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Living with Earth in mind

Living with Earth in mind: the interconnections between human, animal and environmental rights

The time is ripe to start talking rights. Not just human rights, but environmental and animal rights as well. Human use and exploitation of both animals and the wider environment has led to devastating global ecological decline and animal suffering. From climate change to factory farming to habitat destruction, our Earth needs a break.

The historical and cultural uses of animals by humans have varied, but since industrialization and the Enlightenment there has been a tendency in the West to regard animals as unfeeling machines. The environment has likewise been perceived in terms of ‘resources’ for human use; a vast landscape for humans to play out their economic and cultural activities.

But the time has come to pay up. We are entering the Anthropocene, a period of time in which humans are having an unprecedented impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. This includes, but is not limited to, climate change. The future effects of climate change include longer and more frequent floods and droughts; an increase in number and duration of cyclones and hurricanes; sea level rising; shifting glaciers and changes in animal and plant ranges.

This is not new. We know this is happening, and yet it is easy enough for many of us not directly affected to carry on our lives as normal. We often cannot really fully comprehend the level of direct threat we are under as a species.

The protection of the environment (environmental rights) and the extension of rights to animals is linked to human rights. I am proposing that extending the concept of rights to both the environment and animals will take us a long way to combating climate change and major human health issues. As a consequence it will reduce the suffering of humans and animals, and result in a better quality of life for all.

Humans, in general, have a pretty high opinion of themselves. They consider themselves the only inhabitants of Earth that are deserved of full rights. The United Declaration of Human Rights states that all humans are born equal and free. Their rights include the inalienable and universal rights to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. And these rights are to be protected by international law.

So while these ideas construct humans as ‘special’ in virtue of their humanness, all others are not granted these rights. All other beings with whom we share this planet and with whom we rely on for our survival are seen as ‘lesser beings’. This harks back to religious views of humans as being made in the image of the creator, as being somehow divine.

18th Century philosopher Rene Descartes, declared all animals to be unthinking morons – or automatons to be more precise. They were machines with impulses, they did not feel pain like we did, they were put on Earth to serve us. Humans were regarded as special, with a divine soul and a mind.

“I think,” said Descartes, “therefore I am.” The underlying message, of course, is that animals don’t think. We know this is not true. Scientists have spelled out what many of us have known all along. Animals have emotions, thoughts and personalities. They can solve problems, experience hope, plan for the future and grieve. Just like us.

It is time to start thinking a little bit more deeply. Descartes is long dead and buried, bless his mindful and soulful ways. He was a long time ago, and we know different now. We know animals feel pain, we know they have emotions. Emeritus Professor and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff has been quoted as saying: “Mammals share the same nervous system, neurochemicals, perceptions, and emotions, all of which are integrated into the experience of pain”.

And its not just mammals but many other of our fellow beings on Earth that experience the joys and sorrows of life. They are all individuals in their own right. This is summed up in the concept of ‘sentience’. Sentience refers to an ability to be conscious of you own existence, to be self-interested and to feel.

In fact , many countries, New Zealand included, recognize the sentience of animals. In 2015, France, New Zealand and Quebec amended their laws to recognize animals as sentient. In 2018, Slovakia updated their Civil Code to give animals special status as living creatures rather than ‘things’: “animals will enjoy special status and value as living creatures that are able to perceive the world with their own senses”.

It’s a good start, but still falls short of giving them the rights many humans enjoy. We can make a case for animal rights based on human rights – that both humans and animals are ‘subjects-of-a-life’. The right to life would put an end to eating them. This is a good thing when the livestock sector is responsible for about 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions . It also uses a lot of the Earth’s resources.

But it is hard for many people accustomed to eating meat to accept the case for animal rights. They rather ironically feel it is a breach of their own rights of freedom to eat what they want. And this is based on the perception of animals as lesser beings; it is predicated on the anthropocentric and narcissistic view of humans as exceptional beings.

It is my opinion that we should not eat animals, as they are sentient and should have the right to life and freedom. It is not a case of us being so superior that we should have a right to their very bodies, their lives, their existence.

If we agree to animal rights, we also concur that we should not farm animals. Rather we can engage in global rewilding schemes and phase out animal agriculture for good. And we should shift to plant - based food production globally if we want to address climate change. This does not mean having to buy and produce expensive faux meat products. Rather our health and social and economic wellbeing will be better if we eat a natural diet of whole foods including grains, beans, nuts, legumes, vegetables and fruits. This is also much more accessible to all persons across the planet.

And it is not just about what we produce from the Earth but how we do it. We should not profit from excess production, but plan for sustainable, organically grown yields. In this way, we protect the Earth. We can begin to live with her rights in mind. The Earth also has a right to existence, to nurture life, to life itself. She is life, and as such, without her we would be nothing. Literally. Her rights are our rights.

The concept of bequeathing both animals and the environment with inalienable rights needs to be taken seriously in global political and public discourse. Recognizing their sentience without providing them with rights seems out of step. It is contradictory. In addition, without a healthy environment and a stable climate humans are frankly down the gurgler, rights and all.

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