By M. P. Baumgartner from
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the Drew Theological School on the topic of “Divinanimality: Creaturely Theology.” One of the keynote speakers, theologian Jay McDaniel, raised a question that I have often wondered about as well:
Why do so many people in the earthcare community seem to find it easier to care about mountains and trees than about our much nearer relatives in the animal kingdom? Why the leap from concern about humans to concern about air, water, and soil, without a pause to consider the welfare of what Buddhists recognize as the other “sentient beings” living alongside us?
Whatever the reason for the low priority given to animal rights and animal welfare in so much environmental activism, the simple fact is that ignoring animal concerns is a mistake for any environmentalist. There can be no successful earthcare without animal care. Human and nonhuman animals are bound together in complex interactions within our shared environment, and what people do or do not do in regard to other animals has a significant effect on us all.
Consider, for example, the consequences of human overpopulation. Estimates place the worldwide human population at about 200 million at the dawn of the Christian era, 700 million at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 1.2 billion by 1850; 2.5 billion by 1950; about 7 billion today; and, if trends continue, 9 billion by 2050. As human numbers have soared, people have destroyed the habitats of thousands of other species in their ongoing quest for ever more land for their own settlements and crops. Human needs and appetites have also resulted in the exploitation of many nonhuman species beyond the ability of those species to remain viable. Many kinds of fish, for example, are on the brink of extinction due to overfishing by humans.
The result of human pressure on other species has brought about an ongoing wave of extinctions. Biologists call what is happening now the “sixth great extinction” in the history of life on earth. Great extinctions occur when at least 10% of species on earth are lost. All of the five earlier great extinctions were caused by volcanic or seismic activity on earth or by impact with bodies from space such as asteroids. The fifth great extinction, the last one before now, was marked by the extinction of the dinosaurs. Scientists estimate that as many as 40% of today’s species are currently threatened or endangered and may disappear by the end of this century. Among the animals currently facing extinction are tigers, pandas, mountain gorillas, whooping cranes, leatherback sea turtles, and many others. What kind of environment will be left if these and other creatures simply disappear? Extinctions are great blows to entire ecosystems, and some are worse than others. Biologist E. O. Wilson has observed, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
More evidence that environmental health depends on the treatment of nonhuman animals can be found in the context of meat eating. As human numbers have risen overall and as human prosperity has increased in many places, the human desire to eat meat has led to ever larger numbers of domesticated animals being raised for human consumption. Aside from the unspeakable suffering this has caused the animals involved, it has also led to great environmental harm and, ironically, to great risk to members of the human
community as well. Among the damaging consequences of meat eating are: deforestation and other habitat destruction brought about by people who need room for their livestock; pollution of the air (such as through the emission of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, as a byproduct of digestion in livestock animals), the pollution of water (as runoff from animal excrement and other pollutants enters waterways); and famine and thirst among poorer humans (as plant food and water that might nourish human beings are given to livestock instead).
As humans have increasingly invaded and seized spaces from which they were previously absent—rain forests, caves, marshlands, and more—another source of environmental harm has emerged: new viruses and other infectious agents that can wreak havoc on entire populations. Sometimes these new infections affect people, sometimes nonhuman animals, and sometimes both groups alike. It is believed that HIV infection crossed from nonhuman primates to humans in the Congo region of Africa when humans began killing and eating jungle animals from previously pristine settings; Ebola fever appears to have been contracted from bats when people began exploring caves they had previously left alone. Health consequences for nonhumans have also been great. Among the species whose numbers have been decimated by exposure to new infectious agents introduced or spread by humans are bats (mortality rates of 90% and higher have followed the appearance of a fungus that causes “white nose” syndrome in bat colonies in the eastern United States); the Panamanian gold frog (the national symbol of Panama, which may already be extinct in the wild), and possibly honeybee colonies (where colony collapse disorder may be linked in part to new infections). Since bats and bees provide valuable services to humans through insect control and crop fertilization, respectively, the impact on people is likely to be considerable.
Aside from any impact on forests, rivers, crop plants, and oceans, however, the treatment of nonhuman animals by humans raises concerns of a moral nature. The more scientists learn about nonhumans, the more it appears that rationality, emotionality, and other “human” attributes are actually things we share with many nonhuman species. We now know that many nonhuman animals have conflicts and resolve them through peacemaking; enjoy painting and watching sunsets; innovate and problem solve to achieve goals, and more. People from faith traditions such as Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have long recognized that nonhuman animals have moral rights; ethical philosophers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan have come to similar conclusions in our own time. As Quakers, shouldn’t we also come down on the side of compassion for nonhuman animals, not just because this will make our own environment better but because it is the right thing to do? Shouldn’t we join in the Buddhist prayer that asks that “all who have life be delivered from suffering”?