Are Animal Rights and Environmentalism Incompatible?

Oiled_wildlife_wm_1 Emergency Relief director, Ian Robinson prepares to release a rehabilitated mute swan. Shiver was one of 13 mute swans set free on the Poosaspea Cape, a site safely away from the oiled coastline of Estonia.

If you haven't seen the ongoing discussion “Environmental and Animal Rights” on the Gristmill blog, plug in now. I think the majority of us are guilty of grouping these two movements together by default; you have respect for one, you then have respect for the other. I would assume the majority of us who care about animal rescue are animal welfare conscious individuals. Should we then assume that each of us is also environmentally conscious?  Conversely, can you be an environmentalist without taking into consideration the care and protection of animals?

If you skim over the 50+ posts on this topic at Gristmill you will see a vocal faction of environmentalists that choose to disassociate themselves from the animal welfare movement. They claim that the radical side of ‘animal rights’ activists brings discredit to environmental objectives, hampering their ability to be respectfully heard. But this argument ignores the difference between "animal rights" and "animal welfare".  Animal rights is a philosophy.  It argues that there is no justifiable reason for our treating non-human animals differently than human animals merely on the basis of their genes.  In the animal rights view, specieism is as unjustified as racism or sexism.

Animal welfare, on the other hand, creates policies to ensure that when animals are used by humans, their capacity to suffer is recognized and attempts are made to minimize it.  It tends to shy away from questioning whether or not the use of animals can be justified.  As an animal welfare organization, IFAW attempts to create a better world for both animals and people.  Perhaps these same environmentalists who disassociate themselves from the philosophy of animal rights can find common working ground with those who practice animal welfare.

What do you think?

As with all good arguments, the extremes of both sides are being heard. “An environmentalism that cares only about the absolute quantity of animals on the planet, and not the way they are treated, is a morally bankrupt ideology.” And, “If a connection, perceived or otherwise, can be made between a popular issue (environmentalism) and a not so popular issue (animal rights) then the latter of the two gains some credibility. At the same time the prior loses some.”

When we ignore animal welfare and focus solely on managing the quantity of animals in the name of conservation we end up with the ecological disaster we have today, the very thing the environmentalists who want to seperate themselves from radical animal rights groups are trying to prevent. So called "wise-use’ conservation policies often favor commercial consumption over real ecological benefits for both animals and people.  Thanks in part to these policies the current rate of animal extinction is about 1000 species per year. To say that animal welfare has nothing to do with environmentalism completely ignores the protection of natural ecosystems that are necessary to protect our enivironment. I think we can all agree that a new conservation ethic that is more ecological and ecocentric is needed. New philosophical and economic paradigms to protect the ecosystem are needed that are neither labeled as "environmentalist" or "animal rights" but embrace the best from both philosophies to create radically new conservation policies.

Canada's commercial seal hunt was hinted at several times in this discussion; probably the most unsafe battle for both environmentalist and animal welfarist who are not in agreement. Not only is there no scientific evidence that links hunting seals to the recovery of cod, there is no scientific evidence that culling seals will produce measurable benefits for any fish stock or commercial fishery.

Therefore, whether environmentalists agree or not that seals suffer from the cruel methods employed in the seal hunt, they should oppose the hunt in order to preserve the many marine populations off the coast of Canada, putting them on the same side of the argument as the animal welfarist!  Climate change is also becoming a major factor in threatening one of nature's most incredible displays: the birth of hundreds of thousands baby harp seals on the ice flows of Newfoundland.  Here again we find common ground: whether or not this faction of environmentalists are concerned about the suffering of these seals who drown from the disappearing ice, surely they can recognize the destruction climate change is having on this natural ecosystem and future survivability of the harp seal species.

Additionally, IFAW has become recognized worldwide for our expertise in rescuing oiled wildlife. This has not only restored wildlife populations but has provided education on an advocacy level to persuade governments to not permit deliberate dumping of oil. Sounds like an environmental concern as well, doesn’t it?

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