What if we gave the flies voting rights?

Published on 2024-03-13

[...] Sorta like how a really bad vegan argument (“we need to go into the jungle and stop all the spiders in there from eating flies! And the flies need voting rights!”) can make some people really crave a burger. Even though there are plenty of actual good arguments for sticking to plants on the plate.

"Denying the ML antecedent" (idiomdrottning.org)


[...] and the flies need voting rights!

I know this isn't the point; I do get the point and agree with it, but this got me thinking.

In particular, it reminded me of my favourite book to bring up in gemlog entries about nature: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer. Even more particularly, it reminded me of the chapter "Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide," where she makes the point:

If you took a biologically inclusive census of the people in this town, the maples would outnumber humans a hundred to one. In our Anishinaabe way, we count trees as people, “the standing people.” Even though the government only counts humans in our township, there’s no denying that we live in the nation of maples (p. 168)

Despite administering virtually everything on Earth and increasingly the vacuum of space, "human society" is governed by very few entities. It's barely governed by humans. And history seems to tell us that governments generally act in the interest of those who govern, if not only then mostly. We create problems of division by failing to represent those who we govern. We mend divisions by representing the previously unrepresentable--most importantly, allowing the unrepresentable to represent themselves.

That last idea is key. We've seen it play out with queer people. When we let popular media represent gay people, we get the image of an effeminate man dating a big, burly, masculine man. You know, like straight relationships. Previously revolutionary ideas become palatable; they cease to be revolutionary.

So what about the flies? They're pretty unrepresentable. Usually when human society has sought to extend representation to unrepresented entities, it hasn't been seriously unclear how to do it. Like, maybe some guys felt uncomfortable with the idea of letting women vote, but like, all they had to do in the end was just let women vote. Pretty straightforward. Flies, on the other hand... It's not entirely clear how they'd navigate the ballot box.

The problem isn't that flies are too stupid to participate in the governance of human society; human society isn't designed in such a way to allow for fly participation. I've talked about the social model of disability before; I'm really being liberal with my terms here but it's the same idea:

Autism in the social model of disability

In general, there are problems with letting flies and all their biogeochemical relatives be represented in human society. After all, human society does effectively administer the whole biosphere. Decisions are made without their consent--decisions that affect their livelihoods. And reciprocally, there are consequences for us too. Flies are an important part of the ecosystem. Without them... well I honestly don't really know what their role in the ecosystem is but I bet it's important. While ecosystems tend to be resilient to change, (capitalist) humans are machines that generate positive feedback loops, resulting in drastic consequences that are hard to predict.

I've explored the challenge of extending the idea of consent to non-human entities before:

Sand never asked to think

While I think the idea I had there might be politically useful in some situations, it's not necessarily all that pragmatic. It's hard to conceive of both a pragmatic and fair solution to the problem. I'm not sure if it's necessarily even possible for consent to exist in a relationship without a shared understanding of what consent is and how it's exchanged.

There are some half-solutions, though. Ideas that get us moving in the right direction.

One that comes to mind is adaptive management. Adaptive management is an empirical approach to managing the environment. It involves a cycle of evaluation and action, otherwise known as "fuck around and find out." First, you fuck around: test out a few different systems for managing a particular space or resource. Over time, you find out: measure how the environment responds to the changes introduced, compare them, and adaptively determine the way forward.

The problem, of course, is that this sounds a lot more like asking for forgiveness than asking for permission.

If the goal is to trade literally "receiving consent" for "doing what one's already established to want," a good place to start would be to seek knowledge from those who do indeed know what a particular ecosystem wants. This is why we stress the importance of indigenous knowledge: they've been doing this stuff for a while. They know. The classic and regionally relevant example for me being prescribed burns. Indigenous people living in so-called Canada have practiced prescribed burns to clean up forests, facilitate tree reproduction and prevent future, worse fires for as long as anyone can remember. Less so when the behaviour was punished by settlers. Now, slowly but surely, the Canadian forestry establishment is easing up on the subject of prescribed burns--of course, now that the boreal forests are all chocked full of highly flammable debris.

There are indeed ways to make sure our ecological neighbours are represented in our decisions, it just takes work, and the humility to learn.

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