WHAT ARE ANIMALS TO US?
Can we rethink our relationship to the natural world in order to save it? Can we move past the Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to ‘survival by cooperation’; to bear witness to our dominion over other species and their environments, and do what’s right to save our planet? Are we as a species capable of moving beyond ourselves to care about a larger future in which we live in an ethical and sustainable way that is integrated with the commonwealth of all life?
If we allow it, our evolutionary and cultural connection to other species should help us to understand what we need to do. We share not only neural, cognitive and behavioral similarities with other species, but emotional ones. We empathize with other species. Beliefs and stories about them passed on by thousands of individuals over millennia have always been important factors in shaping in our understanding of the world.
Young children first learn about the wonder of nature from animals. Whether they be stuffed or real, animals become their friends and teachers in learning about the world beyond their home. Likewise, ancient cultures imbued the environment with agency, and spoke with animals on a daily basis, invoking their blessing, teaching, and help. Even today, when we talk about the perils of declining ice in the Artic, we frame it in terms of the loss felt by the endangered polar bear. In fables and fairytales, with which we have been familiar since childhood, animals were the vehicles used to express larger issues of character development and life.
We now need to create new stories to address what is happening to our world. Animals, and their ability to move us beyond the limitations of our humanness, need to be a part of that narrative.
Animals are the engine that make the Earth work. They balance ecosystems, feed us, and provide nutrients to soil and water. They animate the oceans. But we are not allowing them to do this any longer. Instead, we have turned them into one of the major engines of destruction. Rather than keeping us alive, they are hastening our demise. Instead of valuing their contribution to a healthy environment, we ignore their importance and treat them as adjuncts to our survival, or worse yet, as commodities. We talk about the value of ‘ecosystem services’ without acknowledging the role of other species in these systems except as one of many economic contributions to the eco-tourist. This has left the subject of other species out of the global dialogue about our future. We believe that this is a mistake that needs to be addressed through bearing witness to our current practices, reimagining and reframing the dialogue, and by taking the necessary actions to make this right.
The nature of our relationship with other species has enormous and quantifiable impacts on our health, on the environment, global security, our economies, and the viability of the world that our children will inherit. Furthermore, the nature of our relationships to other species and their environments have qualitative moral, material and psychological implications for us as a civil society and as individuals, which need to be explored, defined and acknowledged.
In so many ways we have diminished our lives by having lost sight of the transformative power of our engagement with nature. We see the world through silos of self-interest and are blind to what we are doing to the world around us. We need to rediscover and reintegrate the values of integrity, curiosity, and humility. To continue down any other path is to fuel our alienation from the very processes of life that sustain the planet. As humans, we decide whether the planet lives or dies. By rethinking our relationship to other species, we could actually save it.
“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity.”
George Bernard Shaw — English playwright (1856-1950)
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
Schopenhauer — The Basis of Moral Duty