Each April our 75 mother ewes have an average of two babies each. A few have singles. A few have triplets. Most have twins. Voila, in about two weeks our flock goes from 75 animals to 225. Suddenly two thirds of the creatures in the pasture are brand new, shiny clean and full of mischief. 

Through the spring and summer months the grass grows abundantly and the lambs grow large. By the time December arrives and the green grass is going dormant, we need to have killed or sold about 150 sheep. 

If we don’t redistribute two-thirds of our flock every year, in one winter they would overgraze all our property and damage the pastures to a degree that could take a decade to repair.

One year a summer drought stunted the grass and we were on the verge of overgrazing in August. We fenced the end of our driveway and let the sheep and goats into the yard where we keep about four acres of lawn, shrubs and native landscaping. That got us through the drought but then we had to replace all our flowers and shrubs. Our six goats demonstrated how to erase years of human horticultural ambition in a half-hour. 

If we overgraze the pastures, the only practical way to repair them is several years of re-seeding and rest.

None of this is the animals’ fault, of course. They evolved in a natural system designed for their fecundity. Wild sheep have lots of babies, too, and wild predators reduce their numbers. Wild grazing animals travel great distances to find food. Our agricultural system is a geographically focused variation on the natural system. In our system, we are responsible for maintaining a stable food supply for the animals. And here, we are the main predators.

When humans “overgraze” our planet, that’s a product of the same fundamental energy that triples the size of our flock every spring. We reproduce. We fight for our survival. We seek comfort. We consume, we reproduce, and so on.

We’ve been living in ways that our nature dictated – expanding and innovating. 

Unfortunately, nearly every major symptom of deterioration in our natural world can now be scientifically traced to human expansion. Species loss, deforestation, declines in animal populations, soil erosion, acidification of the oceans, climate change and pollution all track back, in not-very-complicated ways, to human activity. 

Of course there’s a lot of debate about climate change. If you like, we can set the climate issue aside. We’re still damaging habitat, extinguishing species and acidifying the water and atmosphere at alarming, accelerating rates. 

I know a lot of people feel skeptical about whether our environmental problems are humanity’s fault. But the basic biological facts are pretty hard to dispute: No species can double its population every three generations without running into a habitat problem pretty quickly.

To preserve the health and prosperity of our grandchildren’s generation may require the courage to acknowledge that human activities have environmental consequences and that our hyperactive lifestyles and rapid expansion turn those consequences into potential catastrophes.

That acknowledgement requires courage, because the solutions to those problems will include various forms of sacrifice.

We’ve doubled our population in less than one lifetime. We are the definition, ecologically, of an “outbreak” species whose rapid expansion foreshadows a catastrophic collapse of its numbers. 

Some of my friends shrug and say “Nature will take care of this,” or “God will take care of this.” They are, undeniably, correct. Eventually nature or God will apply the natural antidote. That antidote will, most likely, be extremely unpleasant for some future generation of people. We know nature’s tools for preventing overpopulation: viral pandemics; weather fluctuations that inhibit food production; explosions of waterborne pathogens that spread diseases like cholera and dysentery. 

And of course there’s always the possibility of a spasm of intercultural violence and war as we struggle over shortages of resources. 

“Human nature” may be the root of the problem, but human nature also offers us an alternative. We could take stock of our situation and, rationally, restrain our expansion and consumption. We could consciously create and maintain surpluses – surplus land, surplus food, surplus water – to accommodate a crisis. We could share resources more equitably, to ease economic and intercultural tension. We could joyfully and enthusiastically address the situation.

We could do these things. We know how. And we’re naturally gifted in solving this kind of problem.

It’s popular to take a negative view of human nature, these days. Human beings do some shitty things. The media are full of evidence for the prosecution. But the evidence is circumstantial and not conclusive.  

Cynicism relieves us of all sorts of responsibilities. Idealism may ask us to make sacrifices. But sacrifice is a proven, fundamental aspect of human behavior. It’s adaptive. It’s good for survival. It serves the social bonds that support strong, successful social species like us.

Recent science has affirmed that empathy, kindness and compassion are innate elements of human nature that have been critical to our prosperity and survival. We have depended, since before we were human, on the support of our families, clans and tribes. Ancient humans didn’t survive very long alone without the protection and support of a cohort. Empathy, compassion and sacrifice are basic building blocks of our social groupings. 

Of course our instinct to sacrifice for our family is not unique. Coyotes, chimpanzees and lions do the same. Many social animals will share food with their families, even when threatened with starvation. Parents risk their lives protecting their offspring all over the animal world. 

However we are unique in our capacity to make sacrifices outside our immediate society, for others to whom we are connected only in abstract ways. 

As of this writing the World Bank estimates that there are about 27 million active, full-time members of military organizations worldwide. If we include militias and part-time military, the total number of people presently consigning their lives to some higher ideal – defense, patriotism, freedom, etc. – is about 84 million people.

That’s 84 million people, mostly in the primes of their lives, who have made a legal commitment to risk serious injury and death in defense of people they have never met and ideals they may only barely comprehend.

In 2018 Rand Corporation published two reports for the US Army describing what it called, “arguably… the single most important factor in war,” the Will to Fight. The reports contend that military leaders often underestimate the enemy’s will, with tragic consequences. They offer famous examples like the Red Army’s persistent and successful defense of Moscow in 1941 during World War II; the successful resistance of Vietnamese forces across 20 years of war against the French and then the American militaries; and the fruitless military occupations of Afghanistan by Russian and then American forces stretching across 40 years in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The “Will to Fight” reports might more accurately have been titled, “The Will to Sacrifice.” What sets soldiers apart from the rest of us is not their capacity for fighting or violence, which God knows we all possess, but their willingness to knowingly place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of an ideal. 

The materiality of that ideal seems to be an important variable. The Rand studies’ examples – the Russians, the Vietnamese and the Afghan Taliban – all fought at their own doorsteps against a foreign military. They were literally defending their families and their homes. Their surrender would have meant exposing their wives, parents and children to hostile forces directly.

Nearly every soldier is formally committed to be willing to risk his or her life for the sake of the greater good. But the degree of risk different soldiers are willing to face before their will falters appears to vary. All soldiers face sacrifice. But some are willing to sacrifice a lot more than others. Or they may not experience the threat to their lives as a sacrifice if it is necessary to protect something or some people they care about.

In the political vernacular “soldier” is often used interchangeably with “hero”. That seems right.

In the United States’ controversial War in Vietnam about 25 percent of soldiers were drafted conscripts who served involuntarily. They didn’t want to serve, but they did so when their government demanded it. Remarkably, 32 draftees won medals of honor for their heroic acts, 12 percent of the 261 Medals of Honor from that war. Considering the disproportionate number of those honors that are granted to officers (who are almost never draftees) it seems conscripts were about as likely as volunteers to perform extraordinary acts of heroic sacrifice in Vietnam. 

The Medal of Honor is the highest citation granted in the US armed forces and is reserved for soldiers who risk their lives for others, “above and beyond the call of duty.” In Vietnam, examples of recipients included (more or less randomly chosen):

  • Army Private John Barnes who died saving his fellow soldiers by throwing his body onto a grenade as it exploded.
  • Conscientious objector Thomas Bennett who refused to fight but volunteered to serve as a medic on the front lines and died there after saving numerous lives.
  • Army Private Clarence Sasser who risked his own life to save several wounded soldiers and although severely wounded himself continued treating their wounds for five hours until they were rescued.
  • Army Private Carlos Lozada who stayed behind to provide covering fire at the cost of his own life during a withdrawal of his fellow troops.

I have no direct personal experience of this kind of heroism. I joined the pacifist Quakers in 1976, in part to avoid the possibility of being drafted into the military. I had, and have, a moral and religious objection to fighting for the military. But the fact that  I was frightened by the physical violence, the bloodshed and the prospect of losing my young life was, as best as I can remember, at least as compelling as my morality or my religion.

Nevertheless I have always admired the commitment of those who do serve, especially those who do so for a moral conviction about the rightness of protecting one’s country and its principles. 

It seems remarkably easy to get young people around the world to risk their lives, pick up the tools of violent aggression, and to convince their families to support their sacrifice. It feels natural, I suppose, to protect our clans, tribes and nations in that way.

Which begs the question: If we’re willing to sacrifice our lives and the lives of our children, routinely, to secure our future against “foreign aggression,” what would we sacrifice to secure our children’s future against environmental catastrophe and famine?

3 thoughts on “Sacrifice

  1. This is such a powerful article, Bryan. Having grown up on a farm here in Canada, I am very familiar with the overgrazing scenario. We were cream producers, and dad would move his herd to another field when the grass was at the limit of grazing.

    What an incredible analogy of the sheep pasture to humans and how we are “overgrazing” our planet until it is no longer sustainable. The words “hyperactive lifestyles” really jumped out at me. The pace of life and consumerism has grown so exponentially in my lifetime.

    Thank you so much for sharing! 🌎

    Liked by 1 person

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