Sustainability: what does it mean for animals

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Sustainability: what does it mean for animals

I’ve been hearing a lot about “sustainability” lately. It is a goal (“a ‘sustainable’ society”), a criticism (“that’s completely unsustainable”), and a justification (“but it’s sustainable”). Sustainability is often presented as the deciding factor in determining if an action or practice is ok.

A sustainable farm?

A "sustainable" farm?

I was a bit confused about what “sustainability” actually means, so I looked it up.

Mirriam-Webster defines “sustainable” as:

1: capable of being sustained
2 a
: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>

Wikipedia says:

Sustainability, in general terms, is the ability to maintain balance of a certain process or state in any system. It is now most frequently used in connection with biological and human systems. In an ecological context, sustainability can be defined as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity and productivity into the future.[1]

In the most general sense ,then, sustainability just means a point where the system can be mainained at the status quo indefinitely.

Does sustainability mean anything where animals are concerned? Actually, not much. Animals tend to be viewed as part of the “ecosystem” or as “resources”.

Most discussions of sustainability are anthropocentric, meaning that a system is sustainable if it can sustain human life indefinitely. In this view, any use of animals is justifiable from a sustainability perspective no matter how those animals are treated or how natural or unnatural their life may be – as long as the system can be maintained indefinitely.

A sustainable farming system could involve genetic modification of chickens so that more could be raised in less space with less illness. They could be kept in total darkness and raised to slaughter age in just a few weeks. Practices like beak-trimming or toe-trimming could be regarded as sustainable in this narrow perspective.

Or so it would seem.

But, sustainability is very often tied up in a complicated web with ethics and justice. Taking sustainability on its own and ignoring other concerns seems to me like a mistake.

Take the Canadian Seal Hunt as an example. Or whaling. Or trophy hunting. All of these practices have been defended as being “sustainable”. Perhaps they are from a narrow perspective – if we look only at the single species being affected and their population numbers. But looking at them from a larger perspective, these practices are less and less sustainable, for various reasons. The math of this kind of sustainability is very fragile. There may or may not be a certain population with a certain amount of food in some defined habitat. So many factors make certainty very difficult.

In many cases, costs have been externalized to make the systems appear to work. The Canadian government sends icebreakers to help sealing ships, and when a dozen ships were caught in the ice the coast guard ferried supplies to the sealers for weeks. The government sends ships to enforce the restrictions on seal hunt observers. All of this costs money and uses fuel, which add to the costs of the hunt. Also, the public outcry against the killing of the seals should be a factor in determining if it is sustainable. It increases costs and makes the system more difficult to maintain.

We also don’t really have ways to measure the greater impact of most of our attempts to “manage” the natural world.

If we shift our ideas of sustainability to a larger and less anthropocentric view, I think we would be much more likely to actually achieve real sustainability. If we grant the rest of the world an existence of its own, for its own sake, we will have to be more cautious and conscientious with our own use of resources. This would mean living with the world, not in it or on it.

In this sort of system, how would animals be regarded? They would be fellow inhabitants on the earth, and our rights to use and exploit them would necessarily and rightly be limited. Sustainability would no longer be the property of humans, but would actually be a just, humane, and equitable global system.



May 4, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Another important topic to address… Good call.
Snowflake Furs has a sign up in their window right now that says: “Canadians Supporting Canadians”, meaning, I assume: Canadians buying fur to support Canadian fur farms. Snowflake argues that because their garments are made from animals they are sustainable, because animals can be bred indefinitely.
They are not addressing that many other non-animal fabrics are also ‘sustainable’.

What do we want to sustain?
Do we want to sustain Cowschwitz’s? Do we want to sustain societies where we revere cartoon and stuffed animals and treat the real ones worse than garbage?

How about karmic sustainability? If all life is connected, then what impact does our violent treatment on animals have on ourselves?

There was a show on MTV recently called Living Off the Grid, in which a small group of people goes to a location in the wilderness for months at a time with almost no possessions, sustaining themselves by picking or killing their own food to assuage the guilt they feel from being part of an environmentally unsound society.
But a large part of being vegan is finding man-made alternatives to animal products, using technological advancement to create no-kill products and foods. Although I have respect for these people and their deep connection to the planet, we can use ‘the grid’ to exchange cruelty-free products/ideas/recipes/clothing, making it possible to live an even more cruelty-free lifestyle.

Sask Resident

May 5, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Only man worries about sustainability because animal numbers go up and down with food sources and plant seeds can sit for years waiting for proper conditions. Humans have this silly idea that life is important (must be a religious thing!). All food production is cruel, because it either alters or destroys habitat, requires poisoning of pests or requires the killing of an animal for food. In our modern society, food in moved from the more natural rural areas into the anticeptic and completely altered urban area where only rodents can survive.

In the north, where growing food is not an option, the Inuit have to catch and kill to survive, in cruel ways. Seals, polar bears (except tattooed ones, they make you sick), caribou, char, ptarmigan are all eaten, but so are blue berries and some greens. Doctors will tell you the Inuit bodies have changed over the eons to depend on a high fat and protein diet (mostly raw, nothing to burn to cook). The seal fur ban will only reduce the chances for Inuit to make extra income to buy fuel and flour. Simply another form of imperialism by southerners.


May 6, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Since I notice when it comes to ” being sustainable,” has it’s various definitions..

Well, I am thinking right now…retail stores…the big retail stores….yes. People will not hesitate to go to those stores and raid them to a pulp. If it’s cheap? They’ll raid it. Word of mouth will be so dense and well-heard….that every Fridays and Weekends will be so bloody busy.

Even being local is so difficult..because of the game of economics.

Hence I do not hesitate to buy from vendors that I 100% believe in. Vendors that I put my trust in, vendors that I share what I believe in. Even if it has a slight compromise (playing the money game, using resources, etc.)…..I feel this is the best move. I mean once the vendors get the finances they need…I will be certain they will open up ears to us…unlike any other company or vendor out there.

And once such vendors make their way to the big markets…I think this is a good way to promote change and awareness, where the final touches would be by the vendors I speak of. Even amongst the status quo who wish to “raid anything that deems cheap,” I don’t think it would hurt for the devoted vendors to have more income and bring non-profit works and change at hand. I am being vague…my bad.

I am thinking about what a friend says. Though it will sound quite offensive:

i really get tired of people saying humans are hunters

if the inuit are meant to be in the arctic
they should be able to strip naked and jump in the water like polar bears(their brothers) do

if they can use [and afford] tvs and guns, they can abandon violent traditions

I like to say: life trumps lifestyle

you cant say its ok to do something because of tradition

plus real hunters–have s****** rough lives.”

Aye, aside from all this. For sure…FRUIT TREES FOR THE WIN! Too bad the varieties that were resistant in the cold…are now extinct.

Sustainability: what does it mean for animals | Liberation BC blog « The Daily Barker

May 19, 2009 at 9:27 pm

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September 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Wow.I agree with what you have to say. What about the ANIMALS? I am doing an Enlglish project in College on sustainability.And I wanted to look up stuff on animals.But all they are labelled under is resources..I wanted info on HELPING animals and their sustainability.

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