that and a functioning everyday life is the task I feel squeamish about undertaking. That and stepping on beetles.
And, of course, coming back from a few days out of town this Saturday, we found the little bastards running the show in our bedroom again. Fewer than last time, but enough that the circle of killing and eradicating can, must, start all over again. I grit my teeth and prepare for the slaughter, and turning the hoover on, it short-circuits, smoke billowing from under the hood, like a car at the side of a highway. Lives saved, tens of them, while I, who was just so fiddly about dealing death, swear and damn and curse their existence.
And now a beautiful unicorn chaser. Starling murmurations are pretty much the most beautiful thing I know of (and also an orgy of death):