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28 March 2001 Issue
Duties to Nature: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics

by Dr. Steven Best - sbest1@elp.rr.com

"The great fault of all ethics hitherto," argued scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, "has been that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relationships of man to man." Happily, this tragic and myopic outlook which has shaped so much of Western history is changing decisively today. Human culture is in the midst of a paradigm shift from a human-centered (anthropomorphic) to a life-centered (biocentric) outlook that dethrones "Man" from his self-assigned Kingdom and recognizes the
inherent value of all living beings. Humanity is broadening the boundaries of the moral community such that more and more people are recognizing that nonhuman animals too have rights and that the earth is more than just a warehouse of materials for human consumption.

The crisis in the human relation to nature is blatantly manifest in a world of global warming, rainforest destruction, species extinction, overpopulation, desertification, pollution, resource scarcity, and the rise of disease. At the root of the human crisis and our spiritual malaise is our alienation from the living world from which we emerged and a pathological Western worldview that believes our mission is to dominate nature, lord over all life, and reduce everything to mere resources for human use. In conjunction with the current global capitalist system predicated on incessant growth, accumulation, and resource extraction, this worldview is directly responsible for the numbing spectacle of ecocide currently unfolding on this planet.

Other hominids such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon have become extinct, and nothing guarantees homo sapiens will not meet the same fate. Unless human beings dramatically change their methods of energy production, consumption patterns, and population rates, they will continue to devastate their planet and soon find themselves living out a dystopian Mad Max or Waterworld scenario. But we cannot heal ourselves until we heal our relation to the earth and our fellow species. Thus, it is in our own interests to transform our violent and degraded sensibilities, but, more profoundly, the court of ethical reasoning is bringing forth solid arguments that other sentient beings too have rights and these place direct obligations on us to respect their needs and interests.

While anthropocentrism has been the hegemonic heritage throughout Western culture, there has always been an underground, counter-tradition, that argued sympathy and respect for other living beings and the natural world. Certainly, the main Eastern religions -- Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism -- professed an ethic of ahimsa (non-violence) as their core teaching. But from Pythagoras, Plato, and St. Francis of Assisi to Tolstoy, Darwin, and Einstein, many of the great Western figures have challenged
standard ethical views about animals and nature.

The turning point for animal rights in contemporary times clearly was the publication of philosopher Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation in 1975. Widely credited with starting the present-day animal rights movement, Singer argued from utilitarian grounds that all sentient animals should be protected from the multiple modes of suffering human beings inflict on them. Part of the great power of Singer's book is not only his forceful arguments to bring animals into the moral community, but also his vivid and appalling descriptions of their suffering in hellholes like commercial laboratories and factory farms. While Singer presents health arguments that one should be a vegetarian, he mainly roots this conclusion in ethical reasons relating to the obligations we have not to cause unnecessary harm to animals, and in the fact that there is no nutrient in animal products that cannot be attained in plant-based foods.

In the 1960s, social protest movements erupted throughout the United States and the entire world. Along with the liberation movements of women, students, people of color, colonial nations, and gays and lesbians, there emerged an environmental movement that brought to public awareness the extent of environmental degradation and the urgent need for change. As popular concerns became translated into law, the 1970s became the environmental decade" that passed important laws such as the Clean Air and Water Act.

But a debate soon erupted as to whether the mainstream environment movement could accomplish the goal of protecting nature and achieving a sustainable society. Could legal reform and technological fixes truly stop the assault on nature waged by capitalism, or would a more radical approach be needed?

As activists and theorists debated the merits of a "shallow" vs. "deep" ecology approach, with the latter calling not only for legal and technological changes but also a revolution in our consciousness and relationship to nature, the "greening of philosophy" was underway. Environmental ethics, along with animal rights, became considered legitimate, relevant, and important topics of philosophical analysis. Consequently, numerous people were rediscovering the importance of Aldo Leopold's work, especially his seminal essay "The Land Ethic" from his book A Sand County Almanac (1949).

In "The Land Ethic," Leopold advocates an extension of human ethics to include an environmental ethic that assesses human actions from the perspective of whether or not they help sustain the natural world and biodiversity. From this new table of value, human actions considered acceptable or even good -- such as building a new shopping center to promote economic growth and provide jobs -- would have to be revaluated in terms of their impact of the environment. Thus, Leopold says that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Leopold believes the human species will not survive unless it develops such an ethic, and he is attempting to promote a new sense of connectedness to nature that many premodern and nonWestern peoples possessed, but is conspicuously absent throughout Western culture. Leopold makes the
profound observation that in the great human journey of moral evolution, it has taken millennia to develop a "decent man-to-man ethic," as he wonders how long it will take to develop a sound "man-to-land ethic."
Clearly, time is running out and the next stages in human moral evolution must involve both animal rights and environmental ethics.

To grasp the connections between these two issues, to demonstrate how in eating animals we are destroying the environment, one needs to read Jeremy Rifkin's selection, "Cattle and the Global Environmental Crisis," from his provocative book Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (1992). While many people are aware that animals are horribly abused by agribusiness and that a meat-based diet is the principle contributor to heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes, and other serious conditions, few understand that raising animals for food is the primary cause of global environmental destruction. As Rifkin describes, animal agriculture not only is a tremendous waste of land, water, and energy resources, it also erodes the topsoil, releases enormous quantities of waste into water systems, demands killing potential "predators" of cattle and razing vast tracts of land to graze the future burgers and beefsteaks, and creates ozone destroying gases.

Thus, as individuals, as a culture, as a species, we have momentous and profound choices to make, choices that will greatly effect what kind of future we and other species will have on this planet and, indeed, if we will have a future at all. What we're beginning to learn now in this exciting adventure of change and evolution is that at root of these decisions lie the kinds of food choices we make, and the sensibilities that underlie them. We're learning that the earth is not a cornucopia of inexhaustible resources that we can exploit at will without grave consequences, that what we do to the animals and the earth ultimately we do to ourselves, and that a meat-based diet is unsustainable and hostile to life.

We need a new ethic to guide our relations to other species and to the land, an ethic rooted in reverence for animals and respect for the earth and living processes from which have come, an ethic that unavoidably demands a vegetarian lifestyle. I invite you to join the growing legions of enlightened human beings in this profound process of change.

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