Lori Gruen – The Road to Respectful Coexistence
And so the existential question is faced: what do we value, what will we save, whom shall we care about? Humans are, as Marc Bekoff memorably puts it, “a big-brained, big-footed, over-producing, over-consuming, invasive and arrogant lot.” But we also possess the capacity to curb our natural instinct to kill and eat anything we can get our hands on, and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. Compassion is not unique to humans, but the ability to make a reasoned, abstract argument for it is (as far as we know); you wouldn’t try to convince an elephant not to tear up a farmer’s livelihood, but conservationists do request that we forego the use of elephant ivory, and millions comply, even if the ban is still not universal. Even as more and more animals are being slaughtered for meat, vegan and vegetarian lifestyles are spreading among the educated middle classes of the developed world. “Deep ethology – studies of animals that take us not only into their minds but also their hearts, is a beginning as we expand our compassion footprint,” Bekoff writes. “Guiding principles would be (1) do no intentional harm, (2) respect all life, (3) treat all individuals with respect and dignity, and (4) tread lightly when stepping into the lives of other animals.”
It is the bias of Western, technocratic civilization that makes this seem such a radical agenda. It is not at all alien to some other philosophic traditions, including strains of Buddhism and Jainism. And it is not necessarily a greater leap than the West took 200 years ago when it began extending rights from white Christian men to all the other categories of humans on the planet. The supremacy of human beings over the rest of creation should be no more obvious to us today than the right of Europeans to enslave Africans . What Lori Gruen calls entangled empathy – “a precognitive, empathetic reaction to the interests of another” – comes naturally to children. “I have often been struck,” she writes, by “the empathetic response young children have to eating meat when they learn that meat comes from dead animals. In contexts in which concern for animals is encouraged, apparently children resist eating animals and have to be taught that it is acceptable to do so.”
What will save us goes beyond any of the simple steps that have been proposed or are being implemented by well-intentioned people around the globe. Giving up raising and killing animals for meat, ending all (or all but the most essential and benign) medical research on animals, freeing captive marine mammals, preserving natural habitats – all are a part of a broader approach that Annette Lanjouw calls “respectful coexistence.” This entails a recognition that “in an ecosystem, no one species is more important than another, irrespective of its sentience, emotional appeal, or order of classification.” It requires rethinking our approach to the environment, which is often based – even on the part of environmentalists – on preserving ecosystem “services” such as clean air, water, scenic views or recreation. While those are important on their own terms, and politically useful arguments in policy debates, our long-range well-being, physically as well as morally, depends on overcoming our pride in standing apart from nature and above all other animals. Jon Stryker, who founded the Arcus Foundation to advance equality among humans and between species, writes in his Afterword: “Racism, xenophobia, genocide and the abuse and torture of other species for our use and consumption are manifestations of our ability to keep an emotional and cognitive distance” from them. “We separate ourselves from the need to feel empathy or to take moral and ethical responsibility for the consequences of our actions.”
We will have to reconsider, too, the way we have structured our civilization and economy. The main cause of species loss is destruction of habitats to feed the desires of the growing global urban middle class. It has been estimated that up to half of all species may go extinct due to human activity within the next 50 years. We cannot make a meaningful dent in that statistic by focusing on one species at a time. It requires changing our whole approach to the natural world – to step outside our anthropocentric frame and value animals on their own terms, regardless of how interesting, useful, intelligent or like us they may be. Turning back that tide of development is a daunting task, but at the same time one must acknowledge the aspirations of poor people and nations, and help them find a path to development that doesn’t involve exploiting and despoiling their natural resources. Our relationship to nature should be one of awe, not of use, Bekoff says. We must tap into our moral inclinations to make the world a better place for all beings – ourselves included.