Guest contribution: “Animals and the environment: subjects, not just resources”

Dear readers,

The following content has been written by Charlotte Maier and has first been published in German on the Blog Postwachstum. You can find the original here. It is reposted in English in this blog with permission of all relevant entities and translated by the original author. I find the topic very interesting and thought-provoking, so that I wanted to make it available for you. I hope you enjoy the read and the food for thought:

Animals and the environment: subjects, not just resources

Our current economic system, in its relentless drive for growth, has led us into climate disaster and although the limits to growth have been known since at least the 1970s, we continue to destroy the world around us. In debates about the design of a future economic system, much has been said about animals and the environment as “resources” and “products”, but unfortunately rarely about them as actors. Animals and the environment are exploited as a supposedly free good and a benefit without performance. Yet even the economic rationale suggests that animals and the environment, with their ecosystem services, are themselves a source of value creation. What costs are incurred if the work, such as pollinating plants, has to be carried out solely by humans or machines?

A way out of the eternal compulsion to grow

How can we finally manage to operate sustainably and preserve the existence of animals and the environment? From my point of view, it´s only possible if we recognize animals and the environment as living subjects that have their own needs and interests. By recognizing animals and the environment as subjects that have intrinsic value, the legal system can protect their conservation interests and thus counterbalance the encroachment of exploitative growth interests. Comparable to the construct of a legal person, animal and environmental subjects, for example, can have a right to integrity, life and property.

We depend on animal life and the environment for our survival because we are inextricably linked to both. We need oxygen produced by plants to breathe and depend on insect pollination of plants for food production (Brondizio, Settele, Díaz, Ngo, IPBES 2019). The list of examples is endless. Accordingly, their protection is also important for the continued existence of humanity.

A living being, vulnerable and mortal, just like you and me

The dependence of our survival on animals and the environment alone should implore us to appreciate the interests and needs of non-human actors.

There are further lines of reasoning that speak to the importance of recognizing animals and the environment as co-living beings and potentially powerful subjects. The actor-network theory, originally developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour (Schulz-Schaeffer 2000), describes that agency is not to be evaluated according to the individual position to enforce interests, but rather by the interaction processes of participating actors. Actors gain agency through their connections and thus all entities – not only humans – are actors and potential bearers of agency.

Another argument for the recognition of animal and environmental entities as actors is that legal subjectivity should not be linked to humanity alone, but to the capacity to suffer (Bentham 1789, p. 236) and to creatureliness, that is, to the state of being a creature in itself (Ohrem 2016). These arguments form a basis for recognizing nonhuman actors as living subjects. Due to their vulnerability and mortality, animals and environmental entities are both capable of suffering and of developing their own needs and interests.

Suppose one holds the moral view that all life has ‘equal value´ and this moral view is the opposite of egoism: it then follows that if we ascribe intrinsic value to ourselves, then in acknowledgement of reality we must also ascribe value to all other entities (cf. Nagel 1998, Gorke 2018).

As Zimmermann states:

“Since only these other entities make my life possible, my moral action must always refer to these entities. They limit the possibility space of my action and only through this limitation give it its potential morality” (Zimmermann 2018).

A look around the world shows that other countries have long since begun to recognize and integrate the interests of wildlife and the environment. For example, the Río Atrato River in Colombia was recognized in 2016 as a corporate body with a right to protection and conservation (Fischer-Lescano 2018).

Empathizing with and seeking to understand one’s counterpart.

Exploring the interests and needs of wildlife and the environment is possible and can be experienced through empathy and compassion. Linguistic expression is not necessarily required because empathy works without language, as we can empathize with young children – we are able to anticipate a non-linguistically conveyed will. Empathy has two elements, affective and cognitive empathy, both of which are important for understanding animals and the environment. First, it always requires a motivation to empathize with the other person, which is only given when recognizing my counterpart as a subject. Otherwise, what interest could I have in its needs? Scientific research has identified the underpinnings of cognitive empathy. Through this empathy, we receive valuable information as to the possible needs and interest of animals and the environment – which may not be intuitive to us due to their otherness.

By recognizing the subjectivity of animal and environmental life, we have taken a first step toward moving away from an economy focused purely on human welfare. The question of how we want to live and do business in the future directly affects all living beings on this earth. Taking into account the interests of animals and the environment creates a counterweight to the relentless drive for growth.

In order to achieve a balance between the interests of animals, the environment and humans, environmental mediation is suitable as a conflict resolution method. Through this process, the affected actors are first identified, a representative is appointed for the respective affected entity to represent its interests in the proceedings, and with the help of mediators, a balance of interests is sought between the parties. This differs from classical environmental mediation in which animals and the environment are the objects of negotiation.

More detailed information on environmental mediation and the recognition of the subjectivity of animals and the environment can be found in the master’s thesis “Interspecific Mediation: Integration of nonhuman actors to conflict resolution” written together with Raphael Schulte-Kellinghaus.

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