“When the gap between the leaves is wider than the length of an ant . . . they chain their bodies together to form living bridges.”
— Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson
You might assume that a powerful partnership exists between environmental and animal rights organizations. It doesn’t. Such cooperation would represent one of the planet’s most powerful coalitions for animal welfare. The unfortunate reality is that environmental and animal rights groups have a long history of non-affiliation. But, we haven’t the luxury to indulge unnecessary rifts while the clock is running on the fate of certain species.
A fundamental difference in philosophy is at the root of this non-collaborative, and at times acrimonious, relationship. Environmentalists work to conserve populations and ecosystems, while animal rights advocates honor independent value of all individual animals. Two often cited examples of this cultural divide are the eradication of invasive species and animal-derived food. For the animal rights movement, vegetarianism is “non-negotiable,” which is problematic for the 80% of environmentalists who include animal-based food in their diet.
Animal rights activism is perceived by many environmentalists as radical and potentially discrediting to environmental objectives. On the flip side, animal rights groups see environmental advocates compromising too often on their agenda. Among the disagreements there are many missed opportunities for making collaborative progress on shared goals. Beyond the quibbling, there is work to be done and mutually beneficial battles to be won.
One natural area of overlap is animal welfare. Separate from animal rights (which argues against the use of animals), animal welfare advocates policies to ensure that when animals are utilized by humans, their capacity to suffer is recognized and efforts are made to minimize it. It is thus plausible that environmentalists who have historically distanced themselves from the philosophy of animal rights can find common ground working with those who practice animal welfare. This is especially true when considering wildlife related issues, such as habitat destruction, wildlife exploitation, and invasive species. Some have even proposed a new area of ethics, called “wildlife welfare.”
Let’s look at invasive species, for example. While animal rights groups are against eradication of invasive animals (because individuals are harmed or killed), prevention of invasive species via a precautionary principle approach would match the goals and values of both animal rights and environmental groups.
The use of wide-ranging wild animals in circuses and other traveling entertainment acts is another issue ripe for collaboration. Eliminating elephants, tigers, bears, and non-human primates from the cruelties of traveling acts that bear no resemblance to how these animals live in the wild satisfies the objectives of animal rights and environmental conservation. See more in my white paper here.
It is time that environmentalists stop being so concerned about their reputation as “reasoned” and for animal rights groups to get away from the “all or nothing” stance. Rather than tripping over where each group draws its line, let us tackle one issue at a time that we can agree on. Why wouldn’t both be concerned about the death of 11,000 elephants in Gabon over 9 years for the ivory trade? Isn’t the issue of CAFOs to supply our excessive meat consumption something we can agree should be tackled for the sake of the environment and the farm animals? And, why wouldn’t environmentalists and animal rights groups agree that using large wild animals in circuses sends the wrong message about how they exist in their wild habitat?
A daunting gap occupies the space between 21st century policies and species survival. If environmental and animal rights organizations do not join together to bridge it, it will soon become unbridgeable.