It has been said that when a new idea is first suggested it is ridiculed. Then, it is violently attacked. And finally, it is accepted as self-evident. Attitudes towards other races, towards women and towards children have changed so much that some people want to go through works of literature and re-write references which go against present-day thinking.
Incest, which was cheerfully described in Genesis (19: 32-35) is now considered a serious crime. Much more recently than this, children, women and blacks were treated as little more than the property of white males – just as some animals are to this day.
Historically, attitudes towards non-humans have been determined by a combination of expediency and either religious or scientific dogma.
But gradually, reality is beginning to break through. Scientists are beginning to realize that their belief-system rests on philosophical foundations which are not quite as firm as they had hoped. Christians have been backpacking around India, and realize that there are other dogmas out there to explore. And the excuse that our treatment of animals can be justified simply because it satisfies our needs is beginning to look like the tail wagging the dog. That argument was used to justify all the other abuses.
An awareness that other species are conscious, and that they experience pain and distress in much the same way that humans do, will have implications which are much deeper than many people realize. For a start, this will eventually change the brutal way in which animals are raised in factory farms: this is already happening (at least in Europe).
Experiments on animals and the abuse of animals in zoos and circuses or as target practice for rednecks will also gradually die out. In the last century, it was normal for people to visit lunatic asylums and make fun of the inmates. Maybe by the end of the next century, the recreational use of animals will be seen in the same light.
But the biggest impact which humans have on other animals is indirect: they destroy their homes. Up to now, debate about the environment has centred on attempts to resolve the needs of one group of humans against the needs of another.
Suppose, instead of looking at a forest as a resource for recreation, or even as part of “our” human heritage, we start to think of it as somebody else’s home. We need to expand our awareness to include the fact that the animals which live in that forest own it just as much as we do; that it is theirs just as much as it is ours; and that their needs are just as valid as ours are.
A human’s concept of ownership is useful within the context of human relations. However, it doesn’t extend in any meaningful way to other species, who are not party to this agreement.
In what sense is a beaver’s “ownership” of the dam he or she built any less valid than the sense of ownership which a human has about the land it is on? The beaver is physically weaker, and cannot describe what “ownership” means in words. However, it is pretty clear to beavers who owns what.
The idea of preserving habitat for animals is not new. However, this has typically translated into a desire to preserve particular species which are endangered. The emphasis is on the species as some kind of “benefit” to humankind, not on the destroyed lives of the individuals concerned. It’s a bit like a parent with a lot of children saying “I don’t want this one to die, otherwise I won’t have any left with red hair”.
Suppose we destroy a hectare of rainforest. Hundreds of animals are killed directly.
Others lose the only thing they have – a small piece of territory which they have defended all their life, and which they need to survive. Maybe some of them can move on. Maybe some of them can’t. Maybe some humans will care.
Probably most won’t. However, once we have expanded our universe of awareness to include the needs of non-humans, we have to dimly become aware of the full horror of what we are doing to their lives.