Many environmentalists strongly advocate sticking with a platform that focuses exclusively on the large global challenges of biodiversity preservation and natural-resource sustainability, and stays clear of animal welfare. They correctly point out that environmentalism has traditionally concerned itself not with the treatment of individual animals, but with protecting whole populations. At a time when we face mass species extinctions, it is certainly a risky strategy to contemplate the expansion of environmentalism into a realm fraught with both ideological and political difficulties.

But I believe this is what environmentalism should do.

As a for-instance, consider whaling. An environmentalism that only concerns itself with absolute numbers of whales, and not with how they are treated, has little to say about whaling. Most whaling is “sustainable”; the fact that environmentalism has no philosophical ground to oppose sustainable whaling started this discussion weeks ago.

An amoral environmentalism also has little to say, beyond a call for improved regulation, to challenge the concept of factory farms, which many find abhorrent and an affront to a healthy environment. And it has nothing to say about the billions of animals killed in labs every year, most for trivial reasons.

As a committed environmentalist, this troubles me greatly. These are issues of great magnitude and in many ways define our most basic relationship to the non-human animal kingdom. Maintaining a strict ideological boundary between species protection and animal welfare may be politically expedient, but it has become increasingly untenable in our modern industrial world.

The discussion on Gristmill over the past week on this important topic has been great; it is exactly the type of discourse members of all serious social movements should routinely engage in, since movements that do not evolve perish, just as species do.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s views evolved from a singular focus on civil rights to a broader consideration of economic rights toward the end of his life (and he was widely criticized for this at the time). Women’s rights groups have moved beyond voting rights and equal pay and are now concerned with issues of education, literacy, and flexibility in the workplace.

Similarly, I believe environmentalism can and should make room for greater concerns about animal welfare. It is a natural extension of our desire to protect whole species to think about the obligations we have to individual creatures. Unlike the more difficult and controversial notion of animal rights, a concern for animal welfare is already reflected in the legal statutes of all advanced nations concerning the treatment of animals. In addition, simple morality rejects that notion that humans can do whatever they want to animals without regard for their well-being.

Before I begin to outline specific areas where I think environmentalism should take a stand on issues of animal welfare, it is important to recognize three key facts:

  1. Many higher order mammals (e.g., elephants, whales, lions, rhinos, primates, et al.) have highly complex social lives, are at or near the top of the food chain, and in the absence of human intervention would likely live long and even relatively pleasurable lives.
  2. There are many human activities that inflict significantly more pain and suffering on animals than anything they would experience in the “natural” world.
  3. Instances of extreme forms of animal cruelty are the norm, not the exception, in most societies (even advanced ones, unfortunately).

None of this is to suggest that nature is not often brutal, or that animals do not suffer from a host of ills, including sickness, starvation, and predation. However, the key issue is not some vague notion of whether humans are part of “the cycle of life” (which every living thing automatically is), but how human activity influences both the quantity and quality of life on this planet.

The fact remains that many animals suffer fates at the hands of humans much worse than what “nature” dishes out. For example, there is no equivalent of the factory-farm in nature, where animals rarely, if ever, see the light of day, or the medical lab where toxic chemicals are poured into animals’ eyes. Most whales currently hunted would live long lives in which they would experience many years of pleasurable social interaction with their kin if they were not used to make burgers.

Given the realities of nature and our own practices, determining where environmentalism should overlap with issues of animal welfare requires some form of balancing the costs and benefits of different practices with the intrinsic value of individual animals, especially the advanced species mentioned above.

The following suggestions propose a starting point for further discussion:

  1. Environmentalists should oppose factory-farming.
    Aside from the huge resource requirements and pollution associated with industrial animal slaughter, the animals in these systems are essentially tortured from birth to death, often experiencing months or even years of excruciating pain and suffering beyond anything “nature” would ever subject them to. Animal agriculture that provides for reasonable space, comfort, and social interaction for the animals and does its best to kill animals in ways that minimize pain should be supported.
  2. Environmentalists should oppose most sport hunting of advanced mammals (again, animals such as whales, elephants, primates, et al.).
    Killing animals that are highly sentient and enjoy long and productive lives with their kin in order to satisfy nothing more than a human desire to kill is wrong. In instances where these animals need to be controlled due to overpopulation, exceptions should be made, and hunting is acceptable; in fact, hunting can actually reduce animal suffering in these instances.
  3. Environmentalists should oppose most other types of hunting of advanced mammals.
    Societies that are wealthy, and whose survival is not dependent on the killing of advanced mammals, should not kill them. The pleasure of having an added flavor in one’s diet does not outweigh the value these animals derive from their own lives. Trapping animals for fur should also be opposed. Exceptions for cultures that subsist on these animals (e.g., native peoples on whale meat) is perfectly reasonable, since it would be immoral to favor the survival of animals over humans. In addition, in areas where populations of wild animals need to be controlled, hunting should be supported (this includes the wild deer population in most of the US).
  4. Environmentalists should oppose most animal testing.
    Animal testing for products of no significant consequence to human well-being, such as new lines of cosmetics or laundry detergents, is wrong; inflicting pain on animals for such a purpose does not meet any reasonable standard of decency. Animal testing that can be performed in other ways, without the use of animals, is wrong as well. Only tests on animals that cannot be performed through other means and have a high potential to cure serious human illnesses are even within the realm of what is morally permissible (more on this in a future piece).