Under a previous post on whaling, a commenter pointed out the hypocrisy of those in the environmental movement who oppose whaling while tacitly supporting other forms of animal slaughter no less morally offensive. The commenter made the point that as long as an animal species is being managed sustainably, there is nothing inherently wrong with using that animal, no matter how sentient, in whatever ways we desire.

This contention gets at a key weakness in the environmental movement, which deserves significantly more discussion and debate. According to this ethic of sustainability, all that matters is the quantity of the environment, not the quality, in terms of how non-human animals are treated.

This environmental ethic is almost by definition amoral; it provides space for such practices as:

  1. Bludgeoning baby seals for fur coats.
  2. Unlimited animal testing that takes no account of cruelty or the triviality of the need (e.g. for testing new cosmetics).
  3. Slaughtering whales, dolphins, sea turtles in extremely brutal ways.
  4. Industrial agricultural practices such as factory-farming, foie gras, and veal production (in smaller quantities these practices can be done sustainably).
  5. Sport hunting of all kinds, no matter how cruel.

And the list goes on. As long as any of the above practices don’t threaten the sustainable use of animals they are acceptable to those whose view of environmentalism stops at sustainability. But there are many who recognize that while conserving biodiversity is a necessary condition for an environmental ethic, it is not sufficient; how we treat our fellow creatures must be taken into account.

Environmentalists have long suffered from an image and PR problem, which creates pressure to avoid the tough moral questions. We are often viewed as extreme leftists, leftover hippies, and those who favor animals over humans, so any hint of including animal rights in a broader discussion of environmental goals is usually avoided; this is especially true as environmental groups try to court hunting and fishing groups. In addition, most environmentalists eat meat, and many are understandably hesitant to examine in greater detail the conditions of the animals they routinely consume.

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. In order to keep pace with major scientific advances in biology, which are teaching us that non-human animals are much more sentient and closely related to us than we once believed, environmentalism needs to confront directly the treatment of animals and issues of animal rights.

As a last point, bear with me for a little thought experiment: Consider a superior race of beings that comes to planet Earth and realizes that humans make for tasty delicacies. This race decides to harvest us sustainably, randomly hunting us with harpoons, while ensuring that our numbers do not dip below adequate levels. We try to use our limited cognitive skills to convince them they are morally wrong to kill us, but they don’t accept our reasoning since it is not as sophisticated as theirs. How is this version of sustainability any different from what some nations are currently doing to the whales, and all nations, in some way or another, doing to other highly sentient animals with whom we share the planet? And if these superiors being would be wrong to harvest us, whether sustainably or not, then …