Toward a Humane Environmentalism

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To many environmentalists, animals are judged worthy of activism on their behalf in relation to how useful they are to humans or how many members of their species exist. There is no objection to taking the lives of animals such as crows, raccoons, or rats, species that are plentiful or have no material value to humans. Yet if there are limited numbers of a species humans have traditionally exploited, or if a species is threatened with extinction, environmentalists advocate that we adjust behaviors negatively impacting their numbers. For instance, some non-profit organizations have mounted campaigns encouraging the public to eat only fish caught in accordance with their “sustainability” standards. These organizations are seeking to ensure the continuation of certain species not because they believe individual fish deserve our respect but because some species, those which historically have been exploited as food, are being pushed to the brink of extinction by what they call “overfishing.” Ultimately what they want are limitations on how many animals of certain species can be killed. Killing is acceptable so long as it falls within certain parameters. In other words, they want to make sure we don’t kill all the fish so that there will be some left to kill indefinitely. That is the essence of the environmental philosophy which predominates today, but is this really what “environmentalism” should be?

Such a philosophy makes some fundamentally flawed assumptions. It takes for granted that “sustainability” is consistent with the respectful, ethical relationship between humans and the planet, including its other inhabitants, to which we should be aspiring. It perpetuates the harmful idea that we should view animals as resources, their value determined by expediency and our material gain, rather than as individuals with an intrinsic right to exist independent of their usefulness to humans.

As such, modern environmentalism has more in common with the industries they blame for environmental problems than its proponents care to admit. And, unlike other social movements, it lacks a moral center of gravity from which its tenets and advocacy are derived. It has yet to evolve into what it should be: a rights-based philosophy, one that seeks unequivocal protection for the earth’s non-human inhabitants not only because they have an inalienable right to such but also because a truly respectful, harmonious relationship with them and with the environment of which they are a part is simply not possible so long as we continue to kill them. Vegans prove that there is a kinder, gentler way for humans to meet their needs, one that does not rely on exploiting our fellow creatures or the plundering of the Earth that comes with it.

The environmental movement must move beyond campaigns that perpetuate, rather than challenge, the underlying causes of the destruction they claim to be fighting, sanction further destruction by cloaking the killing of some animals in an environment-friendly guise, and promote the pernicious idea that killing animals is consistent with respect for the earth and even the animals themselves.

To be authentic, environmentalism must be grounded in a foundation of animal rights. In fact, we must come to regard the two movements as one and the same. A true environmentally-friendly society would seek to meet the needs of humans through the least destructive and most non-violent means we can imagine. It would no longer allow animals to be regarded as “resources.” It would interfere in the lives of other animals as little as possible, grant protection to the habitats animals need in order to thrive, and, above all, be guided by the principle that respect for sentient life is paramount, irrespective of the species which that life is manifest.

After all, it’s their world, too.

Adapted from All American Vegan by Jennifer & Nathan Winograd


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