The public, the activist community, and the animals for whom we strive to advocate could all do with a positive vision of animal rights. ~ On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth
Animal rights means seeing ourselves as part of, and not in charge of, life on this planet. Just as much as animal-rights advocacy aims to stop exploitation, it also strives to preserve the freedom of those animals who live on their terms. In other words, habitat matters. It’s time we bring environmental concerns and animal rights together, and this is why I wrote On Their Own Terms.
We are all responsible for protecting our planet’s ecology — the animals’ only home. Will we have to give up anything? Yes: a destructive fantasy. We’ve made mistakes. We have appointed ourselves the master, the top of the food chain, the grand consumer, the super-predator. We have associated well-being with material affluence, control over nature, and conveniently accessible animal products. We have systematically turned the bio-community into billions of creatures who exist for no other purpose than to be exploited for our own pleasure, and then killed when they no longer suit our whims and conveniences.
In animal-advocacy circles, abolitionists talk of completely removing non-human animals from the category of human-owned property. Today, animals are selectively bred to be the choices on menus and the objects of racing and betting, showing and petting; abolishing these customs would mean ending our systems of breeding animals to be humanity’s playthings or stock shares. But as for those animals living free in their habitat? Are we paying attention to our effects on them? It’s vital that we do so.
It’s in their habitats and social networks — in their oceans, air, and meadows — that the respect taught by animal-rights theory will apply. It’s in their world that animal rights will have meaning. It’s essential that animals keep their habitats, and the freedom to pursue the interactions and experiences that comprise their free lives.
Tom Regan, who, in 1983, published The Case for Animal Rights, insists: “You don’t change unjust institutions by tidying them up.”
It’s hard to argue with that. And tidying the system doesn’t mean the animals really are treated any better, although groups who win compromises might call these victories. What happens behind the curtains? Negotiating with a dairy producer over the standards of confinement might well result in the company cutting corners in, say, the transportation contract in order to make up any financial losses from the change. Or the company might vaunt the new, improved confinement standard in its promotional material and succeed in selling more animal products, or in selling them at a higher price.
As long as there is slaughter — as long as human warring on other animals is considered acceptable and normal — there will also be untidy situations, to say the least. Humans can, with courage, acknowledge that the whole war has to end. With courage, we can end it through withdrawing our participation in it. Until we do, all kinds of atrocious things will happen to the non-human beings of the world, often behind closed doors, with activists only able to campaign against some of the most obvious and grotesque.
So we’re challenging our society to stop regarding other animals as our commodities. Not to sell them or the products of their bodies any more.
But is that the whole animal-rights platform? No. It’s not just about what other animals won’t be; it’s also about what they will be. There’s a special energy generated when we cease to define animal rights by focusing on what we oppose, and shift the emphasis to what we envision, advance, and celebrate.
Free-roaming animals walk, fly and swim just outside our walls and fences. How do we ensure they continue doing so? This means more than just leaving them alone or forgetting about them. To let them be takes active intervention, to stop policies and practices that encroach on other animals. Never has this challenge been more important. Our human population is approaching seven billion on this fragile planet and we all want to go to our shopping malls, which are built on concrete where habitat once was. Folded under our earthmovers, moved out of the way by development, other animals might be non-property…and gone forever. Many already are.
All told, at least forty percent of the known species on the planet Earth are currently faced with an extinction risk. It’s no good talking about rights for animals who will not be around to experience life at all.
That’s the context in which we must work, with the world’s physical reality changing much more rapidly than could have been predicted in the seventies, eighties and nineties, when many animal-rights texts were written. Meanwhile, we’re all being affected by changes in the economic climate. Even as you read this, shelters are doing all they can with strained resources to help the animals who arrive at their doors because people have lost their jobs and believe they can no longer afford to keep their pets. Refuges have to decide whether to take in more animals or keep paying support staff; sometimes, there isn’t money for both. And free-living animals are often far out of sight, and far out of mind.
As we clear ever more space for our houses, roads, yards and paddocks, as we bring domestic animals onto the planet in ever greater numbers, what has happened to the free-living animal communities? Where are the wolves, the bobcats, and other animals who once walked over the land on their terms?
Addressing our fears
Often, if we think other animals could harm us, or even if they just look at us sideways, we eliminate them. Humans are turning up everywhere. If our control over others is the default mode, they will be wiped off the continent; it’s only a matter of at what rate. In the rare event that a mountain lion is spotted in California, residents will say these big cats are beautiful, but “they don’t belong here” and the answer is to “take them out.” Why?
The deepest and most comprehensive question for our social movement is why and how modern human society has developed through patterns of domination; and the greatest challenge we face is imagining humanity without the master role. Is it our fear of free animals’ power (over our children, our dogs, our cows, the back yard at night, the woods our government claims for the people, our own bodies) that keeps us from imagining another identity for ourselves?
Although abolishing animals’ legal property status is important, these questions about domination, and what we’d be if we redefine humanity, take us deeper still.
It’s hard to imagine doing this. But look at what we stand to lose, collectively and individually, if we don’t overcome the habits connected with dominion over the planet’s life. Because of our farming customs, deforestation, our exploitation of the land and seas, and our waste, extinctions are occurring at least a hundred times the normal background rate; that is at the most conservative end of the estimates. United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon notes that human expansion is wiping out species at about a thousand times the natural rate of extinction, and that “business as usual is not an option.”
There is one encouraging factor: We have a platform. The idea of animal rights has become kind of a big deal. Today’s animal advocates are the stuff of talk-show conversations. How can we translate this into support for a sustainable and fair future for conscious living beings on Earth?
Healing a culture begins with healing oneself; similarly, nurturing our movement begins with nurturing ourselves. Knowing who we are as individuals, and being clear about our personal goals, enables us to find like-minded people, put our support in the right places, and determine how to live and relish our days. It helps us nourish an organizational base for change — and that matters in our age, when animal use has become high-tech and regulated at the level of global economics.
Wherever we get together and dare to undo old hierarchies, we can anticipate vehement attacks that mischaracterize our efforts. Expect resistance; it happens when one pushes for genuine moral progress. Yet we can be confident in our ability to transform our own being and our society. As children, before learning of classifications and hierarchies, we delighted in the variations of animals and enjoyed their presence. We, and everybody else, had to be taught that we’re destined to control and consume them.
We can reverse this learning, and teach ourselves to live and move with respect. And it will grow from there. That’s what organizing is about. Contrary to what some have said, we are not engaged in a social “war” and we are not going to prevail through targeting “the enemy.” When the animal-rights message prevails, it won’t look like an attack. It won’t look like heroes trouncing villains, saints slaying dragons; no, it will look like invincible weeds, the roots of trees, rising up slowly from beneath the concrete.
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