The pursuit of happiness: Protecting animals to improve our well-beingTo help animals, sometimes you need to look at humans, and vice versa
It is pretty clear to anyone paying attention, that the Earth and all of the species on it are in crisis. The recent intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report warns that 1 million species are threatened with extinction, demonstrating an unprecedented acceleration in species extinction.
This crisis, called the Sixth Extinction crisis, is urgent. News comes out almost daily about new species at the tipping point. There is no doubt that it is driven primarily by human pressures on wildlife habitat, human exploitation of wildlife, and other anthropogenic threats.
This human activity is driven by many factors, but one of the main culprits is a consistent and powerful drive in our society to consume ever more ‘stuff’ and drive the economy to higher rates of growth. There is a general feeling that when we grow the economy and increase our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we are somehow better off.
Years ago, when I saw the images and heard the stories of the IFAW team rescuing animals after Hurricane Katrina, I saw the devastation and heard stories about the pain and sorrow the storm left in the New Orleans community. When I realized that natural disasters are often actually considered ‘good for GDP’ due to the rebuilding efforts and ‘economic bustle’ in the aftermath of the disaster, I realized that today’s scale of metrics is completely misaligned with our true needs. I began to see more and more that what is good for GDP is not necessarily good for people, animals and the planet. I took a closer look at my assumptions and realized that some things are just not good to grow – including growth in illegal wildlife trade, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in development of precious habitat for endangered wildlife. This emphasis on unchecked growth, without considering how that growth is contributing to our wellbeing, is contributing to the current crisis in which we find ourselves.
Similar to the example above, natural disasters, conflicts, wars, vehicle crashes, and even increases in chronic diseases such as diabetes are actually ‘good for GDP’. Do these make us better off? Certainly not. They are terrible for our wellbeing. But success for our economy and in our society is measured by short-term productivity over long-term sustainability and wellbeing. It is a narrow, myopic approach that doesn’t reflect the true needs of society at large.
In my 20 years in working in conservation and development policy in Washington DC, I have worked on the symptoms of the problem – worked to preserve a piece of habitat or to protect a species from illegal or unsustainable trade. These things are important and necessary as urgent threats to their existence ultimately affect our wellbeing. For example, stopping the flow of illegal ivory into the US and China was critical to stop the scourge of ivory poaching in Africa. But it doesn’t, however, get to the root of the problem – that our system measures and promotes the wrong things (increasing GDP) and fails to measure and promote the things that ultimately matter most to people.
However, the global conversation is slowly acknowledging that Gross Domestic Product is an incomplete metric of success and that the drive to increase GDP at all costs is detrimental for human wellbeing and to the planet. There is a global call to measure national wellbeing and even to create an alternative to the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations, or ‘G8,’ such as the ‘Wellbeing 7’. Bhutan and UAE have Happiness Ministries. New Zealand will be reporting on how its national budget affects happiness. But sadly, this conversation doesn’t yet include animals.
At IFAW, we believe we need to have a policy conversation about what really matters, and we need to connect that back to people, but also to animals and the planet. In 2016, IFAW issued a report entitled Measuring What Matters: True Wellbeing for Animals and People, reviewing different policy indicator frameworks around the world. We then showed -- through identifying peer-reviewed research and case studies -- how animals contributed significantly to human wellbeing. Since then, we have researched how animal welfare and conservation contribute to community development and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Through this policy conversation and subsequent recommendations, we want to show that animals contribute to human wellbeing and that policies and practices for people need to reflect animals – through planning for disasters, funding habitat protection and endangered species protections, and in development planning overall. Better conservation and animal welfare aren’t just luxuries for animals; they are critical for all people. We have made it a priority to provide countries and policymakers with a blueprint of how to include animals in human policies in ways to benefit both animals and people. We want to show that although many leaders see trade-offs in development, animal welfare and conservation, there are indeed synergies, and we cannot achieve the best results in any one area without looking at the collective impact amongst these issues.
And there is no question that animals matter to people. IFAW commissioned a recent poll in the US via an independent pollster, which found that 94% of voters felt that being around pets contributed to an individual’s happiness. Eighty eight percent of voters said that the ability to view wildlife in their native habitat contributed to an individual’s happiness. I was astounded that 90% of Americans could agree on anything! It shows how much everyone cares about these issues. So how is it possible that with so much agreement among people, our policies don’t reflect what really matters to us? I think we haven’t yet realized that we can measure and promote what really matters to people and translate that into policies that reflect our wellbeing. When I realized that GDP wasn’t the only possible way to measure ‘success,’ it changed how I viewed my work and life. As more people realize we can choose different policies that reflect our values, our national and global policies can change as well.
We are all connected. People, animals and the planet. It is not possible to do something that hurts animals and the planet and not ultimately hurt ourselves. We need to live this connection in our lives and change our policies to reflect this connection.
-Beth Allgood, US Director
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